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The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, August 19, 2004

are as Much / is not ' finitE / Trouble ' / and Heavy 

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Several years ago I saw John Cage's I-VI for sale in a Waterstone's in London, and in a fit of passion bought it. It is a truly beautiful book documenting the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Cage gave at Harvard in 1988-9: included are full transcripts of the lectures, transcripts of the question and answer sessions, and recordings of one lecture and one Q + A session. The lectures were written according to Cage's mesostic practice, and have been presented fully and correctly formatted in the book. The words themselves all derive from a set of 15 source texts (reproduced at the end of the book); using a computer program called Mesolist, written by Jim Rosenberg, Cage oriented chunks of text (no more than 45 characters left or right) around a central string of words to create a 'mesostic' - like an acrostic, but with the vertical words in the middle, not to the left. The vertical string of words remained the same - Method Structure Intention Discipline Notation Indeterminacy Interpenetration Imitation Devotion Circumstances Variable Structure Nonunderstanding Contingency Inconsistency Performance - and each word would repeat until Cage had enough text for a 1-hour lecture. There are a whole other bunch of chance procedures which Cage overlaid this work with, as well as indications for stress and pause, and the end result is quite extraordinary. It's a bit tricky to format one of these things to display correctly online, but here's an example of a different Cage mesostic. And here is a really cool tool for creating your own mesostics, written by Matthew McCabe. (Here's one of my own.)

Lecture IV recorded on the tapes that come with the book. As I say, I've had this for quite some time now, but I've only just got round to listening to the full lecture, as part of my ongoing project to transfer all my tapes to more convenient media. Listening to Cage is like taking a cold shower. For a start he reads with a very flat, non-expressive voice - as you would expect. And yet, within that voice, and within the the words he is reading, is that child-like joy in the unexpected that infuses all his work. Yes, he reads the texts very seriously - this is a performance, and it took him weeks to prepare his material - but you can sense that he is thrilled with every minute of it. The source texts and the methods applied to them are designed to repeat, and create surprising conjunctions (this is still composition), but when you get a sequence of lines like this (and I'm ignoring the formatting for the time being here):

In what sense
people
and Boston and
bacteria
Angola and
Violence one has to do
Iran-contra case said
stake in
atmosphere and
is this
the meaning of
creating a sense of
acids however we
and moon produced
Jakarta

then you can't help but share in Cage's pleasure. Sadly, one thing that is missing from the tape of Cage's reading is the audience reaction - the recording stops right after his last word and some shuffling of papers, so it's very hard to tell from this what his listener's made of it, although there is a second tape of questions and answers which I have yet listen to. However, the cerebral post mortem dissection of Cage never does justice to the intricacy and immediacy of his works as they happen, and the best judgement of his works' success is in the electricity in people's eyes at the end. OK, you're not going to get this from a tape either, but some sort of audible expression might have been nice.


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