Peer Magazine: Silencing the Sounded Self

A Conversation with Christopher Shultis

Christopher Shultis is Professor of Music at the University of New Mexico, where he was Director of Percussion Studies from 1980-1996. He also holds an appointment as Adjunct Professor of American Studies. In 1993-94, Shultis was Fulbright Professor in American Studies at the Institut für Anglistik, University of Aachen, Germany. He held this same appointment at Heidelberg University, 1999-2000.

Shultis' publication record includes "Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Intentionality of Non-Intention" (The Musical Quarterly) and "Cage in Retrospect: A Review Essay" (The Journal of Musicology), which won a 1996 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition (Northeastern University Press, 1998). As a composer and creative artist, his selected performances include the 1992 Percussive Arts Society International Convention, the 1993 Society of Composers International Convention, the German American Institute's Seventh Annual Festival of Experimental Music and Literature, 1994, and the University of Illinois Composers Forum, 1995. In 1993, KNME (PBS) television produced a nationally syndicated half-hour program devoted to his music.

Joel Weishaus: Chris. I'd like to begin with percussion, which you taught in the University of New Mexico's Music Department, for the movement it initiates of air to eardrums-an inferred circle. Where did it (you) begin?

Christopher Shultis: The circle for me always seems to have originated elsewhere, in the sense that I've always wanted to be elsewhere, and that being somewhere I didn't want to be has always been the way in which the things that have mattered most to me (the most necessary, the most essential) have always been the result of a surprise: the unexpectedly pleasing results of being other than what I wanted to be and--perhaps most important because place is one of those "essentials"--living in a place other than where I wanted to be doing something entirely other than what I really wanted to do.

The first instance of this concerns percussion-which is why I brought it up. I played drums when I was very, very young. I have a picture that ended up in my high school yearbook of my Dad and I playing on Quaker Oaks boxes, in a drum set configuration, and I imagine I couldn't have been more than 2, perhaps 3 years old. I also played drums in one of those fake Beatles bands, where kids (we were all about 5 years old, living at the time, in an Italian/Catholic neighborhood between 6 and 7 mile road on the east side of Detroit) would use badminton rackets to imitate guitars and sing along with Beatle records.

As an aside I remember having a superb collection of Beatle cards, now lost, as the result of how successful these events-my first public performances-were since the admission was a certain number of Beatle cards that the "band" would then divide amongst themselves.

Anyway, the point is I always wanted to play the badminton guitars and sing the McCartney- Lennon songs (who on earth besides Ringo would have wanted to sing his songs!) but because the drums were my Dad's he'd only let me play them. I kept playing the drums to Beatles songs but was also concurrently playing an old upright piano which was, along with the drums, also located in the basement downstairs. My Dad was a great drummer -he was the principal timpanist of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra when he was in college and studied with Frank Perne who was once a drummer with the John Philip Sousa band. So he had great drums and I always, as a result, heard percussion sounds that were very good sounds because he tuned them well and they always sounded great, much better than the school rental instruments and drum kits that kids get for Christmas presents.

In spite of that, when I started school band I wanted to play the saxophone. I can't think of a single musical reason why, so it must have been because of how great the saxophone looks and how cool people look when they play it. However, saxophones then and now are very expensive to rent and my family couldn't afford it. So once again, drums were the only option. And since I had a great drummer for a teacher we didn't even have to pay for lessons.

Eventually I took piano lessons, but, after the teacher found out I wasn't reading the music, I eventually quit and concentrated my formal training on the drums at least until I went to college. What would normally happen is that the teacher would play the music and I would copy what she read off the page by ear. The way she finally caught on was by playing the music in a key different than what was written. When I repeated it in the different key I was caught! This, for me, remains a genuine bias in university music programs. I was learning "by ear," and had a pretty good one, obviously, but the result of the situation described here is that I was doing it "wrong" by not learning how to read. While this is literally true, I certainly would encourage the student with this ability. There are way too many musicians who can read everything but can't hear a thing. Better to take longer to learn to read than learn how to read so quickly that it replaces the ability to hear. I think percussion, because it does not exclusively have a bias toward pitch, and also has a long tradition of being able to play by ear (either with kettledrums/timpani's necessity of matching pitches in the orchestra or simply by playing drumset in bands), kept my ears open in a way that playing the saxophone never would have.

And that, then, is basically my point: Had I done what I wanted to do, I'm quite certain that the results would have been entirely other-and less interesting-than what occurred as the result of having had to do what I initially didn't want to do. My discoveries about playing percussion, as my technical and musical abilities increased over the years, eventually became absolutely essential to the way I experience-listening to and thinking about-music. And it's something that, at the beginning at least, I adamantly didn't want to do.

JW: I connect your bias toward audition with oral literature, the decline of which, for better or worse, has lost to most of us the art of mnemonics, which was subsumed by the printing, then analog and digital storage systems. Before these, poets had a specific job: Memorize and repeat, and no doubt embellish, the culture's literature. In music, however, and theater, at least some of this tradition carries on. For example, am I amazed at the repertoire some singers have memorized.

CS: Hearing and memory are, for me, separate things that only sometimes need each other. I like the immediacy of hearing and, as such, I like the ephemeral nature of performing and/or listening to music. I respect oral traditions but, at the same time, I see them occasionally as a means of trying to hold on to something, as a way of trying to protect it from the inevitability of change. Actually, to be clearer, I should go back and say that living oral traditions are constantly changing and that's a positive thing. Those who attempt to "preserve" those traditions, or try to sustain them in ways that "fix" or in some way keep them "traditional" or "pure," are, for me at least, getting in the way of what makes an oral tradition so beautifully unfixable, so remarkably resistant to categorization in ways that enable one to say things like "tradition" in the first place. I understand the desire to protect things that are in danger of disappearing altogether and I don't mean to infer that I disapprove of those who are working very hard to keep that from happening. I am only speaking of my own personal experience and in that regard let me just say that I love hearing music that comes from a place other than where I am and I try as hard as I can to not move from that place of discovery or experience to what one might call a place of knowing or understanding.

On the other hand, memory and its ability to be turn what one experiences into something other than what actually happened is something I cherish and appreciate. I've had the opportunity to sing in a gospel choir at the Metropolitan Temple Church of God and Christ in Albuquerque where my family and I go to church. The songs we sing are all committed to memory, there's rarely any written music, and even when there is, it's only used to get you to the place where you don't need it any more so that it's possible to make music instead of reading it. And what I discovered as I was learning and performing that music is that your memory kicks in as you hear it again. So that the memory of, say, fifty or so songs may not be there "on call," as it were, but when you hear it again it comes back, in some cases, as it goes along where, for example, you might not remember what comes next but then a chord will appear that jostles just the right place in your memory so you can at least get through the next couple of phrases until the memory hopefully kicks in again. Eventually, of course, those songs get committed to memory so that the mid-point I'm describing disappears, but I vividly remember the feeling of joyful displacement where I literally was relying on what I heard as I sang as a means of getting from one point in the music to the next. And I suspect that even when you know those songs so well that you could sing them "on call," the point isn't their cultural authenticity in itself so much as it is the singer or the choir's use of a song as material. In other words, as material for making something new, something that is authentically from a culture to be sure but is at the same time changed by the way in which one individually or collectively expresses it. I love the energy that comes out of that kind of experience, of being so in the present moment that you feel as if you are in an electrical circuit where the energy is being transmitted in bursts with moments in between of complete and utter uncertainty. And I've grown to love the connection between memory and direct experience that one gets by participating in so-called oral traditions, in this case, the great oral tradition of gospel music.

JW: To go on to another point you make. Not doing what you want to do, as opposed to what you need to do, seems to be a pattern in your life. For example, percussion depends on the agility of ones hands, but something traumatic happened that swerved the direction of your career. Can you elaborate this story?

CS: This is a difficult point because it concerns the connection between necessity and suffering. What I mean by that is likely obvious to everyone but I'll elaborate upon my own specific situation just to be clear. I began to lose the ability to use my hands as a percussionist a little over ten years ago. I had an undiagnosed problem in my neck-two slightly herniated disks-that pushed against the nerve that travels down the length of my right arm. At that time, at least at the beginning, all the medical advice I was able to get (and I sought advice both locally and nationally) concentrated on the symptoms which were felt exclusively in my arms and hands. It was only much later after a significant period of treatment that I began to feel the pain in its original location in the neck. But, at the beginning, I only felt the radiated pain as it found its way to the place I used most: my arms and hands. Before I was correctly diagnosed several years later, I was not only unable to perform (I'd long since given up ever doing that again) I was unable to write, to drive, to carry anything-I was becoming a person who had no use of their arms and hands. I even looked into voice-activated computers so that if or when I couldn't type at all anymore (at that time I was doing so as infrequently as possible and in significant pain) I would continue to be able to write and compose. A piece I wrote from this period was called "Metaphysics" (which begins with one of my favorite lines, "Music is our enemy/because time is our enemy") a vocal piece whose complexity is the result of using eight tape players that record my spoken voice in real time but are then replayed until after several repetitions my actual voice disappears and the listener instead hears only my recorded voice. I felt then as if I were in actuality approaching that silence. That my self, at least the one I'd lived with until then, was being silenced by my rapidly disintegrating physical condition.

It's easy to draw out philosophical and spiritual connections between the art I made then and my actual experiences. And I think it would be easy for someone to make inferences between the two by reading the above. I however would rather empathize the "difficulty" I alluded to at the beginning. I respect the difficulty of suffering and how it finds its way into all of our lives (that's what I would view as its "necessity") way too much-even the little I've experienced knowing that there are others who have experienced and/or still do experience far greater examples of suffering than what I'm addressing here--to try to draw comparisons between the suffering itself and what I learned as a result or how it influenced what I did as an artist at the time. There is a comparison, to be sure, but I would never want to appear to be saying that it was good to suffer. It wasn't good and it's never good. But it is necessary in the sense that I had no choice but to suffer through that experience. However, rather than say that I tried to make the best of it, let me just instead put it in the context of what started my reaction to your question to begin with. There have been places where I have not wanted to be that were, of necessity, where I was and those places have, as they always do, or at least they do to me, greatly determined what I experience and how I respond to those experiences as an artist.

I know that where I am right now is solely the result of all the experiences I've had in the past, that the ephemerality that I love about my present existence is, as long as I'm living at least, all bundled up with the memories that I have accumulated from that past. That it is only those memories that I presently carry with me, but that those memories of what happened are not, as John Cage once said, "what happened." We are all, in that sense I think, oral traditions and when we disappear it is only the memories others carry of us that live on.

I used to be very influenced by what John Cage had to say about relationships in music, about how he preferred the word "interpenetration" where everyone individually maintained their own center of experience so that we were all centers of experience collectively while maintaining our individuality. I'm not expressing this in nearly a complex enough way and I'll try to do so later if it is possible. Cage was critical of relationships, and of the fundamental role memory plays in their formation, and I, as a result, began to think about and experience things "in themselves" as it were, which, as one might imagine, sent me to a very interesting and fertile artistic, philosophic and spiritual place with a great and long tradition (in all those areas) behind it. We can touch on that point later if you like. But first, I just want to close at this point by saying that I've grown to love the possibility of relationships in art and in life. And I'm increasingly willing to give up my autonomy in order to do so. A partial reason behind that I think is that while I have no interest in immortality it is obvious to me that we do live beyond our temporal experience in the memories of others. That, to me, has a lot to say about the relationship between freedom of the self(which is what I think Cage was emphasizing) and responsibility to others (which I think, especially in the United States could stand to be more emphasized).

I'm presently living a life that tries to balance individual freedom with social responsibility. And that's very hard to do. An essential part of my book on John Cage concerns the question of control versus co-existence in artmaking. I place Cage on the side of co-existence so that means I'm seeing Cage as someone who doesn't wish to impose his individual freedom in such a way that it either controls or gets in the way of others. I also place memory and relationships on the side of control. But I do think that it not possible for me to do so (to co-exist with others) without forming relationships. Because what is missing otherwise, at least from my perspective, is the ability to love. It may be my bias but I cannot experience love, as I see it at least, outside of a relationship. And what I'm looking for in both art and life presently is a way to experience and express love in the fullest and deepest way possible. And to sustain it as long as possible, preferably for as long as I live. For me, love is a way of being in relationship, and a way of experience that includes memory, by seeking serve rather than control others.

JW: I find it commendable that "discovery or experience," rather than "knowing and understanding," is a foremost concern of yours, because what we think we know or understand can be, and usually is, an impediment to living in the flow of our reality. One's life then becomes dynamic, rather than mnemonic. It's a strange fact that one can't recall the actual sensation of (physical) pain. We can only say, "I was in pain," or emphasize with someone in pain, without being able to feel their pain. As you know, I, too, went through a period of acute pain that originated in my neck and pooled in my arm, not too long after your experience. So that I became sensitive to people who experience, as you say, "the (daily) difficulty of suffering," yet make a worthwhile life in spite of their disability. Or, as in your case, find a way to use pain to spur creativity.

You speak of "approaching the silence," and then refer John Cage, who was instrumental in introducing the Japanese concept of silence into Western aesthetics, and of whose work you've become a noted scholar. When did your interest in Cage begin?

CS: My interest in Cage began in 1980 when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I was studying percussion with Tom Siwe, who just recently retired from the University of Illinois, ending a decades-long history of percussion being taught as an artform that was at least partially grounded in what is often called the "American Experimental Tradition."

There are so few percussion programs in the United States who have ever been actively involved in the idea that percussion has such a tradition that I'd like to at least briefly say what an enormous influence Illinois was in general and Tom Siwe in particular. Anyway, what I learned there was that much of the early percussion music (that written in the 20s and 30s) came from the United States- composers like William Russell, Johanna Beyer, Henry Cowell, George Antheil, and even those who weren't--the French composer Edgard Varese and, especially influential, composers from Latin America like Jose Arvedol and Amadeo Roldan--had important early performances in the United States. I learned all of this in a percussion literature class that Tom Siwe annually taught at the University of Illinois. I also learned that one of the first percussion ensembles to play this music and, in many cases commissioned it, was directed by none other than John Cage. He himself was writing percussion music as was a close friend of his, Lou Harrison, who is also an important composer. My first exposure to Cage was through this music and I still think it's some of the best music I've ever heard especially the music William Russell (also at that time a good friend of Cage's) wrote in the 1930s. Russell's "Three Dance Movements," which was published with several other percussion pieces in an issue of New Music Edition (1936 I think) that composer Henry Cowell published, should be much better known as one of the seminal pieces of that era.

I loved all of that 30s music that later became known as part of the American Experimental Tradition that Henry Cowell at least thought began with the music of Charles Ives. My interest in Ives (as found in my book on Cage and the experimental tradition) came later as did my specific interest in Cage. But my first exposure was more general and saw all of this music as part of one large movement in experimental music. My specific interest in Cage was the result of having directed a performance by the University of New Mexico Percussion Ensemble of his "Third Construction" (1941). The students had done a superb job (most of them have gone on to have individually successful performing careers) of preparing the piece. They built their own racks for the instruments and took great care to find the right instruments including the use of intelligent substitutions when originals couldn't be found or afforded such as the Native American drums that substituted for the original Chinese. The performance was so spectacular that I sent a tape of it to Don Gillespie who is a Vice President of C.F. Peters, the publishing company that handles John Cage's musical works. Gillespie liked the recording so much that he sent it to Cage who in turn wrote a nice letter back saying how much he liked the performance and then saying that he'd like to hear our work live someday (probably a reference to the fact that he so often said how little he liked recordings). In any case, it sounded like an opening for an invitation so, since we have an annual Composers Symposium at the University of New Mexico, I asked then-directors Karl Hinterbichler and Scott Wilkinson if it would be possible to invite Cage to the 1988 Composers Symposium. They agreed, Cage accepted, and I then got down to the business of preparing a concert of works by Cage for the symposium.

My philosophy concerning performance at that time was that to play someone's music required a knowledge not only of the music but of the composer who wrote the music. Even more specifically, a knowledge of, as much as possible, what might have influenced the composer at the time he or she wrote what he or she wrote. Since I had decided to prepare a concert that included both a retrospective element (including works from several decades) as well as a focus on what I regard as his most difficult period, from the 50s through the mid-70s,and since Cage was notoriously always referencing his influences in interviews and books, I had quite a task before me. I began reading the books, listening to the music, and looking at the art that Cage had been responding to over the years.

By the time of the concert that following March, I was steeped in that world, a world of McLuhan and Brown, Joyce and Stein, as well as his close associations with Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Most important, because of my already deep appreciation of the experimental tradition generally, I began to see connections and differences between the artists and writers that Cage was especially interested in. And I also noticed that there were some that normally are considered to be part of that tradition that Cage was not especially interested in.

I now look in retrospect and see that what I was doing as an artist was the beginnings of finding my own place in that tradition. But at first, I saw Cage as a point of contact in that tradition and I was, more than anything else, passionately interested in learning all I could about Cage and his world. When I went back to school and got the Ph.D. in American Studies at UNM my intention was to formally study with experts in all the areas of art, history, and culture that Cage's work touched. I thought then, and I still do, that musicians living in the United States could greatly benefit from finding a perspective vis a vis their own work by a careful study of Cage (whether one ultimately agrees with Cage or not is another matter) and the experimental tradition that both precedes and follows his work.

My book is basically the result of that study which I see now as having had two purposes-the first one intentional, locating Cage within the American Experimental Tradition, and the other nonintentional-locating my own place in that tradition.

JW: I want to discuss your book, and the "American Experimental Tradition." But I remember that at the time Cage was at The University of New Mexico, Kevin Campbell, a mutual friend of ours, told me that he saw Cage sitting in the empty auditorium where most of his works were to be performed. That image of Cage alone and silent seemed almost mythological to me. What personal impressions did he leave you with?

CS: Cage was so busy when he came to the Composers Symposium in 1988. And he always seemed to be attentively about the business of doing something-including those moments like what you've described above. That and it's of course only my impression) sitting in an auditorium quiet and alone would still be doing something. I do know, however, that he participated in every single event during the symposium-according to his own wishes because he wasn't required to attend anything other than what he was involved in. And he was probably savoring that moment alone and was likely by then exhausted by the constant activity and needed a rest from it all!

But enough speculation: what I do remember are a few stories of my interactions with Cage that might be interesting. I remember especially how Cage had dinner with Leslie and I and that we had brought along our then one year old Mike. At the crosswalk between the campus and where the Nob Hill area begins, Mike had to be carried in his baby carriage across the street and Cage immediately grabbed one end of the carriage. It's really one of my fondest memories-seeing Cage so immediately behave in such a helpful way. I doubt I'd be able to do so when I'm 75 years old. He seemed like such a "regular guy" at that moment.

And, for me, that's an impressive legacy for such a great composer and artist to leave. One not of any sense of the artist as an elitist separate from the everyday but one of being in community with the world and everyone who lives in it. I didn't know Cage personally very well but I know a lot of people who did and what is especially remarkable is how much they loved him as a human being. He was apparently a very likeable person and that's, in my experience, not always the case with great artists.

Then I remember asking Cage during dinner about the "death of the avant-garde" that was such a buzz (at least in my circle) around 1988. His answer was that there would always be an avant-garde because there would always be people who wanted to do something new. I was thirty at the time and that remark both influenced me then and still does. And I would add something else to it: what makes things new is the person who makes them. Whatever we read or hear or experience, when it enters our original consciousness (because one of the beauties of experience I think is that our consciousness is original) newness is thus inevitable. And avant garde!

Finally, I remember sitting at one of the symposium concerts with Cage. Listening to a piece that, for me, was excruciating to hear. After the performance, I was irritated beyond belief. Cage, on the other hand, welcomed the end of the performance with gracious, perhaps even what seemed to be genuinely appreciative, applause. Later outside the auditorium, I talked to him about it and said "I can appreciate your wish to find something interesting in every experience but (alluding to what we'd just heard and probably expressing my still intense distress over it) how do you do it?" He said, "It's very hard." And then laughed in the inimitable way that everyone close to Cage would have immediately recognized. I admired that and still do. But I myself still can't do it!

My memories of Cage are social and related to my work as a performer and interpreter of music. I've got a few others but maybe the above will suffice for now. When I began to study his work as a scholar, I worked alone and didn't really contact him after that. I had been strongly influenced by a remark my friend Thomas DeLio made after having finished his book on composer Morton Feldman. I asked him if he had talked to Feldman while working on it and he said "Why would I do that?" Meaning, I guessed, that the work was what he was studying not the composer. I felt the same way about my study of Cage. He had plenty of friends and associates in the late 80s. But very few people were preparing serious studies of his work. I deciding to concentrate on the latter. And, besides, I knew he was busy and didn't really want to bother him unless it was necessary. When I was a performer sometimes it was. As a scholar, there was much to do and already more than enough printed information to consider. I was also concerned about not being overly influenced by his enormous charisma as a person. Consequently, I devoted myself to the work, not the person, and the occasional visits after that were always just circumstantially moments where we were both in the same place.

JW: The question of the artist's charisma, as opposed to the aura of his work, has always fascinated me. From what I know of Vincent Van Gogh, for example, he didn't have charisma, yet his paintings are endowed with it. I get the same feeling from Henry David Thoreau, whom you pair with John Cage in your book. I also know of people who have charismatic personalities, but whose work is not at all attractive. Charisma manifests in myriad ways.

CS: Apparently Thoreau was not, as you mention, charismatic although his one-time mentor Emerson (whom I pair with Charles Ives in my book) was. Scholars compare their success as public speakers-Emerson was successful, Thoreau wasn't-in this regard. I also find it interesting as to what comes first in the creative process. Just about everything Thoreau published was first written in his Journal, whereas Emerson's publications usually were sermons and lectures first that were then later written into publishable form. I find Thoreau to be a much better writer than Emerson--I'm not considering content here--I simply mean what I regard as the superior writing of Thoreau. I think he was an absolutely terrific writer and I never tire of reading his work.

My appreciation of Emerson came later through the work of Norman O. Brown who you probably know as the author of those great books, Life Against Death and Love's Body. I also love his last book, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, especially the first essay "Apocalypse" which was a Phi Beta Kappa lecture Brown gave at Columbia University modeled after Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard called "The American Scholar." I think Brown is a great and poetic scholar and I recommend his work-which I like to read as a single piece-to everyone I meet. I discovered Brown in the 80s while working on Cage who stayed in touch with Brown (different though they so obviously were) from their first contact at Wesleyan in the early sixties, where they both had fellowships, right up till Cage's death in 1992. The relationship between Brown and Cage is a continuing passion of mine and I never stop thinking about it. In the original manuscript of my book I include a footnote to the effect that Brown is among Cage's best critics because his research is capable of seeing the "religious dimension" (or something like that)of Cage's work. His Marxist and Freudian background, as well as the generalist scope and range of his scholarship, enables him, I think, to see the dualisms (intentionally used in plural!) that lurk behind Cage's nondualistically co-existent aesthetic views. In fact, it's maybe obvious to the reader of my book; but if not, I'll mention here that my pairing of dualistic and non-dualistic aesthetic approaches (Emerson/Ives versus Cage/Thoreau, Objective versus Projective Verse) is meant not to privilege one or the other but instead to place the "both/and" to coin a phrase often used in Cage criticism (myself included!) between those two approaches rather than in one camp or the other. Or as Cage in his "Lecture on Something" put it, "something and nothing need each other to keep on going."

I think Cage knew that his co-existent world would always be paired with a controlling one. That control and co-existence were thus the something and nothing respectively that needed each other. His disagreement then with Brown (and it was a strong one) was I think based, and I think this is the case with Boulez too, as I'll mention below in response to your other question-more on a feeling that his side of the "dialectic" (my words not Cage's) was not being considered as an equal partner in the discourse.

In other words, when Brown said that Cage was "Apollonian" (in the Nietzschian sense) in the lecture he gave at Wesleyan for Cage's 75th birthday celebration (a lecture that apparently upset Cage), it is possible, and I'm only speculating here at the moment because my work on this is still very much "in process," that Cage was upset by the way in which Brown seems to say that his work is inadequate because it doesn't in itself synthesize Apollonian and Dionysian opposites. I don't think ultimately that Brown's lecture is saying that-it is instead saying something much more complex and interesting.

But I do think that there is something about those who choose to disagree with Cage that cannot accept the possibility of such disagreement actually being where those opposites are supposed to remain. Without resolution. Between the two-or even more than two perhaps-the reality of "between-ness." I suspect that Cage, who really liked, or better yet, appreciated and respected work that differed from his, including the work of Boulez and Brown, had to have been disappointed that his critics couldn't see that his work stood in relation to the work of others. That it was not the fully self-contained Nietzschian work of art and, in fact, shows us how such conceptual attempts by artists always fail because of the fact that the world outside is ever outside. Only the individual's perception joins the world to the work and it is never collective. As such it can also be said that the world inside, our individual consciousness, is, regardless of various idealistic theories to the contrary, always apart from the world around us. It requires our intentional connection to it, I think, regardless of whether one considers us initially separate from the world or if one instead wishes to see us as initially connected.

The last chapter of my book ends where it does because I think Cage in some sense had, when he finished writing Empty Words, played out his co-existent, non-dualistic experiments in literature and music. In article form that chapter was subtitled "the intentionality of non-intention." Because Cage's desire to remove intentional meaning from language required directly intentional decisions on his part. Not just the framing of questions then subjected to chance operations, which is the way Cage usually described his compositional process, but instead a decision that came before any of those processes were set in motion. So that, in Empty Words, the text I consider in this regard, Cage removes first phrases, then sentences, then words, then syllables, so that finally all that remain are letters and silences. Cage, in other words, does intentional "violence" to the chance-governed process in order to get what he wants, because he found that chance operations in themselves could not remove meaning from language because those operations are more than willing to allow linguistic meaning to exist. In other words, he had to take control of the process. And after writing Empty Words, I think Cage's continuing to allow more and more intention into the compositional process is a direct result of that experience. He still uses chance till the end of his life but in a way that I would call "chance with a stacked deck." Subjecting to chance pre-selected materials with which one has an affinity will inevitably produce results that remain in accord to those affinities. Others have addressed this in Cage's work-such was especially the case at a conference that Cage attended at Stanford University in 1992.(The partial results-missing a terrific and brilliant lecture given there by Norman O. Brown-can be found in Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkermann's John Cage: Composed in America.)

His late work, where intention and non-intention more freely co-exist, is among his most beautiful work. And it is interesting, I think, that this late work, as well as his early pre-chance compositions of the thirties and forties, is the most universally accepted of Cage's long compositional oeuvre. Both periods contain music that I consider to be beautiful in the very traditional sense of the use of that word; not at all requiring new aesthetic criteria, but instead beautiful in the sense that so much of late Beethoven (who Cage didn't like very much) is beautiful. Austere. Introspective. Quiet-both in terms of its actual volume much of the time, and in the meditative sense. A music that sounds with a depth of experience that you can actually hear. Cage's late so-called number pieces are as deep as Beethoven's late piano sonatas and string quartets. And the former are as unmistakably Cage as the latter are Beethoven.

It's funny, in fact, that my first introduction to these late pieces was a conversation I had with Cage in Santa Fe in 1990 that led me to believe that I would hear just the opposite of what I've described above. Cage had asked me to perform his percussion piece "Branches," which I did with two fabulous percussionists, John Bartlit and Doug Nottingham. We constructed a one hour version that we played twice-outdoors as part of an art opening that included works by Cage and Santa Fe artist Doris Cross. Cage came to the opening, and at the party afterwards talked with me about a number piece for percussion that he had written for the percussionist Fritz Hauser. His description of the number pieces included the notion that he believed he had found a way to write music that eliminated himself entirely from the experience of hearing it when actually performed. How ironic then, and yet profoundly appropriate I think, that that very act produced what just about everyone I know thinks are his most personal and intimate pieces-music that is more recognizably Cagean than perhaps anything else he ever wrote!

This gets at something that I find fundamental to most of the art I appreciate-the way in which it fails to achieve what the artist intends. That the greatest works of art are in that sense always failures. I remember a lecture given by Hanjo Berressem, a terrific literary scholar who is presently a Professor of Amerikanistik, in Köln; but who at that time was working in Aachen. He showed how certain paintings by Salvador Dali represented certain Lacanian theories of psychoanalysis. Lacan, in effect, exhausted Dali's work in direct relation to his ability to explain what it meant. I learned in that moment a big lesson in art appreciation. I think Gertrude Stein addresses this in her fabulous lecture "Composition as Explanation." But my favorite anecdote in this regard is much shorter-from Charles Ives, whom I'll have to paraphrase because I don't have my library with me here in Heidelberg. It goes something like this: Better to aim at Beethoven and miss every time than to hit a thousand bulls-eyes aiming at Richard Strauss. I love that-as I do all the work of all those artists who intentionally aim so high that they must inevitably fail. Ezra Pound is, I think, a classic example of that, and his record of that failure, his 116th Canto, is, as a result, in my opinion one of the great masterpieces of this century's English language poetry.

I see Cage's failure as an artist and composer, which I think Brown's lecture clearly emphasizes, as the means by which the music and texts succeed as great art. And I think Brown's lecture, more implicitly perhaps than the criticism of Cage's intent, emphasizes that as well when he criticizes Cage's view that "nothing is accomplished by listening to a piece of music," by writing that, as a result of listening to Cage's music at the Wesleyan conference: "I don't think it is true that nothing is accomplished by listening to a piece of music. The event's of this week will bear me out. Our ears will be in much better condition." Brown's "fight" with Cage was out of deep respect for the work. In fact, his response to the last chapter of my book was that, by emphasizing Cage's choices to such a degree, I had not perhaps given enough consideration to the role of chance in Cage's work.

He was then, and I suspect probably still is, continuing to explore that dimension-what I would see as the way in which chance can remain Dionysian, free and uncontrollable, even in the Apollonian ways in which Cage predeteminately stacks the deck. Brown once told me (he's said so also in print somewhere) that he worked in the "space between Freud and Nietzsche." At that Stanford conference, Brown, too, talked about his own failures and regrets. I see myself presently living in the space between Brown and Cage. And it is, for me, an incredibly rich and complex place to live. If I were to construct a non-resolving dialectical aesthetic it would be between those two. I often describe that space as being between two magnets of like polarity placed together. In other words, the space where the magnets are no longer able to get any closer-I see myself occupying that space. And I suspect others live there too!

JW: You begin your study by saying that Cage "shied away from the matter of 'influences,' believing instead that one's own ideas attract historical precursors," (p. xvi) which is an interesting use of backward propagation! My understanding, however, is that his interest in chance operations, for which he is most famous, was influenced, and not so much by the operative assumptions of the I Ching, as by the early piano music of Pierre Boulez.

CS: Well, Cage really did love Boulez's second piano sonata and was instrumental, along with David Tudor, in getting it first performed in New York. The correspondence between Cage and Boulez is published in a book edited (and with a very pro-Boulez introduction) by Jean-Jacques Nattiez. It's fascinating stuff. They were working on similar things at the time (from the mid-40s to early 50s), and Boulez was very much interested in the way in which chance operations, through Cage's use of the I-Ching, produced a work like Cage's solo piano piece "Music of Changes." I wouldn't say that his use of chance operations was influenced by the early piano music of Boulez, although I would say that both were very much involved with each other's work at the time Cage began to use chance operations. The break between Cage and Boulez is, I think, once again an instance where Cage's work is attacked by someone who is doing something else and who cannot accept the otherness as being outside of one's own individual work. I think Cage was always capable of doing that, in other words, of being able to see his work as one part of something, rather than as an example of the work of art created in a totality within itself. I don't want to misread the European Neue Musik scene's appropriation of Adorno here because it's something I'm actually in Germany to learn more about. So I'll simply characterize what briefly follows as my at the moment reading of that appropriation in my own ephemeral way of dealing with the problem Susan Howe likely confronted when she published that excellent study of Dickinson under the title My Emily Dickinson.

What I mean is that the reaction to Cage in 1950s Europe, characterized especially well by Boulez, rightly attacks what they saw as a serious compositional flaw: not chance, but indeterminacy, found first in 4'33" (the "silent" piece) and the "Imaginary Landscape No. 4" for radios. Boulez, and the composers in Europe who followed him, instead preferred what Boulez called "aleatory" music. Now, I don't want to get into a long-winded musicological discussion here but what distinguished aleatoric music from both Cage's chance operations (which these composers didn't disapprove of) and the indeterminate compositions that follows (with which they did) is that aleatoric music offers the performer multiple notated choices that can be taken, that then open up the heard result-all of which, however, are intentionally written by the composer so that all those possibilities are pre-determined by the composer.

Chance operations replace compositional choices with the asking of questions within the compositional process, but then produce a fixed compositional result which is, of course, less open in the performative sense than is aleatoric music. But then indeterminate music, which Cage saw as the necessary antidote for the "Frankenstein monster" he had created with his "Music of Changes" (which, through chance operations, had produced an enormously difficult work) opened up the performance of music to both the intentions of the performer as well as, in many cases, the unintended experience of the environment in which the work was performed. The inclusion of the unintentional outside was completely unacceptable to the post-World War II European serialists in a way that I think one can, in retrospect, fully understand when considering the work of composers who thought that there was a direct relation between the way one writes music (or makes art of any kind for that matter) and the way in which individuals and societies work. The anarchy of Cage's indeterminate pieces had social implications that led these composers, full of both war-time memories of the results of anarchic social situations, as well as full of Adorno's negative dialectics which saw art as a dialectically oppositional force in society, to write works that controlled as much as possible both what one performed and what one ultimately heard. These works were, at least as I read them, compositions in which the dialectical oppositions existed within-as models of society-rather than as a dialectical interaction with the world outside where model and reality would thus meet and produce the work of art collaboratively.

In closing, I want to add once again that my views on this are preliminary, and in fact I would highly recommend an article by Konrad Boehmer, drawn from a dissertation he wrote in the 1960s and thus full of the issues that I'm addressing here, that strongly criticizes Cage's work from the perspective of someone whose own background is steeped in a very sophisticated approach to dialectical thinking. It was published in the art journal October, I believe in the fall of 1997.

JW: In Silencing The Sounded Self, you quote Cage as saying that he hopes to make of words "something other than language," (p. 116) a strategy "in which words become what they originally were: trees and stars and the rest of (the) primeval environment." (p. 117) A language-still a language!- that interrogates, rather than communicates. Thus the words would be "empty," not of meaning, "but of intentional meaning." (p. 123)

Is it fair to say that the absence of intention, of control, along with the anxiety of failure-by means of tapping into a reservoir of ideas far vaster than any particular work could hope to portage-is instructive as to what makes a work of art in the tradition of experimentation?

CS: Cage's sense of what makes something experimental is pretty narrowly defined in his book Silence: "an action of which the outcome is unforeseen." On the other hand, in the same book, I think it is even the same essay "A History of Experimental Music in the United States," Cage himself places a lot of composers within the tradition of experimentalism even though they don't always fit Cage's narrow definition.

I see experimentalism more broadly although I do in my book place Cage in only a part of the tradition, as you know, by dividing it into those artists influenced (either consciously or not) by Emerson on the one hand-this is where I put the so-called Projectivists-and Thoreau on the other-I put the Objectivists, and Cage as well, there. One predilection I see in experimental work is an emphasis on process. And I like to think that your use of the word "reservoir" where the artist taps into a world of ideas (or experience) that is larger than the individual self would also be characteristic. I make distinctions in regards to how the artist as a medium functions in that world-either through what I call control or co-existence-but I think all experimental artists still emphasize process and the desire to experience and/or create a world larger than that of the individual consciousness. And the result would be art that is not entirely self contained but that is always contextualized by the world around it.

JW: I'd like to interject here, with reference to the lineage you diagram. Paul Winter traces "the American lineage that extends from Thoreau through Charles Ives to Scott Nearing and Pete Seeger-voices from the 'quiet corner' of our culture, all artists who went to live with the land, built their own homesteads, and made their lives their song." So that, from his point of view, Ives extends from Thoreau, not Emerson! I find this interesting because it demonstrates just how slippery taxonomy can be.

CS: I would also add a couple of points. I think that Cage's interrogation is part of the compositional process but not found in the actual result whether he writes music or texts. He asks questions initially and then accepts the responses, or rather, at that point becomes a listener who observes the results rather than controlling them. And then again, I think that's only true until the mid-70s which is why my book ends with Empty Words. After that in poetry, and even before that in music, Cage's intentions come increasingly to the fore. In fact, the point my book tries to make is that after Cage produces musical and textual "silence" he goes back into a place where nothing and something co-exist. I see it best represented as that moment in the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, where, after experiencing emptiness, the last picture shows a man returning to society and bearing gifts. Or, in more directly Cagean terms, the moment after the long silence in his "Lecture on Nothing" where he says, "That is finished now. It was a pleasure. And now, this is a pleasure." Cage's work in the 1970s follows a very different project than what I describe in Silencing the Sounded Self. And it is one where sound and silence, intention and non-intention, are seen as "needing each other to keep on going."

I also think, regarding the question of failure, that Cage increasingly began to exercise his own personal taste in directly intentional ways and, in a sense, was constantly in the business of asking questions that produced results that did not fail. In other words, acceptance was placed in the context of a frame that was predetermined by the composer and thus could be subject to criticism in regards to success and failure in decidedly traditional ways. To me, it's like when my colleagues would speak of percussion as something they couldn't aesthetically judge: "I can't tell if he/she is a good or bad percussionist-I just don't know anything about percussion." Same with a Cage composition. If one is oriented to only take a critical look or listen to results-or content if you will-without taking a critical look at the process of making a piece, or the form in which the piece exists, then in all likelihood a piece by Cage will resist good analysis. But if one is capable of criticizing artworks as processes or as framing devices, something I think is pretty commonly addressed by both art historians and literary scholars, Cage's work is much more easily approached. I think, for example, that Marjorie Perloff's early support of Cage is a direct result of her great gifts as a literary critic who also has a strong interest in the arts. Musicologists would do well to read everything she has to say before venturing into a critical look at the compositional world of John Cage. And, by the way, that's something still long overdue.

JW: When Cage was eighty years old, he was interviewed by Laurie Anderson. To her question, "In using chance operations, did you ever feel that something didn't work as you wanted?," Cage replied: "No. In such circumstances I thought the thing that needs changing is me-you know-the thinking through. If it was something I didn't like, it was clearly a situation in which I could change toward the liking rather than getting rid of it."

This mental plasticity is amazing for someone his age. It reminded me that most people become more conservative, more closed to change, as they become older. One would think it would be the opposite, that a person would become more open to change while approaching the ultimate change from life to death. It also reminded me of the Taoist sage, who is said to be born old, and become progressively younger, more creative. Thus, when Cage was in his late fifties, he began developing the compositional technique known as mesostics. Could you elaborate on this attempt at "making language as interesting as music," with reference to American experimental poetry in the latter part of the twentieth century?

CS: A couple of things seem to matter here. The first is that Cage's attempts to stay open were, I think, framed in ways that are very important to an understanding of how Cage used chance in his work. Much of the time he chose the materials that would be subjected to chance and most of the time they were source materials that he liked. Because of that, it would have been hard to come up with results Cage found unacceptable although sometimes he did and sometimes he changed the work because of that. And in my book, as you know, I, in fact, address the way in which Cage tried to "musicate" language by removing intentional meaning from it. In "Mureau" Cage subjected parts of Thoreau's Journal to chance operations and then ended up with something that had too much intention in it. In Empty Words which Cage called a "transition from language to music" Cage intentionally removed sentences, phrases, words until all that was left were letters and silences thus showing us (and himself) the intentional process by which he removed intention from language. And that it required his choice to make that happen; that chance in "Mureau" had failed to do what was necessary to make that happen.

I think that Cage's work changes a lot after the mid-seventies when Cage finished Empty Words. And that's why I ended the book there. It's also why I concentrated on Cage and both his predecessors and contemporaries in that context as well. I wanted to present, as best I could, Cage's view of things and how he saw himself in the context of his world. Consequently, I didn't challenge his preference of Thoreau over Emerson, or the ways in which he "fit" as an objectivist by comparing things he said about his work with things that could be found in the work of others. I really think there is a direct line between Emerson and Projective Verse, and between Thoreau and Objective Verse, especially from Cage's perspective, in other words in the way that he saw himself as an artist. These are the contexts that up through the mid-seventies divide the experimental tradition, and I think that Cage's enormous influence over experimental art is, in a way, the dividing line of how the experimental tradition as a result will be addressed historically in our century. Cage doesn't serve as a connection among experimentalists the way Ives does in music or Pound does in poetry. He's a divider, an irritant, if you will-although he certainly was good humored about it from what just about everyone will tell you.

I also hesitated, and still do, to place Cage in either a postmodernist or modernist context because, first of all, I don't think that was well-enough developed historically during the time frame of my study (early 50s through mid 70s) especially not in music. And I think it is too easy to place Cage in one camp or the other in that moment in time. However, since this is an interview, and as a result hopefully seen as more speculative and conversational, if I were to describe Cage using those currently fashionable terms I would do so as follows: he placed post-modern content in a modernist frame.

I say this because I think after the mid-70s, and using the mesostics in literature and the time bracket pieces in music, Cage's work is much, much, more open to the intentional and to the privileging of the choice of content that is subjected to chance operations. That's a long story and one I'm not yet ready to go into detail about. But I am presently working on a study that compares Cage with Norman O. Brown in which I will do just that. In my book, where Cage privileges chance and nonintention, I emphasized choice and intention. Norman O. Brown, after reading some of my work, asked me if I didn't think I underestimated Cage's use of chance. And I agree. However, my intention was to show how intentional that use of chance was. In Cage's later work, I see just the opposite concerning Cage's more accepting views of intention in his work and thus I suspect (I'm not at a stage of certainty yet) that chance will be the predominant concern in my comparison of Brown and Cage.

In closing let me just say that I see the subject of nondualism and nonintention as being a very dualistic subject and vice versa! I also love to pair opposites in ways that may at first seem to prefer one to the other because of the obvious fact that those opposites see themselves that way. But ultimately my own preference is the Janus face like nature of the world-where, as Cage so brilliantly put it, "something and nothing need each other to keep on going."

Works Cited

Anderson, Laurie. "Talks With John Cage." Tricycle. (Summer 1992).

Brown, Norman O. Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991.

Boehmer, Konrad. "Chance As Ideology." October 82 (Fall 1997). p. 62-76.

Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Cage, John. Empty Words: Writings '73-'78. Middletown CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.

Cage, John. "Mureau" in M: Writings '67-'82. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar" in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, p. 52-70. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickerson. Berkeley, CA.: North Atlantic Books, c. 1985.

Ives, Charles. Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings. Howard Boatwright, Editor. New York: Norton, 1964.

Nattiez, Jean Jacques. The Boulez-Cage Correspondence. R. Samuels, Editor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Perloff, Marjorie and Junkerman, Charles, eds. John Cage: Composed in America. Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition. Boston, MA.: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Thoreau, Henry David. Journals. B. Toirey and F.H. Allen, Editors. New York: Dover, 1962.
Weishaus, Joel. Oxherding-A Reworking of the Zen Text. San Francisco, CA.: Cranium Press, 1971.