66 | LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY
case of pitches, on stepping-stones twelve in
number. This cautious stepping is not characteristic of the possibilities of magnetic tape, which
is revealing to us that musical action or existence
can occur at any point or along any line or curve
or what have you in total sound-space; that we
are, in fact, technically equipped to transform
our contemporary awareness of nature’s manner
of operation into art.
Again there is a parting of the ways. One
has a choice. If he does not wish to give up his
attempts to control sound, he may complicate
his musical technique toward an approximation of the new possibilities and awareness. (I
use the word approximation because a measuring mind can never finally measure nature.) Or,
as before, one may give up the desire to control
sound, clear his mind of music, and set about
discovering means to let sounds be themselves
rather than vehicles for man-made theories or
expressions of human sentiments.
This project will seem fearsome to many,
but on examination it gives no cause for alarm.
Hearing sounds that are just sounds immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and
the emotions of human beings are continually
aroused by encounters with nature. Does not a
mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of
wonder? Otters along a stream a sense of mirth?
Night in the woods a sense of fear? Do not rain
falling and mists rising up suggest the love
binding heaven and earth? Is not decaying flesh
loathsome? Does not the death of someone we
love bring sorrow? And is there a greater hero
than the least plant that grows? What is more
angry than the flash of lightning and the sound
of thunder? These responses to nature are mine
and will not necessarily correspond with another’s. Emotion takes place in the person who has
it. And sounds, when allowed to be themselves,
do not require that those who hear them do so
unfeelingly. The opposite is what is meant by
New music: new listening. Not an attempt
to understand something that is being said, for
if something were being said, the sounds would
be given the shapes of words. Just an attention
to the activity of sounds.
John Cage, from “Experimental Music.” A dropout
from Pomona College, Cage turned from writing
literature to music after moving to Paris in 1930. He
returned to Los Angeles the next year and soon came
under the mentorship of Henry Cowell. “At the time,”
he later said, “what one did was to choose between
Stravinsky and Schoenberg.” Through his avantgarde
compositions, which often showcased interests in noise,
chance, new technology, and Zen Buddhism, Cage
became one of the most influential composers of the
twentieth century. He died in 1992 in New York City.
Four Women Making Music, by Luca Giordano, 1658–60.