Thursday, March 6, 2008
"Queer" Silences and the problem with Cageian Historiography
I was preparing for a discussion surrounding the many myths of John Cage, famed composer of the iconic 4'33''. And why shouldn't the work have attracted the pens of theorists from a vast array of disciplines? Stubbornly silent, 4'33'' first premiered in a small artist shack in Woodstock (which still stands, although largely forgotten by the scholastic community of today). Ever since David Tudor lifted the lid of that fated piano years ago, music sloganists have never been so vociferous about its seemingly absented contents.
Although theorists have come a long way from the initial slander that surrounded the performance of 4'33'', our "modern" (maybe not post- but through-modern) sensibilities cannot be articulated without a spectral sense of guilt lurking in the shadow of a now-canonic piece. The problem is more than that of navigating the troublesome chasm between authorial popularity and radical reticence, for Cage never related a single legitimizing account of 4'33'''s "meaning", leaving scholars, listeners and even performers baffled in it's wake of ... well ... virtually nothing except for pure presentism under the uneasy tease of musical absentism.
"Not so fast" Philip Gentry seems to say (dissertation forthcoming), as many other writers who have joined in the "silent" debate. Orienting the debate towards the original score prepared for the Woodstock event, Gentry argues for no less than a 'musical' rather than conceptual frame by which the work should be judged. There are intrinsic problems in this approach, however, since if we were to predicate 4'33'' upon heuristic concerns (even open-ended approaches), we find ourselves locked in discursive back-peddling, for how does one articulate sonic presentism with absentism so foregrounded? Event should not be severed from musical performativity, Gentry claims, and rightly so - the conceptual impact that stoked critics therefore cannot be "silenced", no listening ear can ever be that austere. Even if one attempted a historical (drastic) evaluation, the discordance of absentism rang louder than the much-cherished consonances of "silence". This silence was a noisy one. Though chivalrous, Gentry's efforts at redirecting the discourse on 4'33'' is less enlightening than a glaring dead end - literally discursive silence on the topic rather than messy speculation. Of course, there are ethical dimensions that Gentry's chapter suggests, priviliging Carolyn Abbate's "drastic" over the "gnostic", and it is in this side departure that we may find an aperture into the hidden lascivious, slutty and even promiscuous secrets of 4'33''.
What exactly do I mean?
How can a work be lascivious, let along promiscuous? 4'33'' basks in a hermeneutic horizon, its statement at once ineffable and yet by virtue of its radical minimalism of sonicism, an alluring challenge to the disciplinary field, gently spreading its legs for the scholarly world to fill this gaping cavity of musical sense. With the proliferation of "recorded" works of 4'33'' (and there are a few), the orienting compass tends to hit a Bremuda Triangle, especially since technology can ensure that literally nothing gets transmitted onto the recorded medium for the stipulated time. Perhaps 4'33'' is thus domesticized, to be listened to at the player's mischevious will. Arguably, perhaps what 4'33'' does is indeed to expose music's perverse inner core of totalizing silence, despite its manifest sonic gymnastics.
For Jonathan Katz, Cage's 4'33'' may be an Ardono-esque labyrinth, that at the end of this long tunnel of silence lies some deeply disguised kernel of meaning. Katz's gold-digging allegory is undisputably appealing to the academic machine of production; that even though this perverse fetishistic core of meaning may turn out to be empty, part of the fun is in invested digging. Katz has attempted to fill the cavity (or to wrench out the gold tooth) of 4'33'', flimsily equating what he identifies as a "queer" silence on Cage's part to an act of "queer" resistence, inextricably wed to the discriminatory and homophobic policies of the McCarthy era. Gentry's own chapter resonates with Katz, and great care is taken to unmask this closeted celebrity as high-pitched flaming queen, carefully navigating presentations and representations of self. Unfortunately, the "Queer" in Cage's "Queer silence" is open to a disturbing question: When does "silence" become "Queer Silence"? The answer is not far from the shores of the page - literally when Katz decides to name it as such. The declamatory position of Katz's proposal does less to reveal than to plaster yet another mask over the many faces of John Cage - Queer (silent) rebel by virtue of ideology, the case thoroughly permeable to naiive romanticizing of the totalized and complete subject. Once again, Cage's silence is not merely made to speak, but made to squeal in a negative dialectic of subjectivization, a slogan carrying activist with nothing written on the slate.
If not "Queer", Cage's silence is an uneasy one, albeit a "queer-ing" one. Although I do not believe that 4'33'''s unheimlich elocutions are "Queer", the forces which en-force 4'33'' as a musical work (following Lydia Goehr's argument) go weak in the knees by the work's potential "To-queer". It is not already Queer; rather, it projects itself from a scaffolding of affect to cast grim light on the scaffolds already in place prepared to receive 4'33'' as such. But 4'33'' is no exception. In fact, it is plausible that ALL works of music outside the strongholds of the Symbolic are by virtue already queering. The very fact that we are anasthetized to their de-subjectivizing vitalities can be attributed to the fact that we have seized their queering forces and bent their arms of action by wrapping thick bands of discourse around the pieces conceived. This band of the Symbolic is no less than our theorizing and discursive tendencies already manufactured, disciplined and controlled to create the simulation of metaphor and control, helping us to colonize and effectively de-fang the threatening bite of an unbounded musical spectra.
4'33'' straddles this strata, allowing nothing and everything to enter the temporal boundaries errected by Cage himself. This Queering silence goes uneasy precisely because it is noisy, it subverts us by our own morbid and anxious acts of exclusion by threatening to silence our gnostic sensibilities with the noisy nooses of our own making. And this is why 4'33'' continues to be an important work, a git in the flow of our daily structuralizing tendencies, the spannar in the cogs - a work that still, although increasingly colonized by encroaching forces of production and reproduction, throws out a piece of the existential pie by forcing us to listen to our own ghastly silences, a beastly knell-like sound that tugs gently at the seams of the Symbolic, out of which we have made fancy armchairs.