John Cage, the Pre-Raphaelite

John Cage @ 100!

John Cage was the Pre-Raphaelite to end all Pre-Raphaelites.
 

There are remnants of the Pre-Rahapelite movement in New York State, like Narnia, where there are memories of a some past reality, a crazy pre-reality TV world.

---In Manhattan, notably, among much more, there is the Woolworth building and Tudor City.  

---In  Westchester look at Scarsdale--the little Gothic-style  stores near the train station. Forest Hills has architecture like that near the train station.  Philadelphia has it too.

--Stock Broker Tudor is Pre-Raphaelite, even if the connection was forgotten.

 
The Pre-Raphaelites put Gothic architecture up on a pedestal because it had achieved independence from Hellenistic architecture.  The Gothic window got its pointed peak, distinguishing it from the Romanesque window, which had the rounded peak.
 
While the distinction seems trivial to us now, it represented quite a big distinction to the Pre-Raphaelites, who despised inauthenticity, bad habits--habitually clinging to Hellenistic norms.  They celebrated instead the arrival of the high middle ages as a great moment in European history, and they took Gothic architecture as a symbol of that moment.
 
The Pre-Raphaelites felt the world was falling to pieces, fragmenting, losing its focus, in decline, decadent, as did Nietschze & Wagner & Adalbert Stifter in the German speaking lands.  While it would have been inauthentic of them to uphold a past ideal to serve as their ideal, they nevertheless took the high middle ages as a role model, because they admired the way high Christendom broke away from Hellenism, creating Europe as we know it.   David Lang's wonderful opera, Modern Painters, makes fun of Ruskin's obsession with these themes.
 
As the EU has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, we might think about the Pre-Raphaelite celebration of the high middle ages as the moment when Europe broke away from the ancient world to become something more authentic.  If the EU succeeds, and we might hope it does if we don't want to see more of the wars that the EU aspired to end once and for all, the successful EU will be next great moment for Europe since the high middle ages.
 
The decadence that the Pre-Raphaelites feared was one instance of the kind of fragmentation of values that we see now.   In fact, in the US this fragmentation is mitigated by the success of mass media, which can get masses of people hooked on reality TV and American Idol.  The US has mastered the art of bread & circuses, but for those who are outside of that mass-media culture, the US is a bloody mess.
 
The Pre-Raphaelites had  a nostalgia for order.  They felt a strong sense of urgency for a shared purpose. It was a quest for some revival of the universality that was seen when the universities were conceived in the high middle ages.  They got people to rally for universality.  
 
We are relativists.  We don't believe in universality, so let us define it differently--they were bullish on understanding.  They said we *can* understand each other.  They were positivists.  
 
Were not the logical positivists seeking the same thing?  Grounding.  Out of this came the very European project, Esperanto.  The one who hopes ("esperanto" = the one who hopes)  is hoping for understanding, the ability to agree, the abiltiy to overcome centrifugal forces.
 
Ezra Pound started out as a Pre-Rapahaelite, and that Pre-Raphaelite yearning for agreement leads directly into imagism, where the poet ceases to spew his feelings but instead sets forth images to which the reader reacts authentically.  This leads to Beckett, and other modernists as we currently understand modernism.
 
Stravinsky insists that he is not expressing emotion through his music.  He is setting forth sounds that each person reacts to authentically.
 
Cage took this as far as it could go.   He wasn't such a great composer, but he understood how to hold a mirror in front of the listener.   The search for universality ends with that mirror.  Cage's mirror was a game changer.  And some of Cage's mirrors were just brilliant.  I guess my favorite it Music For, which was written for NYNME.  
 
Of course, all music holds that mirror before the listener, but most music holds on to powerful habits of perception--shared habits of perception.  Cage and other modernists (Beckett!) learned how to shed the old habits.  Cage did this so very well that he can be thought of as the last Pre-Raphaelite, the one who stretched imagism to its breaking point.  Cage--a kind of reductio ad absurdam of imagist principles.  He becomes the best and last imagist.
 
If you love Madonna or Adele and hate Cage, its because we are creatures of habit.  Mostly we don't like to shed our habits of perception and our habits of valuation.   Most of us are not looking to be violently de-centered.  Our musical values are basically tribal and generational.  Most of us don't care to see through those perceptual habits to something happening on another time-scale.  
 
Babbitt and the positivists (Boulez was also allied to Logical Positivism) offered new ways of making music work.  They are misunderstood as hyper-rationalists.  There are aspects of their work this is highly rational, but contrary to the idiocy of the moment, they never wished to defy certain basic fundamental principles of perception.  Forget Boulez for the moment, as I'm more of a Babbitt person.  Babbitt was concerned with establishing a harmonic region and extending it.  He explains this in his essay on the Schoenberg 4th string quartet.   The fancy stuff he uses to do that, as fancy as it is, nevertheless, serves that aim.   Babbitt's positivism is in the lovely mechanics of that fancy stuff, but he makes it work according to the way our ears work.  Same with Jon Dawe, whose fractal elaborations of his primary material are all handled with a keen ear.
 
Cage says, if you don't like something, listen again.  If you still don't like it, listen again, etc.  He wasn't a technical person.  He understood the I Ching and he understood Ezra Pound, who understood how I Ching-like was the sestina of Arnaut Daniel.  The words that end each line of the sestina rotate throughout the poem.  The arguments, the habits of verbal communication, are dissolved in the execution of this elaborate rhyme scheme, and the result is more I Ching-like than anything in Western culture.  
 
http://www.ams.org/notices/201105/rtx110500682p.pdf
 
Finally, I thought of John Cage as I revisited Robert Walser's short story, Lake Greifen.   In the William Gass introduction to the Quartet Encounters edition of a collection of Susan Bernofsky translations of Robert Walser short stories, Gass explains that "Walser paints a postcard world".   Very American, way ahead of his time!  Walser's postcard adjectives really quite nicely destroy that postcard view, or worse, gives you a creepy feeling that you are in Truman's World---

Gass points out Walser's use of trite adjectives-- "lovely", "dear", "sweet", "charming",  etc.....

I think of these glib adjectives as habits of good will.   Walser keeps us mindful of our constant and energy-draining infusion of good will into everything....

In the short story, Lake Greifen, we get facile superlatives about the lake's beauty, but it is clear we very well might drown there, we very well might choke on those superlatives and seek death in the lake as respite from the effort of maintaining those superlatives...

It's the yin/yang symbol, eros & thanatos.   Cage understood this.  Love kills.  Love until it kills you.  We are that tautology.   Others like to show just how fancy 0=0 can be expressed.
 
One last quip:  In Monk, the TV show about the OCD detective; in Pysch, another detective TV show; in Lie to Me, about the pioneer of micro-expressions and their applications in criminology-- in all these TV series the interior decor is thoroughly Arts & Crafts---Pre-Raphaelite.  As we've taken one step back from Beckett and Mies van der Rohe, we find ourselves in the thick of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Craft styles once again.  I don't understand all that's behind this yet.  Help me.
 
I've explored these themes in 2 Pre-Raphaelite programs, also, surreptitiously in our recent Beckett project.  
 
In the Pre-Rapahelite programs I made a lot of noise about Reich's connection to Perotin.  Minimalism is thoroughly modern and obsessed with the utter transparency of musical processes, as I mentioned above in connection with Stravinsky.