John Cage Music and Rejectionism

If there is one thing my lampooning of Conan taught me, it’s that people can turn anything into a religion and can feel persecute over the mere expression of different tastes.

Therefore, let me lead with this disclaimer. I have never heard John Cage music in my life. I have no opinion of his music. I bear him no ill will whatsoever. My only interest in his music is that I was reading a book by Douglas Hofstadter (one of my favorite authors) and came across this passage about John Cage music.

A Cage piece has to be taken in a larger cultural setting – as a revolt against certain kinds of traditions. Thus, if we want to transmit the meaning [of the music to a hypothetical alien culture], we must not only send the notes of the piece, but we must have earlier communicated an extensive history of Western culture. It is fair to say, then, that an isolated record of John Cage’s music does not have an intrinsic meaning. However, for a listener who is sufficiently well versed in Western and Eastern cultures, particularly in the trends in Western music over the last few decades, it does carry meaning – but such a listener is like a jukebox, and the piece is like a pair of buttons. The meaning is mostly contained inside the listener to begin with; the music serves only to trigger it. And this “jukebox”, unlike pure intelligence, is not at all universal; it is highly earthbound, depending on idiosyncratic sequences of events all over our globe for long periods of time.

On the other hand, to appreciate Bach requires far less cultural knowledge. This may seem like high irony, for Bach is so much more complex and organized, and Cage is so devoid of intellectuality. But there is a strange reversal here: intelligence loves patterns and balks at randomness. For most people, the randomness in Cage’s music requires much explanation; and even after explanations, they may feel they are missing the message…. In that sense, Bach’s music is more self-contained than Cage’s music. (Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, p. 174-175)

If Hofstadter is right, then John Cage’s music is a sort of Rejectionism. It’s ‘meaning’ exists relative to the (more) intrinsic meaning in someone like Bach. If Bach were to disappear (and all other composers) John Cage’s music would lose it’s meaning too.

This is what Rejectionism is like in all intellectual or theological schools. It is not devoid of value or meaning, but owes it’s value and meaning in relation to someone else and does not exist as a stand alone point of view.

15 thoughts on “John Cage Music and Rejectionism

  1. Having never heard of John Cage, I cannot make any comment on his music. Rejectionist music? Wow, what’s next, a rejectionist religion?

  2. Youtube has several interviews with John Cage and several of his works. John Cage was into the idea of introducing chance and spontaneity into music. He tried hard to bring the creativity of the performers into the music as compositional contributors. It wasn’t all written out or specified. He was a marvelously creative individual. Yes, his music can sound strange. And in many ways it seems rooted in its time more than something for all time. But merely sticking some obscure label on him is not only antithetical to what he was after it really communicates nothing about his art.

  3. Craig,

    I mean no offense to John Cage at all and you should not choose to read my post that way.

    I do not personally equate Rejectionism to be “bad” as you seem to be thinkng. And I think there is something terribly creative about the idea of deciding to rebel against current standards of music. Something even bold about it.

    That being said, the point of this post is not to determine if John Cage’s music is any one person’s cup of tea. That is a purely subjective thing and of no consequence to this post.

    The point is to assess Hofstadter’s assessment: Does John Cage’s music in fact represent something which defines it’s meaning through rebelling against the existence of another type of music? If so, does that mean that John Cage’s music has less inherent meaning? (i.e. the meaning is more subjective and is not carried in the music itself as much as, say, Bach does.)

    From your comment, it sounds like you disagree. Yet, agree or not, it is a fair intellectual question worthy of study.

    Hofstadter is an expert on the concept of meaning. This quote comes right in the middle of his attempt to define meaning objectively. He is using this as an example of how ‘meaning’ can have a variety of senses. He is not attacking John Cage music (at least not in my opinion) but rather setting forth the idea that ‘meaning’ can be in a certain sense self contained and in another sense internal.

    In fact, meaning is always a combination of both. When we use words, we are relying on the fact that all beings we talk to (fellow humans) have certain experiences in common with us. Yet it would be inaccurate to say that the words we use carry no meaning except that which is internal to the hearer. If that were true, then no one could undertand anyone else. So how is meaning then defined?

    This is a completely legitimate intellectual pursuit that has nothing to do with whether or not John Cage music is “creative” or not.

    By the way, I’ve now listened to some of his music. I rather dislike some of it. But I found his “In the Landscape” rather enchanting.

  4. I don’t understand the basis for his claim that appreciating Bach requires less cultural knowledge. To somebody raised in a tradition that didn’t value temperament in music as much as Western music does, Bach can sound every bit as strange as Cage does to folks steeped in Western post-Renaissance harmony.

  5. An interesting experiment Kristine. It’s testable (in theory.)

    If we took Bach and introduced him to a culture that did not value temperament in music, would they recognize it as music? Or would they have to have it explained to them that it’s music? (As has to happen with Cage music to many.)

    My money is on that Bach is universally music, even if considered strange by a culture. I think that is Hofstadter’s point.

  6. Fair enough, I guess, but it seems to me the argument breaks down pretty quickly if you take less extreme examples. And if only the most extreme cases will illustrate it, I’m not sure how much work the argument can really do. Next chapter: is Andy Warhol “art”, right?

  7. I appreciate what you are saying, Kristine, and I agree. But I’m not sure you are quite getting the point yet since you still think this is about subjective tastes.

    Andy Warhol is ‘art’ if you decide it communicated something to you. The same is to be said of Cage. It’s not really an objective measure to say something is or isn’t art. It’s just about subjective tastes in that case.

    Hofstadter isn’t making a statement that judges what is or isn’t art or what is or isn’t music. There is nothing of that in the scope of his statement. He even seems to admire Cage to some degree. (That might not be evident from the one quote.)

    His statement is far more objective (if he’s right) than that.

    Suppose we actually did the experiment that you are suggesting. And suppose that we found that being able to tell that Bach is music was dependent upon what types of music your culture happened to enjoy. Further, suppose Cage was just as likely to be considered ‘music’ (without having to be told) as Bach is. Then without a doubt Hofstadter is wrong and objectively so. His point has failed.

    But now imagine we get a different result. Imagine that no matter how much a culture hated Bach’s sensibilities, they at least always recognized it as music (if perhaps bad music.) But that Cage was rarely recognized as music at all, just noise on a tape, to most cultures not familiar with Western music sensibilities. Then Hofstadter is correct. He has made an objective observation about where the meaning of Cage music comes from compared to Bach.

    But in neither case does this reduce the value of Cage music to those that enjoy Cage. (Nor increase the value of Bach to those that don’t enjoy Bach.)

  8. I am sure there are all sorts of statistical and mathematical tests we could come up with to determine how likely a given soundtrack is likely to be perceived as “musical” by someone with no prior background.

    If I play a segment of white noise, is that music? From a broad perspective, yes. But it is certainly much less musical than nearly anything played on the radio, and those same statistical tests that differentiate top 40 from white noise will almost further differentiate Bach from it. Some of them, anyway. There are others on which top 40 might score higher.

  9. If you want a theory for that, I suggest that man’s evolutionary aesthetic sensitivities are automatically biased towards pattern recognition. Same reason why scientists try to algorithmically compress reality, why lawyers try to reduce judicial decisions to general principles, why athletes value economy of motion, and on and on. Nobody thinks chaos is pretty. After a while it makes their heads hurt.

  10. Bruce, I don’t think it’s about subjective tastes, really 🙂 I just think it’s a strained argument, and the fact that it’s strained is evidenced by the examples he has chosen. I understand the point about pattern (meaning) vs. chaos, but it’s really easy to think of counterexamples. Musically, think of somebody like Steve Reich, who’s all about pattern, but doesn’t always sound like music. Or, say, late Beethoven string quartets, that are obviously music, but defy attempts to make read meaning into what patterns there are.

    I can’t stand John Cage, btw 🙂

  11. To pull Mark D’s and Kristine’s thoughts together, it would be interesting to study how much communicates emotion due to culture vs. biology. We know music can make us feel sad, happy, exuberant, etc. It can even just tiny feet, or crawling things (horror movies), impending doom, etc.

    How much is that due to having ‘learned’ that is what that sort of music implies and how much is it ‘built in.’?

  12. How much is that due to having ‘learned’ that is what that sort of music implies and how much is it ‘built in.’?

    I don’t think that matters if the general attributes of “sad” music or “cheerful” music are on the whole independent of socialization, i.e. are on the whole something resembling natural properties, rather than largely subjective ones.

    One hardly needs a degree in musicology to make a first pass analysis of what those differences are and why cheerful music would have a closer relationship to life and health and sad music to decline and depression. Energy and rhythm, high frequencies and low. Decline leading to turnaround (uplifting sad) and decline leading to fatality (despairing sad), etc.

    No one is going to be socialized into thinking that a funeral march is a birthday ditty.

  13. One of my first memories of music is from about age 4. My parents had the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack, and I was able to put it on the stereo myself. I became obsessed with the Strauss Zarathustra bit. It had an enormous impact on me. It seemed to open up something unnameable but completely real. Of course, I’ve had many similar experiences with since. I bring that one up because the memory seems to me to make pretty much obtuse the thought that I was socialized into my understanding of that music.

    I think it goes deeper than biology, as well. The vibrations, harmonizing, then gently discordant, resolving, and the rhythms, go right into the matter we are made of. Music is Dionysian and primordial, suprahistorical, eternal, from before the foundations of the world. 🙂

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