Wednesday 9 February 2011

‘Cage Post Cage’ Lecture at ‘Off the Page’ Festival

In 1978, John Cage began an interview on the subject of music and its relationship to revolutionary action by expressing his shock and confusion at the mass suicide committed in Guyana by over 900 members of the People’s Temple, followers of the Reverend Jimmy Jones. Drained of his usual cheerful confidence in the future of humanity by this event, Cage stated that people seemed to be living their lives increasingly as if they existed within a work of fiction. This comment reflects more than simple disbelief or even perhaps the notion that such an event could be only the product of some monstrous triumph of the imagination. For Cage, the relationship between a self-destructive act committed on such a scale and the laws and forms through which language operates was an extremely close one. That so many people could, in a single night and at the command of one man, voluntarily swallow cyanide revealed not only that language does not communicate but that such communication is a myth and that ultimately language – in its present state – has the power to discipline and regiment human action and consciousness. Cage had already encapsulated this view some four years previously in his essay, ‘The Future of Music’: ‘Implicit in the use of words (when messages are put across) are training, government, enforcement and finally the military. Thoreau said that hearing a sentence he heard marching feet. Syntax, N. O. Brown told me, is the arrangement of the army.’ In social terms, this manifests itself most evidently in paternal authoritarianism; in order for us to remind ourselves just how the destructive the consequences of paternalism can be, it is perhaps enough to remark in this context that followers of Reverend Jimmy Jones constantly referred to him as ‘Dad’.
I am appearing this Saturday, February 11, at ‘Off The Page’, the first literary festival in the UK dedicated exclusively to music criticism. Taking place at the Playhouse Theatre, Whitstable, and hosted by Sound and Music  in association with The Wire, this weekend-long event will feature a host of internationally-renowned critics, authors, musicians and artists discussing the current state of underground and experimental music in a programme of talks, presentations, panel discussions and workshops. My talk, which is scheduled for the ungodly hour of 10.00 in the morning, is titled ‘The Realization That We Possess Nothing’; and in it I will be looking at the shifting and still largely unexplored relationship between language, silence and music in the life and work of John Cage. Some the ideas and themes I will be addressing are also part of The Bright Labyrinth, the book I am currently working on. I can’t absolutely guarantee that it will be worth getting out of your bed at that time in the morning to hear it, but I shall at least try and keep things as quiet as possible. For a complete festival timetable and more details on other participants, ticket prices, travel and accommodation, check the Sound and Music site by clicking here; for a broader elucidation of the thinking behind ‘Off The Page’ from The Wire, please click here. Hope to see you there. Bring your own Flavor Aid.

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