Nothing Happening Here

John Cage, who more or less invented aleatoric music, said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is music.”

My response has always been, “You have nothing to say, so I am not going to waste any time listening to you.”

Cage’s ideas have proven fairly influential among a certain class of experimentally-minded composers, but they have hardly penetrated the mainstream of music-making, and for reasons that are not hard to discern. Most listeners hope or expect that music will say something to them.

Recently I listened to a couple of newly uploaded pieces by composers who use Csound. Both of these pieces were very nicely produced. The sounds were pleasant and engaging. But the sounds themselves formed the entire content of the pieces. Nothing was being said. There was no repetition or development of melodic or rhythmic material. Events followed one another, so in some sense there were phrases, but each phrase was a hermetically sealed entity. No perceptible musical thesis was being proposed, or subjected to scrutiny.

Composing music in a way that makes use of melodies, harmonies, meter, and counterpoint is hard work! Some people evidently have a keen desire to create music, yet lack the theoretical training that would allow them to use such materials in any but the most naive and derivative ways. In the “anything goes” school of experimental composition they find a safe haven. Others may be well trained, yet feel the need to reject what they have learned in favor of exploring fresh procedures.

“Anything Goes” was a hit show and a hit tune for Cole Porter in 1934. The tune was written using a musical idiom that was widely understood at the time — hence its popularity. But actual popularity is irrelevant, though this is a point of possible misunderstanding. Some people, to be sure, create works of art (in any medium — music, painting, fiction, whatever) in order to achieve popularity, but that’s a treacherous path. One is all too likely to end up playing shows in Vegas. The point is, rather, that a work of art ought to say something, and ought to say it in a language that can be understood.

During the 20th century, classical music in particular fell under the sway of the idea of progress, the idea that each generation of composers had to go further — extend musical language in new and stimulating ways. This is not a wrong notion with respect to music history: It’s clear that Beethoven greatly extended the language of Haydn, that Brahms extended the language of Beethoven, and so forth. But I would suggest that this process is relevant to the composer only when it happens naturally, not when one is seeking per se to extend the language but when one is searching for an effective way to say what needs to be said.

Discarding the notion that one ought to take responsibility for saying something is not progress. To put it another way, gibberish is not an extension of language, and we needn’t pretend that it is.

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