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HOW TO IMITATE NATURE IN HER MANNER OF OPERATION: BETWEEN WHAT JOHN CAGE DID AND WHAT HE SAID HE DID YOU NAKAI Reading music is for musicologists. There is no straight line to be drawn between notes and sounds. —45’ for a Speaker (1954) 1 N THE SUMMER OF 1952, John Cage wrote a letter to Pierre Boulez informing his then friend of his involvement with a new work for magnetic tape. After describing in detail the technical procedures involved, he added in excitement: “All my interest is in this field and it is doubtful that I may return to concert music” (Nattiez 1993, 132). History proved this prediction wrong. After completing Williams Mix, his first tape piece described to Boulez as being in its prenatal stage, I 142 Perspectives of New Music Cage did not return to magnetic tape until 1958, when his second tape piece, Fontana Mix, was created. During the five or so intervening years he continued to compose numerous “concert music.” The composer himself has offered an obvious explanation for this deferral: “tape is expensive” (Cage 1961, 77). But whatever the reasons, this was not a mere retreat. In 1957, the composer, who had been writing music for conventional instruments for the last five years, claimed: “Whether one uses tape or writes for conventional instruments, the present musical situation has changed from what it was before tape came into being” (Cage 1961, 10). Cage’s foresight thus turned out to be at least partially true—the “concert music” he returned to had been forever transformed by magnetic tape. 2 The article “Experimental Music” (1957), which describes the impact of magnetic tape, proceeds to outline the technical specificities of the transformation brought by this new media. After listing up the processes of sound modulation that “a minimum of two tape recorders and a disk recorder” allow, Cage summarizes: “The situation made available by these means is essentially a total sound-space, the limits of which are ear-determined only” (Cage 1961, 9). The spatial metaphor here need not to deceive us, for the “totality” revealed was also temporal: “magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number” (Cage 1961, 70). But these revelations should have already lacked the luster of novelty in 1957. For the spatiotemporal field, which leaves behind the constraints of the old musical convention, and wherein “any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity” (Cage 1961, 8), had a well-known precedent in the Cagean discourse. As the famous story goes, the anechoic chamber, technologically equipped to absorb all reflections of sound inside and to filter out all sounds from outside, nonetheless defied the composer’s intentions to hear “actual silence” (Cage and Charles 1981, 115) in the summer of 1952.1 Two sounds that his own body produced—that of his nervous system and his blood circulation—remained unsilenced. The lesson derived from this incident can be paraphrased by tracing the revelations of the magnetic tape word by word, albeit turning the latter’s expression of possibility into an absolute condition: sounds may always occur in any combination and in any continuity, regardless of the composer’s intentions. Once this insight was attained, the next step was to apply the principle to the How to Imitate Nature in Her Manner of Operation 143 composition of “concert music.” Later that summer, Cage premiered 4’33” in which the pianist David Tudor remained silent on stage, thereby shifting the audience’s ear, in the same manner as in the anechoic chamber, to other existing sounds they had excluded without knowing so. To be sure, these parallels were noted by the composer himself in “Experimental Music” under the rubric of chance: “It is a striking coincidence, that just now the technical means to produce such a freeranging music are available” (Cage 1961, 8). But here again, the tone of the composer sounds strangely out of time, for the significance of magnetic tape had already become connected to the lessons of the anechoic chamber five summers ago. And once the connection was established, it was established for good. When...


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