Of all the pantheon of classical music history — Hildegard of Bingen, George Frederich Handel, Clara Schumann, Gyorgy Ligeti — there is one figure that has impacted my thinking more than any other: John Cage.
Never Been Anywhere Before
But it isn’t Cage’s compositions that have really gotten to me, as powerful as sitting through 4’33’’ or Branches is. Rather it’s the ethos behind the compositions — a belief that listening should be unencumbered by expectation, interpretation or reaction. A belief in a zen-like, stoic and pure listening that is radically present-tense. A sort of listening that transcends dogma.
As he put it: “What I’m proposing, to myself and other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude — that you act as though you’ve never been there before. So that you’re not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before.”
When this becomes your attitude going into any given auditory experience, curiosity and attention become the most important things. Meanwhile, petty concerns over whether or not something is music or noise, is in key or way off, is beautiful or ugly fade into the background.
You realize the overtone profile of a screeching chicken or a low-flying jet contains all the richness of a perfectly bowed Strad — if not more. When you become a tourist, you can find yourself in awe of anything and everything. Hopelessly lost but perfectly content.
Listening And Beyond
And so it came to pass that after gorging myself on Cage-related readings in college that my mind steadily opened to a new universe of sound. Not only did I fall in love with all manner of wild 20th century avant guard composers and compositions, I also learned to find rhythm and harmony in the layered, aleatoric racket of everyday life: birdsong, breezes, construction equipment. Heck, I even developed a certain appreciation for Pop Country.
Given all the boundary-smashing going on in my hearing life, it will come as little surprise that this tourist attitude eventually seeped from the musical realm into virtually every facet of my sensory-cognitive existence. In the same way that Cage saw no reason to demarcate between music and noise, I came to see no reason to cling to such cherished antipodes as art and non-art, natural and artificial, urban and rural, authentic and contrived.
It dawned on me that perhaps there is a measure of beauty and wonder to be found in all things: caverns and sewer pipes, petroglyphs and spray-painted murals, altruism and predation, wilderness and the human-built infrastructure that carves it up, dinosaur footprints and carbon footprints, self-preservation and self-immolation. In each case, there is something rather than nothing — a tangle of nested processes and entities sparkling into the void — and that, at least for me and Gottfried Leibniz, is an incredible fact.
The Persistence Of Judgement
No sir-ee, life as a tourist ain’t bad. In fact, it may very well be salvation. By embracing the chaos rather than fighting it –by wishing for what is — you keep your feeble mind from the brutal labor of imposing upon and constraining the marvelous and polyphonic abundance of reality. When you leave judgment behind, it’s hard to be unhappy with how things are going. You just take life as it comes without labelling everything “good” or “bad” as it rushes past.
Of course, there’s probably no way to leave judgement behind entirely. When, for instance, we look out over the Middle Rio Grande Valley from the top of the Sandias, the judgement of “urban sprawl” floods our neural circuitry in the twinkling of an eye. Thanks to our hyperactive subconscious, the verdict is in before we even know there’s a trial.
Best we can do is attempt to appeal the ruling after the fact. Read over the stenographer’s notes, analyze the argumentation, cross-examine ourselves: “Why do I find the mountain more beautiful than Albuquerque’s young neighborhoods?” Or: “Is it not amazing that glorified apes could construct something so elaborate?” Or: “Have I not brought the sprawl further into the woods by being up here?” I find that definitive judgements tend to become less so under scrutiny. I also find that aesthetic revelry pours in when the levy dividing the water from the land fails.
But to stop here, to erode certainty and then to wallow in a moment of artsy rapture, would be to omit something important — namely, this feeling we can’t shake that some things ought to be judged, and that the full realization of Cage’s ideal might lead us to become complicit in evil. Sure, a life without judgement would make us happier; but maybe homophobia, chauvinism, wanton environmental degradation and torture should be judged. Judged that we might create a better world.
So what’s to be done with these pesky convictions? As usual, I’m not entirely certain. Doesn’t simplify matters to know that there are multitudes of people who are absolutely convinced that my rights are wrongs. Going back to the courtroom metaphor, I guess my own ideal is that I at least attempt the appeals process, slowing my thoughts down and doing my best to haul snap judgements out of the abyssal subconscious and into the light of day. It may very well be that the initial ruling will stand, but I have to give myself the chance to doubt.
Yet the next step is more fraught still. Having weighed the virtues of this or that judgement, how do we now go from thought to action, from theory to practice? Or, to appropriate Francis Schaeffer: How then should we live?
Chaos Systems And Wisdom
Most of us are doers. We fancy ourselves tiny gods and strive to sculpt the cosmos after our own likenesses. This, I suppose, would be fine and dandy if we were omniscient, if we knew all the impacts a given act would have as it proliferates outwards through spacetime.
Unfortunately, however, our knowledge (both in the sense of episteme and techne) is meager at best. Countless are the instances when brilliant minds have tried to fix humanity’s problems and only made matters worse in the process. Countless are the wingbeats that have spawned typhoons in the North Pacific. Chaos systems are like this. Locally, causes and effects are relatively straightforward. But the wider the radius, the wider the range of outcomes.
And so in the end, though I expect no response, I say a little prayer. It is the same as that of another dusty theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change / The courage to change the things I can / And the wisdom to know the difference.” Might I add, “Or, if nothing else, grant me the tourist attitude.”
- Drawing Lines Between Graffiti And Cultural Treasures (Farther Still)
- A Change Of Tune (Gallup Journey)
- Fruit Trees (Farther Still)
(Today’s featured image is courtesy of yours truly. It seems that in New Mexico, every sunset is an amazing one.)