The Revenge of the Dead Indians: In Memoriam, John Cage (1993)
The Revenge of the Dead Indians
Directed by Henning Lohner
Reflections on Beethoven, John Cage, Music, and Human Connection
On the first page of his manuscript to Missa Solemnis, Beethoven wrote: “Music is communication, from the heart to the heart.” By extension we might say in general that art is communication from the heart to the heart. It is a very deep seated assumption of western cultures for millennia.
The Revenge of the Dead Indians (1993) is an excellent documentary introduction to the music and ideas of John Cage. At the very end of the film John Cage was asked three simple questions interspersed among the credits as they rolled by. The first was, “What is music?” To which he responded, “Music is paying attention to sound.” The second, “What is art?” His reply, “Art is being attentive to everything that is there.” And finally, “What is love?” To this he answered, “We don’t know.” These three answers to these simple questions are very telling and key to understanding John Cage’s music and what sets it apart from more traditional western music, represented par excellence, by Beethoven. The film delivers a sympathetic and enjoyable presentation of his music and his ideas. He was a charming, interesting, thoughtful man. The crux of it, interestingly, came at the very end during the credits when these three basic questions about the philosophical foundations of his art were put to him.
The contrast between Beethoven’s concept of music as communication and Cage’s concept of music as attention to sound represents two different continents upon which music and art find themselves. Beethoven’s view that music is communication, music is a language, means that music is a way to connect people to one another at the deep level of the heart, the emotional and personal center of each person. There is one who creates the music in order to convey something of his inner self to an assumed audience who is receptive and capable of receiving its message. By immersing oneself in a musical experience one merges one’s consciousness through sound and emotive resonance with that of others sharing the same experience. Music is a social experience which creates positive bonds between people, inner resonances of emotion and psychic orientation.
Cage’s concept is entirely asocial, or I would say, narcissistic, in that music is the private experience, or we might say, the condition, of being attentive to all of the sound in one’s environment. It is an attitude of openness and acceptance to all the experiences of sound that are available in the world rather than a communicative relationship to other people. We might say that music is an attitude of the self as subject, rather than a bridge between the self and other selves. Therefore music has nothing to do with the meaning of the sound or whether the sound originates in some human intention.
Not all sound communicates. There are huge telescopes scanning the heavens right now listening for communications from other civilizations in far off depths of space. These telescopes are picking up all manner of radio signals. But they are not communication, at least not yet. John Cage may call this music because it is attentive listening, but there is no meaningful connection being made to the origins of the sounds and therefore it is not music as far as Beethoven is concerned. It is just sound.
Sound may have a meaning or it may not, but that is not important for John Cage. Music is not about meaning or interpretation or connection. Music is a way of being, that is, a way of experiencing the world of sound. To try to “understand” it is already mistaken. “Understanding” implies that there is some intention behind the sound. In traditional classical music one attempts to grasp the composer’s intentions as conveyed by the printed score and then render those intentions to an audience in a musical performance. This is how classical musicians are brought up and how they approach their art all their lives. John Cage is a radical departure from this. The composer’s intentions become irrelevant. The sound created can be completely random.
He talks a lot in the film about chance and how important it is to be open to chance and to allow chance sounds to become music. How do chance sounds become music? Through our being attentive to them and accepting them, as opposed to filtering them out in order to hear something else. It implies a calm acceptance of whatever is. The sound of rain tapping on a window may create a feeling of warmth, soothing, calmness, anxiety, distress, or somnolence. But it is not communication because there is no communicator originating the sound we perceive. If a sound should give rise to an emotional response in us, it will be due to unconscious associations we make based on our past experience. If someone recorded such a sound and played it for someone else hoping to signify something or elicit a response in them, then it would be music in Beethoven’s sense: a chance sound could become music through selection and presentation by a human subject.
For John Cage the sound of the rain is a musical experience just by virtue of our listening to it, allowing it to occupy our attention. Such openness and calm acceptance can be very liberating. It disposes of the need to filter sounds in accordance with our likes and dislikes. Being disposed to accept whatever may come does indeed reduce stress. But it substitutes juxtaposition for meaningful connection. It is very much a Zen Buddhist idea. Yoko Ono immediately grasped the relationship between John Cage’s approach to music and Zen Buddhism as she stated during her interview in the film.
Beethoven, on the other hand, is nobody’s Buddhist. Beethoven is about connection, striving, and struggle. In the music of Beethoven we see life in all of its many incarnations of passion and struggle: the turmoil, the suffering, the longing, the triumphs, the moments of profound peace. Music has intentionality. Music can and must be understood, or it can be misunderstood. In any case it must always be “interpreted.” There can be disagreements over meanings and interpretations.
In John Cage’s music there can be no such thing. There is no “interpretaton.” There is only one’s openness to sound and to chance. It can never be the same twice. Whatever is, is ‘right,’ but the concept of right and wrong do not really apply here. It is the state of being open that is paramount. The act of selecting is already mistaken.
On a deeper level it is a repudiation of human intention and even of the human self. By selecting some sounds over others and imbuing them with meaning we assert ourselves and our personal needs and desires. This is contrary to the Buddhist philosophy of simply being, without intention, without desire, without asserting oneself in the world, or toward other people. This is really what John Cage’s music reflects. It invites you to just be, to simply receive, to expand your awareness and acceptance of all ambient sound. With John Cage each listener becomes a receptacle rather than an active interpreter. The consequence of this is that one loses one’s grasp of music as a communicative language.
It is not an accident that John Cage answered “We don’t know” to the question “What is love?” He doesn’t have a clue what love is, because love is about connecting with other people through need and desire. But Zen Buddhism repudiates need and desire. It embraces only being. Love is a different world, a world of intensity, of need and hunger and longing and dreaming and desiring. For Buddhism love is a world of futility and ultimate disappointment. Most music in the western tradition is about expressing the nuances and varieties of this world of experience as an attempt to connect and resonate with others. This was Beethoven’s understanding, which he took for granted. Beethoven lived in a world of human connection intensely felt. John Cage lived in a world of random sounds acutely observed but devoid of “meaning,” and indifferent to human connection.
Beethoven’s definition is the greater, I think, because it encompasses the human experience of connectedness, which has been crucial to our survival since humanity emerged as a species hundreds of thousands of years ago. Cage’s music is severely limited by its indifference to the needs of human beings who create sound for their own purposes. This is why Cage’s music will never be as popular or as great as Beethoven’s, because ultimately human beings need and seek connection. It is our destiny from birth and throughout our lives.
Buddhism cannot be refuted in the sense that there is nothing to tell us a priori whether life is a good thing or it isn’t. There was a time when we did not exist, but we came into existence, more or less by chance. But how should we regard this condition? Is it better to exist or not to exist? This question cannot be answered except to say that everything that is alive strives to grow, increase itself, continue its life, and reproduce. This seems to be hard wired into all living things. We are thus accustomed to making the assumption that life is “good,” because we all struggle to maintain ourselves and continue living. Buddhism calls this assumption into question. It does not assert that life is a bad thing, that we should not exist, but it tells us that life is problematic and that the fundamental problems of life cannot be solved — in principle. Therefore all the struggle and tumult of striving to improve our lives and create more of ourselves is fundamentally futile and will actually increase the suffering that is inherent in all of life. John Cage made a series of oral recordings called, “Diary: How to improve the world ( you will only make matters worse),” which is very consistent with this Buddhist idea of futility and passivity.
Buddhism is based on several observations that I believe are distortions and profoundly mistaken: that all life is suffering, that suffering stems from desire, and that all of our striving to reduce or eliminate suffering only increases it. These are some of the basic falsehoods that are the foundation of the Buddhist outlook. While it is true that all things are transitory, this is not a reason to disengage oneself from life or relinquish all desire for things that must ultimately pass. Transitoriness does not imply futility. What Buddhism fails to recognize is that there is profound satisfaction in the transitory pleasures of life that give us a deep sense of fulfillment within ourselves as well as a sense of meaningful connection to our fellow human beings. This enhances our sense of wellness in life and enables us to impart that sense of well being to others to whom we are connected. We are naturally predisposed to experience life in this way. And while it is true that all such satisfactions are transitory, it is also true that a life filled with those small satisfactions is better than one lived in deficiency and deprivation. One must learn the indifference of Buddhism through long years of self discipline. It does not come naturally. Buddhism is contrary to everything that is natural in life, and it is very hard to learn this mode of experiencing oneself.
Throughout the film we can see the very powerful impact of Buddhism on John Cage and his music. His use of chance elements in his musical compositions “to free his music from his likes and dislikes,” is totally contrary to Beethoven’s approach to music, which is echoes Nietsche’s maxim in Twilight of the Idols : “the formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.” Yoko Ono saw John Cage as a bridge between western and oriental cultures. But how can there be a bridge between engagement in life and the repudiation of life as a fundamental value, which is what Buddhism does? It is existence without “living.” And the art that it gives rise to is limited and minimalistic and repudiates of all the reasons people create music with their voices, with instruments, and through the incorporation of random sounds. Most people who embrace Cage’s music as a curiosity do not grasp its radical and profound rejection of the very foundations of human existence. This is why it will never have more than a limited following and why Beethoven will continue to inspire and be embraced by people as long as they are able to play and hear him.