The following is a talk I gave on July 17, 2017 on the first day of the Sō Percussion Summer Institute.
The theme of this year’s SoSI is “New Beginnings.” Originally I called it “percussion beginnings,” but we had an internal communication error and “new beginnings” got printed. And actually, I like it better. The purpose of diving into this music from the 1930’s and 1940’s is not to make a historical obsession out of it, but to – as Basho would say – “seek what the master sought.” The beginnings of American percussion ensemble music represent a batch of fresh ideas – an attempt to revitalize our perspective on what It can mean to make music. In my opinion this is something we should always be trying to do. It’s not enough to say “ok, I guess John Cage or Lou Harrison found some new answers, so now those can be our answers.” Our answers must be different – of course incorporating ideas from the past – but in our approach we can be just as bold and enthusiastic as they were.
While preparing this talk, I thought a lot about why we want to deal with this subject at all. Is it because we’re mostly percussionists, and we’re here in a room together, so we might as well? Is it to honor the fact that these innovators established a new niche in our musical culture? Is it because we now have such things as a professional percussion career, and learning about these artists represents an important rung on the ladder of accomplishment?
I think each of those reasons is sound, but they don’t satisfy my curiosity. Composers like John Cage or Edgard Varese were not just accomplished, they were utterly original. It is almost impossible now to appreciate how far out of the mainstream their ideas were at the time. They looked at the furiously industrializing world around them, and they saw chance, mechanization, electronic media, and cultural mixture.
Those chaotic elements grew out of America’s big, glorious, mixed-up mess of a culture. Many Europeans who came here to observe it in the past found it fascinating but also unnerving. They frequently judged our culture to be immature, because it was never exactly clear who we were, aside from their certainty that we liked to make money. Varese thought it was invigorating. When he walked outside his apartment on Sullivan street, New York City was alive with construction and bustle. Many of those Europeans, including Dvorak and a number of French composers, thought we should pay more attention to our indigenous and slave diaspora music.
We in Sō Percussion identify strongly with this mess, and especially with the way it piled up in New York. Our methods of rehearsing and running our organization are tidy, but our sense of what it means to make music and be culturally American are terribly and wonderfully messy.
Cage’s relationship with Arnold Schoenberg perfectly encapsulated this paradox. Schoenberg had a set of values that informed his sense of what it meant to be a composer, reaching deeply into German music history back towards Bach. He told Cage that, for however innovate Schoenberg’s own methods and techniques were, harmony was still the inalienable building block of music. He admonished Cage that without a better intuition and grasp of it, he (Cage) wouldn’t ever amount to much as a composer. Cage seems to have shrugged at this and forged ahead, believing that rhythmic structures and time could be just as valuable.
A few years later, in his essay The Future of Music: Credo, Cage says:
“The Present Methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”
That “field of sound” is us, the percussionists. We are also Varese’s “sound masses and shifting planes,” in an era before electronic equipment was sophisticated enough for him to realize them. We are Steve Reich’s “gradual processes,” while still also being Beethoven’s thunder and Mahler’s blows of fate.
I would often begin a talk about Cage with First Construction in Metal, from 1939. In this piece, Cage uses repeating numerical patterns on the macro and micro-levels to build a piece without harmony. But at this festival, we’ll be reaching back all the way to Quartet from 1935. This piece was written in California, during his studies with Schoenberg. It, and pieces like it, prompted Schoenberg to say that Cage was more of an inventor than a composer. Quartet is built purely of rhythmic structure, and with absolutely no indications of instrumentation. The performers are completely free to choose how many, how few, or even what kind of sounds to use. This ultimately means that it’s not even explicitly a percussion piece.
Instead of shoring up his weaknesses to gain greater acceptance, Cage struck out to find people who liked his strengths. He studied with Henry Cowell, and aborbed ideas from Marcel Duchamp. He found Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg. And then he taught some people who took his ideas in new and unexpected directions: LaMont Young, James Tenney, the students of Black Mountain College. In the 1960’s and 70’s, he spent time at colleges like the University of Illinois, where a generation of percussion students liked his music and started forming groups to play it. Now, the community of people who use his work as a reference point is enormous, and I’m not quite sure we’d be sitting together in this room if he hadn’t had the confidence to follow his ideas.
Cage seemed to be especially adept at building community. His combination of genial good humor and shocking aesthetic bravery was a winning one for many people who came in contact with him. More and more, when I dig into the work of a brilliant composer, I find that his or her work usually bubbles out of a community, and they they have often found a particularly compelling way to express ideas that were being traded around within their group already.
During the crucial period between 1935 and 1943, Cage’s percussion ideas and genius for community-building lead to a brief explosion of interest in percussion. He wrote letters to composers all over the world asking for percussion music. One of the composers from this year’s SoSI, Carlos Chavez, sent Cage his Toccata. Cage was dismayed to realize that Chavez’s piece contain rolls and other techniques that only trained percussionists could execute, which none of his players were! Cage related to B Michael Williams in his Percussive Notes interview from 1987 that he (Cage) had to cajole and prod another of our composers, William Russell, to compose more percussion music for his players. Cage set up tours in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually gave a famous – perhaps notorious – concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that gained him and the work of his cohorts wider fame.
Until reading Williams’ article, I didn’t even know that Chavez had intersected with Cage. Most of the other composers we feature this year were part of this same community. They traded ideas, played new works with and for each other, and probably hung out a lot.
Varese stands somewhat apart, and his landmark Ionisation comes earlier, having been started in 1929 and premiered in 1933. In this year’s reading packet, Varese describes vividly how he imagined sounds as objects in space, rather than as vehicles for emotion or tradition. Unlike Cage, it’s very difficult to pinpoint how Varese’s work came out of a community. He certainly was influenced by other artists and composers – he mentions Luigi Russolo and the futurists in particular – but we cannot see his work bubbling out of a group effort the way that Cage’s always did.
Do we innovate as remarkable individuals, or primarily as a community? It’s probably always a combination, but the weight we give to one or the other can serve certain agendas. We are inescapably social creatures, so we must see ourselves as always navigating some sort of balance between the two. Too little emphasis on individualism, and we never have a Bach, a Picasso or a Tolstoy. Too much, and we blind ourselves to our very evolutionary nature.
Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book. It’s called Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari cites some of the latest archeological and anthropological research to update and upend our ideas of humanity’s pre-history. He returns over and over again to the increasingly prevalent opinion among experts that homo sapiens intelligence and cognitive capabilities has existed in its current form for about 70,000 years. This means that the painters of the Lescaux caves in France 20,000 years ago, or the first humans to sail across an ocean and settle in Australia 45,000 years ago, to say nothing of the ancient Greeks or Chinese, were biologically identical to us. We are no smarter or more creative than they were.
Further, he reminds us that our picture of history is more influenced by what was left behind than what actually happened. The so-called “stone age” was named as such because the tools and structures made of stone lasted a lot better than the more prevalent wooden tools that have long since disintegrated. We can see this in our own field: the artifacts from jazz are recordings, so we focus on performance, the artifacts of classical music are published sheet music, so we focus on compositions, even though both traditions contained both elements.
This means that for any of our ancestors before the advent of written language, we are left guessing about their motivations by interpreting their artifacts. The tendency among scientists is to believe that most of their actions were a response to necessity and environment, in much the same way that evolution proceeds.
The prevailing theories of the beginnings of agriculture, then, describe it as a series of accidents. As Harari explains:
“About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age gave way to a period of global warming. As temperatures rose, so did rainfall. The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other cereals, which multiplied and spread. People began eating more wheat, and in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth. Since it was impossible to eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding, and cooking them, people who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites for processing. Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost. Over time, more and more wheat grew along favorite human trails and near campsites.”
According to the normal narrative, the march of civilization proceeds from these accidents. Permanent settlements gradually spring up around these wheat fields. A larger population can be sustained, which then requires even more agriculture. Settlements become villages, which become cities. At some point, the functions of art, religion, and culture emerge out of a critical mass of these settlements, and somebody builds a temple in the middle of the town to worship their deities.
This explanation is actually not that far from what we’re taught about the role of culture in today’s society. Once we’ve done the “real” work of basic economic functioning, there might be time and resources left over for a few lucky people to study, create, wonder, and think. This view of art pervades our society, and most of us are inclined to believe that it couldn’t be any other way. We justify Arts in the schools by pointing to better SAT scores; creativity is trumpeted as an important personal attribute for economic growth in the information age – after all, Steve Jobs took calligraphy classes and now his work is worth billions! Our urge to create is seen not as an original human need, but as a link to proper productivity.
But Harari describes a wrench in these gears of economic and social progress. A site called “Göbekli Tepe” in southeast Turkey was discovered and excavated about 20 years ago. Massive seven-ton stone pillars decorated with ornate imagery were found to have been created around 9,500 BCE. They were remarkably similar to the famous pillars of Stonehenge in the UK, but 7,000 years older. Nearby, even larger pillars had been partially carved out of a quarry but never completed. Göbekli Tepe held one secret that baffled the scientists who unearthed it. Unlike Stonehenge and every other similar site ever found, Göbekli Tepe seemed to have been built by hunter-gatherers who ordinarily never organized themselves into bands larger than 100 or 150 people. Some sort of temple had taken shape here, but not by utilizing any of an agricultural society’s mechanisms for social hierarchy, record-keeping, and organization.
The pillars were utterly useless for any economic function. They didn’t grow more food, or protect from weather or predators, and in fact they drained enormous time, energy, and resources from the mysterious people who built them. Scientists were further perplexed to realize that one of the most important genetic variants of wheat from the early agricultural revolution came from about 20 miles outside of Göbekli Tepe. This discovery implied an almost unacceptable conclusion: that, in this area, wheat could have been deliberately cultivated as a response to the needs of feeding the many people who worked together on these giant sculptures.
I’m not sure whether you can turn in a successful archeology dissertation which concludes “they built this because they wanted to and then figured out the rest of the details.” And I’m the least qualified person to make my own theories about a field I know so little about. But if those people from 12,000 years ago had the same brains that we do, I know that this is at least possible. Perhaps they believed that these gods or spirits would benefit their material lives, as many ancient and frankly modern religions do. In that case, maybe they were acting out of economic interest, but not in any way that we can see from observing evolution in other animals. They were imagining something that wasn’t there in any tangible or observable way, and they created a work of art in response.
In a sense, we in our community feed and nourish each other like those Göbekli Tepe temple builders might have done. We are not just a haphazard group of disinterested economic units who cooperate for the survival of our DNA, at least not always. I don’t believe that Art provides salvation, and I don’t like it when people substitute art as a secular religion, ascribing mystical qualities to its creators. But I do believe that it provides purpose, and that it can be imagined and created for no other reason than “because we wanted to.” When enough people get together to do it, those people can do astonishing things with their shared values and goals.
During this SoSI, we will take a day out of our rehearsing and learning to feed 25,000 hungry families in Mercer County. This food-packing event at this SoSI is only happening because we decided to gather and make beautiful, expensive, time-consuming, useless music.
When John Cage wrote his new percussion pieces, the work did not arise out of necessity or expedience, and certainly not out of monetary gain. Nobody commissioned it. He made this work because it inspired him, because it suited the way his brain worked, and because he found other people who also thought it was worth making.
This is all you need in order to embark for yourself. That doesn’t mean that circumstances and finances will always cooperate. But it does mean that you do not need to wait for permission to make the work that burns in your imagination. When planning your next steps, don’t only ask “how” or “what.” Ask yourself “why,” and “who else?” Nobody, least of all four professional musicians, is going to minimize the necessity of figuring out how to put food on your table. These are problems that must be solved in all of our lives. But try not to think of Art as only a means to an end. Don’t apologize for your esoteric interests when the proverbial uncle at Thanksgiving asks “what the heck are you going to do with that?”
You are going to build big-ass pillars that don’t do anything. They will be grand, ornate, and impossible. Along the way, you and the people who join you will continue to feel your way through life, a process that will never, ever end.
Or to put it another way, sometimes you need to build the temple first.