Musings on art.

Random? Really?

Mr Swing stands at the window of his apartment, looking out over the hot afternoon city square. See this, he says suddenly with customary disanimation, Didn’t that nice Mr Birtwistle have something to say on this topic?

I wander across to the window. Groups of people loiter and chatter in the sunshine. Occasionally a person, two people, move between groups; there is a pleasing, easy pattern to the whole, which remains pleasing even as it changes. Ah yes, I say, It stems from his time working for the National Theatre. He is quoted as saying   -   roughly   -   that you can come into the theatre of a morning, actors gathered randomly on stage waiting for something to happen, and the groups they make are (like the folk out there) pleasingly satisfying until a director starts organising them, when the grouping immediately becomes forced and ugly. You can test it yourself by observing some interesting “random” grouping of everyday objects, and then trying to get the same effect artistically; the fact that you almost certainly can’t manage it suggests that there may be more to “random” than is often supposed. What would you call “random”?

Swing ponders, his customary sarcasm abeyant. Most people would say: the branches of a tree or hedge, he replies. The way the leaves are distributed round them. Cloud shapes and groupings. The ebb and flow of traffic noise. The voices of many people in a room. Rubbish on the ground, blown into a corner by wind-eddies.

And musically, who made a big thing out of this? I ask.

Why, he replies, Cage obviously, closely followed by absolutely everybody. But of course you dislike Cage.

I once made a passing comment, I say, on the Max/MSP users forum, about “that nice Mr Cage”. I was hoping for some flicker of a critique, but got nothing back except a reference some days later to “the kind of people who don’t like John Cage”. It was dispiriting.

But you don’t like him? counters Swing.

That’s a silly formulation, I say. Cage is a complex figure who’s had more than his fair share of stupid criticism, and he certainly made a contribution. I’m just not quite convinced it’s the contribution that people think it is. He wrote some interesting pieces earlier on, when he was still in the business of writing pieces. He served as useful ear-cleaning. And then he was put on a pedestal and worshipped; exactly as with the worship of Duchamp’s urinal, this utterly misses the point. By the ‘90s Cage was effectively concrete boots for anyone starting out and trying to get an inkling of their position in the scheme of possibilities; having helped open up thought, he was now being used to close it down. The only biography extant is pure hagiography. Nobody appears interested in questioning what he had to say, which is an odd way to treat someone who came on as fundamentally about questioning, don’t you think?

Is Duchamp’s urinal worshipped? asks Swing.

Recall the excellent Ekow Eshun, I say, on a TV arts programme some years ago, with his bubbly unstoppable enthusiasm sloshing everywhere   -   sometimes I wonder if that man ever finds anything to dislike. Here he is enthusing about aforesaid urinal, which he puts forward as “the most important sculpture of the twentieth century”. He is not alone in this postulation. Myself, I rather thought that Duchamp’s point was: anything can become a piece of art if I attach a meaning to it. This is not the same as “anything at all is art”, nor as “it’s art if I say it is”, both of which the urinal is often made out to signify. Sometimes I look at what we’ve done with the Dada folk and the Surrealists and think ‘how those guys would have hooted with sardonic laughter if they could have seen us’; this reverence was the last thing they intended.

I fear I rather approve of the urinal, counters Swing.

And the “replica” in Tate Modern also? I ask. The originator made a useful point, which we can absorb and move on from. Instead we became hypnotised and stuck, in a way that entirely traduces the intention. Something very similar happened to Cage; but in his case, it’s an open question whether he colluded with it.

“He debunks”, says Swing with heavy sarcasm, “The whole business of the composer-as-genius, in fact the whole business of the composer at all”. Was that not usefully transgressive?

‘Transgressive’? I say, As in: naughty? Zapping mummy and daddy? How that notion bores me, along with its extention into substitute mummies-and-daddies such as ‘the bourgeoisie’. I understand the need to react against your origins in order to carve out your own space. In a sense, you spend your life reacting thus; but anyone still doing the obvious and immediate form of parent-zapping after the age of 25 or so has got a serious problem. The people who make a career out of being professional naughty children become very tedious very quickly, don’t you think? Are you still impressed by the performance artist General Post Orifice, late of the band Flapping Cartilage, still naughty after all these years?

Stick with Cage, says Swing, Who, it is maintained, demolished the position of the composer.

Nonsense, I say, he did no such thing. I recently re-read a lot of Cage’s primary writings. Since first reading them in the sixties, I carried with me the impression that he evaded a number of important , fundamental questions, the most important being: If you wish to live by ‘randomness’ and find that of more interest than the artificially contrived   -   a position I quite understand and with which I have no quarrel   -   why then compose? Surely the proper course is to abdicate (exactly as Wittgenstein did after the Tractatus, on the grounds that if you write a book claiming to have finished the entire subject of Philosophy, you cannot then continue as a philosopher)? I retained the impression that Cage wanted it both ways; but re-reading the books, I found it was worse than that; he not only evades the point but turns it off with a joke. He was quite aware he was ducking something. No [as Swing moves impatiently], let me continue.

Somewhere underneath it all is a deep problem about meaning. You recall Varèse’s famous, much-quoted-by-adolescents definition of music?

‘Music is organised sound’? supplies Swing.

I always like to think, I reply, that the excellent Mr Varèse was probably having a bad day trying to concentrate on something interesting but being interrupted by prattlers, and delivered this definition over his shoulder in a slightly now-go-away-and-leave-me-alone manner: “Oh…. er……. oh it’s……. organised sound !”

Are you sure, asks Swing, that he wasn’t doing what Debussy was doing in his reply to the question “How do you compose?”; Debussy’s answer being “I summon up all the music there is and then leave out what fails to please me”?

Quite different, I say, Debussy was well-known as a sarcastic difficult bastard and he must have known (a) that his answer was actually very accurate and informative and (b) that there was no likelihood whatsoever of the questioner understanding it. But Varèse’s answer doesn’t stand up; and because I admire him as a composer, I prefer to think of his formulation as a makeshift thrown off in defensive irritation. Consider: here in my hand is a power drill. I drill a hole. The sound it makes is potentially usable in a piece of art. But if it’s already art, if nothing further is required, then music is already anybody doing anything, and therefore vanishes through sheer diffusion.

Apart from the diffusion, that could have been a very Mediaeval point of view, muses Swing.

But that’s not how Varèse meant it, I reply. I’m happy that the sound of the power drill becomes part of some art, but I’m not happy with the automatism; If music is already everything, music is nothing, something else is required before it gets there. And the clue is back in Duchamp’s urinal. My reformulation would be: “music is organised sound with meanings attached”. That’s why I took care to be precise about the intention behind the urinal; ‘music is organised sound with intentions attached’ is nearly good enough, but ‘with meanings attached’ is better.

Oh dear. And what do you mean by meanings? groans Swing.

That’s where it gets interesting, I answer. Obviously I’m not talking about what we are now required to label The Great 19C Narratives: Triumph in Adversity, and suchlike, which tediously inform the outcomes of so much music of the period and quickly rot down into a horrible slurry of clichés. I’m not at all here concerned with ‘meanings’ on that level, with the overt, the narratively symbolic; what interests me are, if you like, the micro-meanings, the route from micro gesture to micro gesture, from note to note or noise to noise, something in the basic conceptual framework, the kind of territory which has recently been the subject of Saussure and his “difference”.

God save us, cries Swing, are you a Theorist after all?

Not in the least, I reply, but we can still retain Saussure for consideration despite the uses to which he’s been put. It reminds me of a student quest of mine. Back then I noticed that, whilst with most bad music it was immediately obvious why it was bad, there was also bad music with nothing obviously wrong; there was no evident reason why it shouldn’t fly, except that it didn’t. After much searching, I eventually decided that the clue lay in the micro gestures; the composers concerned had not sufficiently thought-through the fundamental framework of metaphors on which their gestures were riding. An easy, higher-level case is the tone-row; Schoenberg, underneath, was working from a metaphor for his Jewish god, ever-present but ever-unknowable, and the technique is perfectly suited to doing this. Other people, however, frequently deployed it with no such intention; sometimes they make it work another way, but horribly often the result is simply a mismatch of borrowed technique with unthought-out intention, resulting in a vast production of highly romantic music, unchanged from the 19C except now done with “wrong” notes. The ostensible notes have changed, the gestures   -   and what underlies the gestures   -   have not. Schoenberg had in fact rethought his gestures quite thoroughly, which you can see through his phrasing (the main reason why people fail to understand Schoenberg lies not in his notes but his phrasing). Or again, consider the current impossibility of “fugue”; a Bach fugue is premised on the voices of a society of beings all jostling together in their tensions and differences but fundamentally contained within a larger coherence   -   the Love of God, if you want to call it that   -   which we no longer have. In Bach’s time, anyone could start a fugue and it would make perfect sense regardless of how well it was or wasn’t done; but now even the most skilled attempt sounds silly and awkward, or happens in inverted commas; it requires a complete reinvention of an equivalent to that collectively evolved coherence, and that is a task so huge that the fugue it was meant to make possible would be utterly eclipsed by the effort. Or, changing the terrain once more, think of Tarkovsky’s comments about fast, sub-Eisenstein editing: he says basically that if you haven’t already bothered to make what’s in the shot interesting, then merely hacking it around in a fast and flashy manner won’t make up for that   -   we’ve all seen a million pop videos which bear this out. In all these quoted cases, what’s important is the nature of the small moves and their relation to the framework in which they’re happening.

Now, let’s return for a moment to our power drill. I drill the hole, or holes. Each hole requires an “organisation” of ON and OFF; it definitely makes an organised sound pattern. Does that make it art? No, not unless I intend that pattern to carry a meaning; only my intention supplies a context, which suddenly arises at the moment of intention; which, you will notice, is the moment I start to look. Art requires an observer; it’s the tree-falling-in-a-forest problem, but here there’s a glimmering of an answer.

Well, muses Swing, the tree falling in a forest made sense as long as God was watching; He supplied the context by just being there. But now, who can tell? God stood as our deputy; the vicar of man on earth, the Ultimate Quantum Observer, his eye upon the world that it may not fall apart.

And now we must do our own observing, I reply, Boot-strapping our own context into existence in order to make the slightest move. You can see what the attraction of God was, but now a lot of clever people have told us He’s just an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud and therefore ridiculous; and who are we to argue, even if there’s just a faint smell lurking about of zapping daddy once more?

Meanings, intones Swing firmly.

OK, I say, going by Saussure this note is not that note, this power drill squawk is not that power drill squawk, because they are sufficiently far enough apart perceptionally to have “difference”. Too close together, too similar, and they would have no meaning to our perception systems, either sensory or cognitive. And you will see from the language that the implied first level of meaning is simply “not the same as this one”. Without this, there is no music.

Or much else, sneers Swing.

Indeed, I say, and now you are going to characterise us as the playthings of space and time or some such. But we must use what we have, and what we have starts from “that is not this”   -   a phrase with a certain resonance. I play my pitch or my noise, I follow with another that is “not this” (just the act of “following” is already “not this”, of course, in the time dimension); I can now choose to repeat these as a pattern until the breaking of that pattern marks the start of a meta-pattern and so on. But close behind this basic difference, which is digital in nature, is an analogue component: what kind of different? what flavour? And here is the entry point for your metaphorical framework; there was one already, of course, but this is where it starts to do real work.

Fine, says Swing, and this is leading to…?

It is leading back to Mr Cage, I say, for the very large reason that he wished to get rid of all of this. “Nothing is achieved by…[playing, listening, writing music]… our ears are now in excellent condition”. As I say, this was useful ear-cleaning. It was also rubbish, but you can’t have everything.

Was he not, interjects Swing, Was he not emphasising a certain Zen-like attitude to the Transience Of All Things?

He used Zen when it suited him and not when it didn’t, I reply. He comes on as somewhat Zen, whilst keeping his insurance up to date by disavowing any overt connection with Zen. And no, I don’t think he was alluding to the Transience of all etc, I think he wanted to get rid of the connections in the micro gestures, to float freely in nothing. It’s a very American thing to want to do.

Ah yes, sneers Swing, I recall your History of America: "Once upon a time there were a lot of people, all living in the Old World, having complex and ancient micro-connections to a set of established systems, frameworks of meaning. Then one day, some for good reasons and some for bad, they all got up and ran away. They found an entire country which by great good luck was completely empty, and entered into it. But because they had broken all the little connections that they’d previously had, instead of deriving meaning from their underlying frameworks they now floated freely, disconnected, little individual points of pure will, isolated, without meaning; in this form they expanded out through this huge land like gas molecules in a vacuum jar, filling all available space, knocking together occasionally, floating. Becuse the underlying meanings had gone, there was a tendency to paranoia followed by an absurd over-valuation of a sort of fantasy of self-defence: Poe’s Usher is terrified that he will die of 'absolute terror', terror without an origin; a century later we have 'nothing to fear but fear itself', and now of course the gun obsession".

And the interesting American composers, I say, As we know, are almost all unique, one-offs, not just personal one-offs as with Bach or Schubert   -   they still fitted into something   -   but systemic one-offs, who fitted nothing and nowhere. Though of course, given a large enough collection of one-offs, you can make a pattern just as you can out of anything: you could imagine a circle with for instance, spaced round it, Nancarrow, Partch, Ives, Cowell, Cage; some overlap by building new instruments, some overlap by an interest in “found” sounds, or through some interest in “randomness”. At the centre of the circle probably sits Moondog, somehow guaranteeing the sense of it all because what he does includes what all the others do. It’s a strange confluence, but it can be seen as the beginnings of an attempt to find what the country’s underlying frameworks might actually turn out to be, an effort which (like the substitution for God necessary for fugal writing that we discussed) will be long and difficult. Seen in this pattern, Cage makes more sense, becoming in the process de-pedestalised, slightly smaller but a lot more useful.

Fine, shrugs Swing, But as I understand it you won’t even allow him the random bit.

Everyone seems to think that they know what “random” is, I say. I asked you earlier for examples; you gave the examples that everyone would give. We still have at present a fashion for what is now called “sonification”; the modelling in sound of processes   -   largely regarded as random   -   happening in the world. Somewhere I have a copy of Tempo, dating from the early ‘70s, with an article wherein someone is already bored with this approach and saying “by this point we can model anything, a busy road intersection, anything, in sound”. But around that time, as I’ve written elsewhere, the avant-garde started to be taught in universities and instantly fossilised, which is why “sonification”   -   now dressed in its smart new name   -   is still being trotted out as cutting edge. Such teaching was one of the ways through which Cage was elevated to pedestal-hood, of course.

I recall as a student having the experience of wanting a cloud of notes at one stage in a piece, a statistical matter rather than anything shaped; I thought this might be achieved (for once) by an arithmetical system. I was shocked to discover how wrong this was, the extent to which my indubitably random cloud was not well-modelled by officially random processes. Investigation soon showed that mathematically, there are as many flavours of “random” as you could wish for and then some; jumping to the present time, one notes that one popular package alone of “external” modules for the Max/MSP synthesis programme contains Brownian, Gauss-Laplace, Bernouilli, Voss-Gardner, Tausworthe 88, noises white & pink, linear distribution, triangular distribution etc etc, all these being legitimate versions of “random”. It appears largely accidental whether the different effects of these algorithms applied in sound will correspond with the effect you thought you wanted.

Let us return to my examples, says Swing. Surely no-one could complain that the traffic noise in the street is not random?

But it depends what you wish “random” to signify, I say. Do you mean a particular kind of distribution? Do you mean simple unpredictability? But unpredictability is easy, very easy; anything you haven’t heard before, however highly wrought its composition, will be (at first) unpredictable. When you know the frameworks within which it has its being, you will be able to predict some moves   -   the classical drive to the cadence, say   -   but not others. Sufficient familiarity through repetition shows you can learn the patterns of practically anything; Brian Eno has spoken of the interest in learning-by-heart sections of unplanned recordings of everyday activity. “Unplanned” is of course another possibility, not necessarily the same as “unpredictable” or even as “uncontrolled” (though it’s close). And none of these are unitary, they may be mixed, even directed.

OK, the examples. Some are natural, some result from human activity. Do you notice what they have in common?

In what sense? yawns Swing.

They all involve processes, I say, they are all moving in a direction. There may be many of these directed processes superimposed, but they all retain that character, it operates like under-painting in a picture; you wash your canvas in a particular colour and then paint over it until the colour is no longer visible, but the vanished colour will still inform the result, still steer the painting in a particular direction. The branches of your tree, the leaves on those branches, they are informed by their own set of growth constraints; the fact that they are “unpredictable” and “unplanned” doesn’t mean they could have occurred just anywhere or anyhow. It’s easier to see in the case of the traffic; every single vehicle is engaged on a known, intended journey, one could imagine them being catalogued; superimposed, they form patterns of sound which were unknowable in advance but which are still not “random” in any useful sense; all “random” tells us here is “I didn’t organise it” and “I didn’t know what was going to happen”, which are both trivial.

Are you proposing, asks Swing languidly, Some form of the old Laplace notion that if you knew the positions and velocities of every particle in the universe, you could predict the future?

Of course not, I say, That takes no account of chaos, the interactions stemming from impossibly small differences magnifying each other. There was no room for that in the old theory because it essayed totality; there is in my version, though, because it doesn’t. This all distils down to the following statement: I’m not sure that “random”, in the sense that we use it outside of mathematics, exists. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as “random”, in concrete terms.

Now to outcomes: I’m very happy to walk in the street or in the fields and listen to what’s happening, or anywhere else. Sometimes I’d rather do this than listen to intentional music. I’m even quite happy to listen to intentional music which allows in something of the feel of what I hear in the street or in the fields. But it would have to respect the inherent nature of those unknown sounds. And Cage, on the whole, doesn’t.

To remind us that those sounds are interesting and worth paying attention to, was a useful thing to do. And then it all goes wrong. I recall playing an extended run of performances at the Almeida festival in London in 1982; along with much else, the festival also featured a 70th birthday tribute to Cage. Across the road from our site was a disused chapel, in which was given a performance of “Roaratorio”, which I heard and disliked intensely. Here, I thought, is no Zen approach to finding the sounds around you; if you want that, just go outside into the street and listen, it’s endlessly fascinating. But here, we have a massive bank of 24-track tape machines; a cargo of conch-shells flown in at immense expense from the Pacific; we have a huge roster of players including fine performers like The Chieftains; we have any amount of expensive artifice of this kind, on a scale of organisation commensurate with any symphony orchestra; and all of it is going to be modged together into grey-green plasticine, there will be nothing of the feel of “random”, it will be an artificial nightmare. Anyone who countenances this is clearly not at all interested in “random” in the way it happens out in the world, but only in something theoretical and dry, and (incidentally) deeply ugly.

Maybe he was making a philosophical point, offers Swing, maybe a conceptual equivalent to the silent piano piece, 4’33”; only, instead of drawing attention as that did to the noises that happen whilst the music should have been going on, maybe this draws attention to the quantity of expensive and contrived gestures that can be heaped on a pedestal-encumbered celebrity?

If so, it was a bloody complicated way of going about it, I say. As to 4’33”, a far more interesting effort, there are people who regard it in the same gushy way as the Duchamp urinal: “the most important…. of the century….etc”. I contend it was useful ear-cleaning, and Cage would have done well to apply it to his own ears; the sonic accretions he was after would have been worldly and practical, not pseudo-random and theoretical. But let us return to the matter of meanings.

A much-quoted aim of Cage was to “let sounds be themselves”. What would it mean if this were possible? The first thing to go is Saussure’s “difference”, and this would imply a Zen-istic position where every sound became every other sound because there was no longer a “that is not this” differing sound to define its edge. This is a Zen-on-the-cheap approach, requiring not only the disappearance of music but of every other differentiated sound, without (and this is important) acknowledging the discard you are thus mandating. I do not believe for a moment that this has any connection with real Zen, it’s a low-rent tourist’s souvenir shop version. On the usual principle that there is a positive and negative version of everything, this is clearly the negative; what do I get in return for giving up everything? For in the process I would have to give up the possibility of that balance, of any “getting”, also. In the positive version of Zen that works, of course, but this feels like the other end of the universe, more akin to the hippy “live for the moment, man”.

You can’t, of course, live “for the moment” in any practical sense. You wouldn’t go and find food because you wouldn’t remember needing any, let alone how to get it; you wouldn’t move, because you wouldn’t recall how to stand up or walk; you wouldn’t, on these terms, survive beyond a few hours, even assuming that your breathing and blood systems did the remembering for you as to how they worked.

Hippies bore me, yawns Swing, I prefer the Mediaeval view you evaded earlier, where everything is already music.

Well I vastly prefer that as a world-framework, I reply, you can use it; all you have to do is reach out and pick up a piece of it, look at it from an angle which gives it a meaning, and voila: art, or at least its possibility. I assume that most artists work on this principle   -   I certainly do. But it’s diametrically opposed to “letting sounds [or structures of sounds] be themselves”; these attitudes face each other across the gulfs of the universe. One comes down to looking harder, the other to looking less hard and letting everything modge together. It may well be of spiritual value to look at things so carefully that all the ways they join up round the back become apparent and you lose them whilst retaining them, so to speak. But this will not be achieved by “letting them be themselves” and losing the context; that way unity lies, the wrong kind of unity, mere undifferentiatedness.

I don’t know, murmurs Swing, maybe he just wanted to draw attention once more to the interest of “non-musical” sounds that people had stopped noticing?

Well, I say, that won’t be achieved by the method he proposes.

So then, says Swing with a sardonic smile, you believe that something is actually achieved by dabbling with music or the other arts? And you still want that director to go on messing up the grouping of the actors on stage?

Cage says “nothing is achieved by…etc”, I say. What is the point of doing something you feel to be pointless? Of course, there are different “points” to be had; it may not be immediately practically obvious what the art will do for you, it won’t bring about immediate world peace or magically extend a hospital wing, still less assist the tins-on-shelves people to improve their sales figures. But “nothing”? No, I don’t think so. And given this view, directorial messing about seems the only option; the extent to which you develop a capacity for entering into a dialogue, or a dance, with real-life “random”, that alone determines whether you managed to do anything useful and therefore, retrospectively, whether it was worth it. Birtwistle’s directors were merely bad directors. Cage, it seems to me, wanted to duck the issue, to give up. And that is not useful.

Why would we ever consider giving up? sneers Swing, sarcastically.

Why indeed? I say.