Not Caged In: Sound Acts

At the beginning of the 19th century, when such issues were starting to matter less and less, the French art and architectural historian and critic Quatremère de Quincy summarized the hierarchical ordering of the fine arts that had been foundational in Western art theory since the Renaissance.  Poetry had always been at the top, then, according to Quatremère, came music, trailed by painting, sculpture and finally dance. Quatremère’s original move was to find some other criteria that might justify such an ordering, or any ordering at all, based not on the talent of the artist or on the preferences of the audience, but on the particular art form’s ability to imitate Nature while maintaining a conceptual distance between the model that is imitated and the image that results.  In order to achieve this distance, the mind must be engaged in the aesthetic experience at least as much as the senses, and there must be a clear material difference between the thing and its representation.

According to Quatremère in his 1823 treatise on Imitation in the Fine-Arts, music achieves this distancing almost as well as poetry: “Like poetry, [music] transports us into an ideal world, where the imagination, converting mere concatenations of song, concerts of instruments, and sonorous effects, into forms, bodies, and pictures, gives to its own creations the force of existence.”  Music, then, enters human consciousness through the senses, but is immediately converted into an intellectual exercise whereby the realities of nature are signaled by the abstractions of music’s established forms.

In the above interview, John Cage explicitly rejects just these kinds of arguments, made at the beginning of the 19th century in an attempt to stave off the infiltration of realism into the arts.  Cage asserts that when one listens to Mozart and Beethoven, the two composers are repetitive, presumably because they must, in order to compose, work within the confines of particular musical forms (yet another point of similarity between music and poetry).  Real noise, however, has no intrinsic meaning, nothing for the mind to latch onto in a search for the “force of existence.”  Instead, Cage insistently erases the space between an object and its image by refusing the psychological, onomatopoeic or conversational aspects of music.  Cage privileges the senses over the mind, the physical experience over the mental.

Cage complains of feeling as though he’s being talked to when he listens to “what we call music.”  Although he doesn’t address this specifically, I tend to think that the presence of singing and of lyrics is not necessarily the problem, music itself being so often structured like a conversation (anyone who has taken beginning piano might remember practicing ‘conversations’ with the teacher, where one piano asks a question, perhaps from the base keys, and the other answers from the treble).   For Cage, sound takes precedence over music: a kind of sound unstructured by conscious human manipulation.  Sound acts.  And its status as sound is uncomfortably close, for many listeners, to what Quatremère might term Nature, or what we might call ‘real life’.

If we follow Cage’s lead, we might think of silence, in this instance, as a relative lack of human intervention.  Because what begins as silence, in such canonical pieces as 4’33, ends as an experience of sound and of environment as opposed to one of music.  When sound is allowed to control itself, with the only human intervention being one of framing, Quatremère’s ideal distance between art and life is forestalled and experience takes precedence over understanding.


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