Thursday, August 27, 2015

For the birds

I wrote some words from John Cage on the board at my first meeting with my advisees/first year students. (He was responding to a question about people who had studied with him.) I did it slowly, line by line. "You can write it down too," I said after the first, "if you want to."

The point, of course, was that we are a seminar college - no lecturing! What happens in the class is the fruit of everyone's contributions. Cage's aleatory practice was admittedly an extreme of non-"teaching", but it's that continuum I'm claiming for the New School. No other school, Cage said, would have let him teach. (Gives me plenty of leeway too...!) In the individual meetings with the students afterwards I confirmed that nobody had been spooked by this: it's what they'd come to Lang for.

By the way, I'm not sure that Cage actually said those words. They're from For the Birds, the English version of a French book (Pour les Oiseaux - both are puns on his name) compiled by Daniel Charles from conversations he had with Cage in 1968. But it turns out the original tapes of the conversations translated into French for Pour les Oiseaux were lost, so For the Birds is someone's translation back into English of the French translation of what Cage said! Babel chaos? Vertigo of indeterminacy? Cage loved it. He was given the re-Englished text to read and at first noted there were places where he didn't recognize himself. Then he had a (Cageian!) Gestalt shift:

After a few labored alterations, I found myself reading all the way through, more entertained than I would have been had I been recognizing myself. And then I went back to the beginning and put the word 'stet': that is, keep it as you have it. The ideas, so to speak, have changed their clothes but they are healthy. I decided not to do anything to them. Let them live their own lives. They are certain to change in further unpredictable ways whenever someone takes the time to use them.

Change, as Cage's frequent references to the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes, confirm, is of the essence. In his own preface Daniel Charles writes (well, in the English translation): I have the feeling ... that these texts comprise a multiple and unique gloss of Chuang-tze. In any case, the sole aim of my questions was to bring out what, for brevity's sake, I call Cage's Taoism (9).

China, you found me even in my New School-focused course!

John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds
(Boston & London: Marion Boyars, 1985), 89, 12

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