Some thoughts on Cage and Feldman and silencing self

Both Morton Feldman and John Cage at various times remembered fondly the long talks they had together during the 1950s, soon after they met. What did they talk about? One topic may have been a spiritual one: seeking something beyond their own sense of self in their work, something larger. With Cage, the spiritual story is mainly about this silencing of self: finding a way to make music that has a unique sound, but which is not a vehicle for a certain kind of personal expressiveness. It’s actually hard to explain that, since it is quite obvious that Cage’s pieces have their own characters and that this is exactly as Cage intended. So what did he silence?

I think that Feldman has something to say on this point, that he was actually considering the same issues in his own work. In emphasizing the importance of sound in itself, Feldman recognized the need to reduce his own voice. He learned this from his artist friends. “The painter achieves mastery by allowing what he is doing to be itself,” Feldman wrote in “The anxiety of art”.  “In a way, he must step aside in order to be in control.”

In some of these early essays, Feldman touches on this idea of “differentiation”, by which I gather he means the kinds of rhetorical musical ideas that are sometimes described as “creating interest” in a work. It also has to do with the way that the composer’s voice is expressed through time. In “Vertical thoughts” he makes a strange but compelling analogy to a sundial.  While the sun is shining, we are transfixed by the movement of the shadow hand fulfilling its function. But on a cloudy day, we see the sundial itself:  “all shadows have left, leaving us a weathered object.” This same connection of rhetoric through time to an illusory sense of self is captured more bluntly in “The anxiety of art”. There, Feldman bemoans the necessary public, theatrical aspect of music. “The lines of a masterpiece may be great, perfect, there may be no argument with them; but I may not like the way the composer is saying his own lines.”

Here is the connection with Cage, although Cage attacks it on the harmonic front. In “A composer’s confessions”, Cage relates how he viewed harmony “as a device to make music impressive, loud, and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.” Of course it was not harmony in and of itself that Cage objected to: one need only listen to his String quartet in four parts to realize that. It was not the sound of harmonies that Cage objected to, it was the strong sense of motion created through harmonic progression, the rhetoric of harmonies that he found antithetical to his artistic aims. To paraphrase Feldman, he may have no argument with a composer’s harmonies, but he may not like the way that the composer is speaking with them.

Both Cage and Feldman made the connection of this strong time-based illusion with the idea of composer’s voice speaking in music. They both saw the need to silence this self in order to make their music, and this “stepping aside” was a spiritual act. In Feldman’s case it resulted in his invention of the graph notation. Cage, inspired by Feldman’s stepping aside, embraced chance. The spiritual basis for these compositional innovations was eloquently presented by Cage in his “Lecture on Something” of 1951 and has been an important topic of conversation about his work ever since. In Feldman’s case this dimension has had less attention drawn to it, although we do have the example of Frank O’Hara, who said of Feldman: “Whether notated or graphed, his music sets in motion a spiritual life which is rare in any period and especially so in ours.”

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