Cunningham, Cage, and Copyright

The Christian Science Monitor published an article yesterday about Merce Cunningham’s living legacy plan to avoid the kind of intellectual property feuds that followed the death of Martha Graham. The Carol Strickland  of the CSM reports:

Although the Cunningham living legacy plan aims to preserve its founder’s vision intact as custodian of his intellectual property, that does not mean the choreography will be frozen forever, like an artifact of the past. As a choreographer, Cunningham always welcomed new technology and pioneered countless innovations. Collaboration, chance, and change were the very cornerstones of his approach.

Although the sun has set on his career, a new dawn inspired by his achievement may follow. “Ideas,” as the artist Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham’s collaborator, said, “are not real estate.”

Neither is intellectual property. It could be a site where past art is not just preserved but fertilizes future growth.

“Dancing is a process that never stops,” Cunningham said when announcing his living legacy plan, “and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh.”

There was a mention of Creative Commons in the article’s discussion of copyright issues.  Cunningham was one of the few major choreographers to have licensed his work under a Creative Commons license.  As an advocate of Creative Commons licenses, I applaud Cunningham’s generosity to our collective artistic heritage.  However, I should also note as a comparison that in most folk dancing traditions, sharing and open collaboration are the norms– the idea of ownership is fluid and oftentimes forms and techniques are owned and transmitted collectively.

<tangent>Another scenario to consider: Michael Jackson “owned” the moonwalk in the sense that it is a dance move popularly associated with him.  But what if he literally owned it as intellectual property?  Would the Jackson estate be going after the unauthorized moonwalkers in the Eternal Moonwalk tribute site? </tangent>

The CSM article did not mention Cunningham’s life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, composer John Cage.  The two men’s work similarly combined demanding detailed instructions with indeterminacy and chance operations such as the rolling of dice.  The Cage estate has recently gone after what it considered copyright infringements against Cage’s (in)famous 4’33” (“The Silent Piece”).

The big Zen koan question then becomes, is randomness and silence copyrightable?

The score of 4’33” instructs the performer(s) to not play their instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  But the piece is not really silent.  As I have previously written:

The piece is made up of the hum of the air-conditioning in the hall, the ruffle of programs, the coughing of an audience member; it is an invitation, an invocation, to listen to the ambient sounds all around us.  Cage rejects the distinction between musical and non-musical sounds, and embraces all sounds, regardless of the performers intent, to be potentially musical.  In doing so, Cage completes the break from the history of classical composition and offers up a new model for music in which the primary act of for the composer and for the performer is not to make music, but to listen.

When a critic told Cage that anybody could have written 4’33”, Cage responded with his usual charming wit, “but nobody else did.”  There is no doubt that the provocative and performative nature of 4’33” is an act of creativity, if not genius.  At the same time, one could also argue that because the piece is about listening to the sounds that exist in the performance space even if no instruments are being played, then David Tudor’s “non-playing” of the piano at the premiere, as well as the noises generated by the audience members present, were all integral parts of the piece.  In that sense, the performer and the audience share a kind of authorship of the piece.  They all ‘performed’ 4’33” and made it what it was.  By elevating the role of listeners, Cage was in effect bringing back a participatory, interactive element that had been lost in Western “classical” music.

Cage’s 4’33” also represents a break from the idea of Romantic authorship, where “an author is perceived to be the source of original ideas, transforming the world around him through his own genius” (Authorship Collective).  Romantic authorship would claim that the roll of the composer is to create music out of silence. But Cage’s point is that silence does not exist.

One of the inspirations for 4’33” was Cage’s experience in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a soundproofed room designed in such a way that all the surfaces in the room will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes.

Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he “heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, yet sound was nevertheless discernible. He stated “until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” (Wikipedia)

Composers cannot create music out of silence because silence does not exist. Even if it did, unless we are deaf, it is impossible to perceive it.  Cage’s 4’33”, like Duchamp’s ready-mades, is a kind of “found art,” comprised of environmental sounds that already exist.  We are all constantly surrounded by sounds, they are unavoidable elements of our environment.  The role of composers and musicians is to organize and present those sounds, which is exactly what  remix and mash-up artists do today when they create new music from the found sounds and cultural artifacts found in our environment.  In a way, the “found-sound” composition 4’33” is an Ur-remix, a remix of (non)silence and of reality itself, and John Cage an avant la lettre master of the mash-up.

All of this has inspired my latest composition: 433 trees falling in the forest with nobody to hear the sound. (C) 2009 Lee-Sean Huang, published by Hepnova Multimedia LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

Kitchen Song

Our assignment this week in Visual Music class with Zach Layton at ITP was to “make a projected image display without computer…only light and other means to diffract it.”  I decided to create a piece using common household objects.  I used a flashlight to shine light through glass containers I found in my kitchen (a jam jar, a bottle, and a  blender) and projected onto the marble surface of my kitchen wall.  The result was a subtle texture of light contrasting with the natural patterns in the marble.  I recorded my little domestic light show with my G10.

Then, for the audio portion of Kitchen Song, I recorded sounds from appliances in my kitchen: the sink, the dishwasher, the blender, the stove, the microwave – my response and homage to John Cage’s Water Walk.  Then I layered over growly synth improv I played on the trusty old SidStation.

By the way, the online video format doesn’t really do the piece justice. It’s designed to be projected on a large screen in a very dark room, with the audio turned up really loud.

Without further ado, I present Kitchen Song:

Kitchen Song on Vimeo
Kitchen Song on Blip.tv

A Brief Overview of John Cage’s Musical Philosophy

A short report I wrote up for my Visual Music class:

A Brief Overview of John Cage’s Musical Philosophy

Asian cultures were a major influence on American composer John Cage.  He began studying Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940’s, which led him to his ideas of indeterminacy and chance-controlled music, which he began composing in the early 1950’s.  Cage adopted principles from the I Ching, the Chinese “Book of Changes” that one consults after tossing a set of coins. The I Ching inspired Cages chance compositions, which were governed by random operations just like readings from the I Ching.

Cage writes about his early contact with Eastern philosophies in his 1989 Autobiographical statement:

It was also at the Cornish School that I became aware of Zen Buddhism, which later, as part of oriental philosophy, took the place for me of psychoanalysis. I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences. I also found in the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswammy that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. I became less disturbed and went back to work.

Through his study and experimentation, Cage came to the conclusion that there is no distinction between sound and silence, music and non-music, humanity and nature.  Cage said in his address, “Experimental Music,” given to the convention of the Music Teachers Association of Chicago in 1957:

Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

But this fearlessness only follows if, at the parting of the ways, where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those he does not intend. This turning is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity—for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.

The most famous/infamous manifestation of Cage’s philosophy was the 1952 piece 4’33”, in which David Tudor sat down in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and did not play any notes.  This was Cage’s musical parallel to the White Paintings of Robert Rauchenberg, which whom Cage collaborated.  Cage’s 4’33” is sometimes referred to as “The Silent Piece,” but it is not at all silent.  The piece is made up of the hum of the air-conditioning in the hall, the ruffle of programs, the coughing of an audience member; it is an invitation, an invocation, to listen to the ambient sounds all around us.  Cage rejects the distinction between musical and non-musical sounds, and embraces all sounds, regardless of the performers intent, to be potentially musical.  In doing so, Cage completes the break from the history of classical composition and offers up a new model for music in which the primary act of for the composer and for the performer is not to make music, but to listen.

Cage’s ideas about what music were also influenced by the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp, who presented “found art,” or “ready-mades”– everyday, unadulterated objects in museum settings as finished works of art. Just as Duchamp saw art in the everyday objects, Cage found music around him.  Cage rejected the idea of music having to express something within, musical inspiration could be found in the smallest and most mundane things, such as the imperfections in a piece of paper.  Cage also rejects the notion that music is an extension of a composer’s ego, and that it is the role of the composer to create music out of silence.  For Cage, silence doesn’t exist at all. For Cage, composing means listening, and listening is a kind of meditation, a way of communing with nature.

Cage himself sums it up best.  Again quoting from his Autobiographical Statement, “My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard.  I don’t hear the music I write.  I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.”