From Stein to Cage to Cunningham
In the “Forward” to Silence we read:
As I look back, I realize that a concern with poetry was early with me. At Pomona College, in response to questions about the Lake poets, I wrote in the manner of Gertrude Stein, irrelevantly and repetitiously. I got an A. The second time I did it I failed.[i]
In between “Part II: Indeterminacy” and “Part III: Communication of Composition as Process,” Cage inserts the following story:
An Indian lady invited me to dinner and said Dr. Suzuki would be there. He was. Before dinner I mentioned Gertrude Stein. Suzuki had never heard of her. I described aspects of her work, which he said sounded very interesting. Stimulated, I mentioned James Joyce, whose name was also new to him.[ii]
In “Part I: Changes of Composition as Process,” Cage tells the story of a lecture Suzuki gave at Columbia that was continually interrupted by planes passing overhead as they headed west from La Guardia. Cage comments that Suzuki, “never paused, and never informed his listeners of what they missed.” Suzuki’s lecture was on the meaning of a difficult and apparently unexplainable Chinese character. Cage ends this story by attributing to Suzuki this comment: “Isn’t it strange that having come all the way from Japan I spend my time explaining to you that which is not to be explained?”[iii]
There seems little doubt of Stein’s significant impact on Cage. The story of his encounter with Suzuki at Columbia is a model for interpreting his second Suzuki story; Cage tells us that he “described aspects of her work,” to Suzuki, which the latter found “very interesting.” But we learn nothing about what aspects of Stein’s work Cage described, just as we learned nothing about the Chinese character that was the subject of Suzuki’s lecture.
Not only is the title of Cage’s Darmstadt talk, “Composition as Process,” very probably an allusion to Stein’s talk, “Composition as Explanation,” but the aesthetic of immediacy that Cage refers to, often conveyed by the Zen terms of presentness of experience, the lived, material moment, is akin to Stein’s concept of the “continuous present.” In “Part III: Communication,” which consists largely of a flow of unanswered questions, interrupted with quotations from other of Cage’s writings and some self-reflexive glosses on the talk itself, an important section consists of very short sentence-questions prefaced by some lines from another Cage text that reads:
WE’RE PASSING THROUGH TIME AND SPACE. OUR EARS ARE IN EXCELLENT CONDITION.
A SOUND IS HIGH OR LOW, SOFT OR LOUD, OF A CERTAIN TIMBRE, LASTS A CERTAIN LENGTH OF TIME, AND HAS AN ENVELOPE.
The text continues (I cite discontinuous fragments simply to give the flavor):
Is it high?
Is it low?
Is it in middle?
Is it soft?
Is it loud?
Are there two?
Are there more than two?
Is it a piano?
Why isn’t it?
Was it an airplane?
Is it a noise?
Is it music?
Is sound enough?
What more do I need:
Don’t I get it whether I need it or not?
Is it a sound?
Then, again, is it music?
Is music – the word, I mean – is that a sound?
If it is, is music music?
Is the word “music” music?
Does it communicate anything?
This section ends with another, much quoted, self-referential text:
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SILENCE. GET THEE TO AN ANECHOIC CHAMBER AND HEAR THERE THY NERVOUS SYSTEM IN OPERATION AND HEAR THERE THY BLOOD IN CIRCULATION.
I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY AND I AM SAYING IT.
(Silence, pp. 49-51)
We must read Stein in Cage here. As he put it so prominently in the “Foreword:” “As I look back, I realize that a concern with poetry was early with me.” The reference is not to Joyce, but to Stein. But as he also says there, his first imitation of Stein was rewarded with an A, the second with a failure. Cage himself appears to approve of this. He was awarded an A for his recognition of her significance, but an F for not pursuing his own original investigations that stem from the recognition.[iv] Thus we should interpret the “poetry” above, not only as a manifesto about the very ontology of music, in which Suzuki’s “airplane” again features prominently as relentlessly artifactual in its contextualism (bring forth “the sounds themselves, independent even of their musical relationality”), but also as positivist insistence on observable physicality of present time.[v] “We are passing through time and space. And our ears are in excellent condition.” And if you don’t believe that silence is non-existent, the scientific limit experience of the anechoic chamber provides proof. We may say that this positivist elementalism is expressed forcibly by the phrase:
A SOUND IS HIGH OR LOW, SOFT OR LOUD, OF A CERTAIN TIMBRE, LASTS A CERTAIN LENGTH OF TIME, AND HAS AN ENVELOPE.
But we can also understand that as a Steinian “sentence”, and not as poetry, but as itself instructions for making music. In other words, this “sentence” is itself a “composition” in musical terms, that marks out a musical work in the “time and space” between sound (Is sound enough?), music (Then, again, is it music?), language (Is music – the word, I mean – is that a sound?) and significance (Does it communicate anything?).
The famous line with which this fragment ends, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”, is not only, as is usually thought, a Zen koan, but also an homage to Stein. It is not a paradox; it is as factual a description of Cage’s concept of composition, as proof of the non-being of silence provided by the anechoic chamber. As an epistemological proposition, it couldn’t have been better said by Adorno himself. “For in this new music nothing takes place but sound…”[vi]
Cunningham’s equivalent epistemological proposition is expressed in this way:
I am no more philosophical than my legs, but from them I sense this fact: that they are infused with energy that can be released in movement… that the shape the movement takes is beyond the fathoming of my mind’s analysis but clear to my eyes and rich to my imagination. In other words, a man is a two-legged creature – more basically and more intimately than he is anything else. And his legs speak more than they “know” – and so does all nature.[vii]
We find further confirmation for Stein’s influence in Cage’s essay, “History of Experimental Music in the United States.” This essay is in large part an effort to define the term, experimental.” Cage asks:
What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.[viii]
Later, he makes it clear that by experimental he means much more than “the introduction of novel elements into one’s music.” He goes on:
Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation. We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the Twentieth century. And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness.[ix]
What is most significant about this statement is the clarity with which he aligns himself with Stein’s concept of “radical experimentation.” What is it that he adds to her Americaness? The phrase, “knowing nowness,” is a clear reference to Stein’s “continuous present.” Cage augments the epistemology of the present with the very Steinian phrase, “our air way.” Though what is not at all Steinian is the technological determinism Cage refers to with this poetic idiom. Using Fuller’s broad-brushed world history, in which America is the convergence of the Eurocentric, machine driven and anti-nature “progress,” and the “oriental” philosophies formed by human-nature harmony; Cage suggests that the intersections of these binaries in America cause “a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever.”[x] In the context of a rare comment on the political-economy of music in America, Cage elaborates just a bit. He says:
…by “native” I mean that resource which distinguished it from Europe and Asia – its capacity to easily break with tradition, to move easily into the air, its capacity for the unforeseen, its capacity of experimentation…
It would be wrong to read Cage’s comments as merely another modernist manifesto for media purification and formalism. Cage’s radicalism, especially when paired with Stein, go some distance in explaining the ill fit of both radicals with the periodizations of modernism or postmodernism.[xi]
My approach to Cunningham is based less on the event of the live dance than on the “residue” of his process, to what I refer to as the MC field. The “meaning” of dance runs the risk of falling prey, not to its insistence on foregrounding the performed event, but because it does so, it neglects other aspects of the production that have much to contribute. Obviously, the “live performance” is crucial, is, both everything and “nothing.” Nothing because it is not repeatable; but also because to a large degree it is not “knowable,” or even “experienceable.” The “historical” problem becomes, from the point-of-view of the writer, how to deal with this “ephemeral-before and eternal-after;” a problem as much for the writer who witnessed the “present;” as the dancer who danced it.
There is no “dance,” only choreography
My thesis here is that chance is far less important to the production of Cunningham’s work than is generally assumed. I contend that Cunningham is far closer to the scientific tradition of positivism, then to the anti-intellectualist stance typical to modernism generally ascribed to him. Through an analysis of four key texts written by Cunningham, of the role that various “technologies” have played in his work, and through an analysis of the “toss logics” which determine his movement-form charts that reveal not only Cunningham’s indeterminate processes, but, the objects of his interest, I have found “governing concepts,” or metaconcepts, which drive the categories he then, and only then, subjects to indeterminate solutions. These metaconcepts reveal the logics to which chance operations are subservient. The analysis that follows will demonstrate that, contrary to current Cunningham scholarship, chance operations play a minor, though important, role in his dance making processes. Chance operations function in Cunningham’s method, only to create “problems” that then must be solved deterministically. This claim demands an explanation of what, then, are the primary operations.
This said, indeterminancy is still significant. The live performance of dance is an “impossible object,” not because it didn’t happen, but because not only can it not be preconceived, it cannot be postconceived. It is in this philosophical sense that Cunningham’s works are products of “chance;” prediction, or determinancy, plays no role in reception, only in genesis. In order to address this point, we must distinguish chance as operational method from chance as an ontological category. The problematic here is similar to Barthe’s distinction between work and text, in addition to the problem that the models of “text” available to us are inadequate to choreography. The live performance is at risk of being essentialized in dance theory and criticism in an analogous sense to the privileging of speech over writing. But once Cunningham, understood not as author, but as a “performative field” of inquiry, becomes the focus, then “dance” becomes “choreography” as inflected by the “life of objects” that manifest choreography. It may be that there is no “dance,” only “choreography” in this sense: spectators choreograph, dancers choreograph, film choreographs, photography, video, computer software, books, texts, etc. are all part of a choreographic field designated by “Cunningham.” At this point, I want to briefly intervene in the semantic field that has kept the Cunningham discourse constrained.
In, “Expressivism and Chance Procedure,” Mark Franko comments:
Cunningham accomplished this (separation of music and dance) by applying John Cage’s ideas on chance procedure to his choreographic vocabulary. Chance procedure involves the charting of all possible movement options prior to their arrangement. Thus chance dictates the combinations of known variables, each of whose possible appearances has been foreseen. What is unforeseen, and still left to chance, is the sequence of the combinations. (RES, p. 144)
Franko makes a subtle and compressed distinction here that I will elaborate on. He gives a generally accurate account of Cunningham’s “procedure.” However, since my account will look in some detail at his choreographical methods, I want to be very clear about the terms, elevating them from “generally understood,” to technically and theoretically specific. A confusion could arise here if Franko’s language is not read carefully. He says, “Chance procedure involves … charting….” The danger of obscuring other aspects of Cunningham’s methods enters in through qualifying, as is the historically accepted tradition, “procedure” with “chance.” This statement inscribes in the term “procedure” both determined analysis, and chance. But Franko goes on to point out that chance is applied only to the sequence of pre-determined movement “options.” He asks, just how is chance delimited. In his words, then, chance falls on, and only on, two choreographic elements, combination (of dance elements) and (their) sequence. We must ask, how much of Cunningham’s choreographical practice is encompassed by these two elements? The short answer is, very little.
It is clear that the historically re-iterated term, “chance procedure,” has been used in the service of de-anthropomorphizing, de-authoring, removing intentionality to a distance, in order to generate, again in Franko’s vocabulary, the “unforeseen.” The unforeseen in this case, derives from an extra-human source, to articulate human activity with other-than-human activity. No doubt this is accurate. But its other, unfortunate effect, is to elevate chance over procedure to a degree that the material conditions of existence that give rise to Cunningham’s works are overlooked, resulting in an occultation of other aspects of his performances, and disassociating him from other artistic and scientific practices that would reveal a very different Cunningham. To further complicate this predicament, another terminological difficulty arises in the assumed synonymity between “chance procedure” and “chance operation.” A little investigation demonstrates that “procedure” and “operation” determine quickly divergent interpretive possibilities. Procedure signifies only a single chain in the discourse network generated by an operation’s far greater performative potential. It signifies an established method or way to doing something; in other words, a procedure is a type of protocol, carrying the implication of continued repetition, that by design is meant to proscribe variation. Clearly, the aim of deploying chance is to subvert protocols of established methods of choreography. Thus, the term chance procedure conveys a sense opposite to the intended practice.
On the other hand, “operation” commands a great deal of attention in several fields: we find it deployed with great intensity in political science (power), economics (market performance), medicine (surgery), mathematics (logical foundations), military studies (strategy/tactics), philosophy (operationalism), computer science (algorithm development), administration (organizational agency). It is, therefore, a far more powerful term, one that could illuminate Cunningham’s epistemological practices which, in turn, determine his choreographical practices. It will turn out that these variations are useful in constructing a rich appreciation for Cunningham as an “investigator,” and at the same time in constructing both a periodization and a genealogy of his work. For instance, the medical definition — a procedure carried out on a living body usually with instruments especially for the repair of damage or the restoration of health — could describe Cunningham’s training of the dancer body for TV/video productions, and later in his career, through the application of the software program, Lifeforms, whereby he adapts the dancer’s body to software-produced forms of movement. Or, the mathematical sense of operation — processes of deriving one expression from others according to a rule — could as well describe Cunningham’s method of determining movement combinations and sequences, in every period, though the rules varied from dance to dance, and period to period. For instance, Cunningham’s choreographical techniques developed from sketches on paper, to use of the video camera, to his use of Lifeforms. As we will see in the sequel, these three technological moments correspond to three periods of his work, while also demonstrating his versatility of “operational” strategies.
[i] Silence, “Foreword,” p. X
[ii] Silence, p. 40
[iii] Silence, p. 32
[iv] For his comments on originality, see p. 75: “History is the story of original actions…”
[v] For Cage’s positivism and technological determinism see Silence, p. 70: “Counting is no longer necessary for magnetic tape music (where so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds): magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number. And so instead of counting we use watches if we want to know where in time we are, or rather where in time a sound is to be. All this can be summed up by saying each aspect of sound (frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration) is to be seen as a continuum, not as a series of discrete steps favored by conventions…”
[vi] Silence, p. 7
[vii] “The Impermanent art,” Seven Arts (Indian Hills CO, 1955)
[viii] Silence, p. 69.
[ix] Ibid., p. 73
[x] Ibid., p. 73)
[xi] See “Commentary,” p. 61, particularly it’s question: What has been composed?