|Long before I knew anything about new music I fell in love
with sound. "Suppose I listened to the sounds around me as if they were music,"
I wondered 16 years ago, unaware that John Cage had ever thought anything similar. But
Cage and I had opposite ideas. He wanted his music to be like the sounds around him,
proceeding from one moment to the next without order or intention. I thought the sounds
around me might be as coherent as the music I'd always known. One day I started to listen,
and decided I was right. People talking in restaurants echoed the rhythm and intensity of
conversations on the other side of the room, and filled in the pauses of the conversation
at the next table. Sounds that reached my window from the street below seemed linked in a
loose but unshakable web, no part of which could change without tugging, however slightly,
on the rest. Sounds are music, I thought, but with a subtler rhythm, more
changeable flow, and more profound counterpoint, in which -- like lovers whose thoughts
are always of each other, even though they're far away -- two or more independent parts
move forward together without ever marching in step.
Lately I've thought I wanted to hear these sounds again, and so on a sunny Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square and started to listen. At first I thought I was drowning in soup; there were more strands of sound in the music of the park than I'd hear in a dozen orchestras. Soon, though, I noticed radios, rhythmic, insistent, and distinct. After a while other sounds detached themselves from the stew: whistles, honks, the screech of brakes, a babys cry. The radios moved from place to place; a crowd watching a comedian in the fountain cheered. Soon the sounds began to connect. A knock or a slap -- someone spinning on a skateboard -- provoked a whistle 50 feet away. Another knock introduced applause from the crowd around the fountain, which in turn was echoed in a lengthened vowel from someone speaking right behind me. Three emphatic words jumping separately from three nearby conversations rose in volume and in pitch, like hammer-blows reaching a climax, one-two-perfect three, in rhythm. A Swedish girl behind me fit her next remark between two cries from a distant child. Someone matched a peak of music on the radio with a squeal. "Over there someplace," said a girl in a bubblegum accent; she paused for two slaps from a skateboard and then happily resumed. The park had a rhythm, and everyone with anything to say found themselves joining in. Only the radios got in the way, imposing a rigid beat on the much freer flow of the collective improvisation. I thought of Cage, who once said that "everything becomes confused" in rock. "It's wonderful! that regularity disappears if the amplification is sufficient. You no longer have a rhythmic object, shaken like a rattle. You are inside the object, and you realize that this object is a river. " And when the amplification's not sufficient you do have a rhythmic object shaken like a rattle, which obscures those wonderful sounds around us.
Cage was on my mind because I'd been thinking of a piece of his called Roaratorio,
subtitled An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. As part of his ongoing tribute to
James Joyce he'd planned to record sounds at a random sampling of places mentioned in the
book, and to combine these recordings with his own reading of passages from the book that
refer to sounds, and with a "circus" of traditional Irish music. That's not a
bad recipe for stew, I guess, even if it's weakened by a dispensable downtown piety, in
this case the belief that sounds of birds and brooks necessarily take on special meaning
when you know they were recorded in places mentioned in Finnegans Wake. But I
digress. I thought of Roaratorio because on the final tape the sounds, readings,
and music are combined more or less by chance. Cage, as I've said, wants to imitate the
sounds he hears around him; he relies on chance to free his work from any conscious
control. But to me the noise around us sounds coherent. Can a collage put together partly
by chance produce the same effect?
(one of my columns from the Village Voice, sometime in the early '80s)