There's a book or two that I should be working on, but instead I am enjoying a quiet
morning with John Cage. Right now I am listening to Joshua Pierce playing two
Pastorales for prepared piano. Not long after he started I thought That's odd: I
wonder how he gets that effect. It was almost as if someone was standing about six feet
behind the piano and banging a dustbin lid. The rhythm was fascinating, the sound
interesting, but I couldn't work out how you could do it on a piano, however prepared.
So I went and put my ear to the speakers, then walked into the next room, and sure
enough, one of my neighbors is enjoying a quiet morning banging a dustbin lid or a
drainpipe or something. It would betray total ignorance of all that John Cage stands for
to get annoyed about this aleatory accompaniment, but I was pleased that my neighbor
was in tune, and am pleased that he has now stopped.
One day in 1958 I preached a sermon at the Newmarket Church of Christ -- someone else's sermon probably, but never mind -- on a text from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12 and verse 16. You will recall that Herod had thrown Peter in prison, but an angel sprung him, and after he had considered the thing he went to hole-up at his friend Mary's place, where his mates were having a prayer meeting. Well, he knocketh at the door, and this sheila Rhoda came to hearken unto who might be calling at this hour of night, and she was so tickled pink when she recognized Peter's voice that she rushed back to the meeting and said Hey, youse blokes, guess who's outside! And they said unto her, Thou art mad. Well, you can imagine the scene: a real barney, on for young and old, with chapter and verse flying about and Amen and Thus saith the Lord, you know how these Christians carry on. And all this time Peter is out in the cold, probably thinking there's something wrong with the organization when it's easier to get out of Herod's prison than into your cobbers' house. But did he despair? Not a bit of it. Verse 16: "But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished." Mind you, in the very next verse, after he'd told them his amazing story, he decided to hole-up somewhere else -- "And he departed, and went into another place" -- and you couldn't blame him after the treatment he'd had from these nongs. Anyway, there I am, preaching about steadfastness or something, illustrated by "But Peter continued knocking!" And about the third or fourth time I said it, there's this bloke up on his roof, next door to the church, and right on cue he starts hammering. "Better let him in," says some wag in the congregation, and everyone packs up laughing and the entire homiletical effect is ruined. A few months after that I left theological college and returned to civilian life, but that's another story.
I never thought that I would enjoy John Cage's music. But there was a time when I thought I would never enjoy Schoenberg's music, or Monteverdi's. I gather there are still a few people around who don't like Bartók, or Stravinsky, or even Rameau. It's easy enough these days to decide whether you like these older composers, because their music is readily available on records, and if you listen long enough to the classical-music FM stations you'll eventually hear enough to form some sort of opinion. But the music of John Cage (who is only 71, younger than the President of the USA, and therefore still dangerously active) is not easily come by. I do not know, for example, how long we might have to wait before any of us hears his Branches for amplified cacti and other plant material. So what I am really saying is that I like most of the music of John Cage that I have heard.
I have about four hours of his music on tape, scattered here and there throughout the collection, and what I'm doing today is bringing it together on cassettes so I can listen to it more often. I must remember to leave 4 minutes 33 seconds blank somewhere: that's one piece of modern music that I can perform, and anyone can perform -- and as Stravinsky is supposed to have said, there should be a lot more of it.
This is not the view of the Brunswick City Council. Cage's ideas about chance, environment and indeterminacy in (and as) music lead you to, among other things, sound-sculpture; and among the composers and musicians who live in Brunswick is one of Australia's more inventive experimenters with sound and environment, Ros Bandt. I understand that she received a grant to create a sound-sculpture in one of the local parks, and that there was such a fuss made by the ratepayers about the unsightly and dangerous junk she erected that it was very quickly dismantled. Luckily, one supposes, no child fell off it or was mutilated by it, physically or spiritually. It says something about my relative awareness of musical and municipal affairs that I knew of Ros Bandt long before this sculpture went up but didn't realize that she was involved until after it came down, so I missed all the fun. Unless someone recorded it, but that seems unlikely.
Ros Bandt is not yet a household name in Australia. Apart from her work with acoustic environments (and the fact that she lives about three blocks from here), all I know about her is that she is a member of the group La Romanesca, which is based at the University of Melbourne, and which recently made a superb recording of the "Seven Songs of Love" by the thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Galician composer Martin Codax. No-one knows who Martin Codax was. The edition of Grove I have says he was a Spanish or Portuguese thirteenth-century troubadour, probably a native of Vigo; his seven songs were discovered in 1914 in the binding of a fourteenth-century manuscript of Cicero's De Officiis. It is possible even that "Martin Codax" is a mistake for Martin Codex -- "Martin's Book". But there is no mistake about the music: it is glorious. I don't know anything quite like it. It reaches out over all those centuries and says You aren't alone, friend: we felt as you do, here in Vigo, in our time. You don't have to know the language to know this: the music says it.
There are two other things I know about Ros Bandt. She was one of the composers chosen to represent Australia at the Autumn Festival in Paris last year. And she is not mentioned in James Murdoch's Handbook of Australian Music (Macmillan, 1983). I must resist the urge to comment at length on this strange, overpriced, indispensable book. Thérèse Radic has been more than kind to it in the March issue of Australian Book Review. It's one of those many books that promise to give us so much that we need, and fall short by a mile. Most of what's in it is useful, but it isn't the book of that title we wanted. Since at least three members of the Society of Editors were involved in it, and are as sad about it as I am, I'll say no more about it.
What strikes me about the activities of people like Ros Bandt and John Cage, and so many other contemporary composers and musicians, is that while they are reaching out for the new and not-so-precisely-articulated-before they are also going back to the roots of our music, to discover and re-experience what it was about before, say, Sir Thomas Beecham, or Mahler, or Berlioz, or Beethoven, or Bach, tuned our ears toward their new, away from our collective old.
There are dangers in this attempt to get back to the old. The greatest of them perhaps is that touched on by Albert Schweitzer in his monumental work on Bach when he said that "age confers on all music a dignity that gives it a touch of religious elevation". And so we hear the music of the troubadours -- often lusty, longing, un-Christian songs -- as quaint and venerable, and put them on the shelf next to Palestrina and Lasso, because they sound similar. And yet they are as similar as Britten's War Requiem and Jefferson Starship, as Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Miles Davis in full flight and "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?"
But then, think of the way Joe Cocker sings "A Little Help From My Friends". Isn't there an element of "religious elevation" about that already?
Religion. From the Latin religio. Meaning, among other things, that which binds together.
Schweitzer attributes to Martin Luther the sentiment "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?" -- which I always thought John Wesley said, but that only goes to show my very-English place in the scheme of cultural things. Schweitzer goes on to say that some of the Devil's tunes can't be tamed: despite Luther's and Bach's best efforts, those tunes were soon back in the gutter where they came from. Luckily, I don't attach any supernatural significance to sequences of notes and am fairly open-minded about the whole issue.
So when John Cage devotes his time and genius to a work for organ based on an old American collection of hymns, as he did in his The Harmony of Maine (1978), I do not look for religious elevation -- and yet I find it, as surely as I find it in Bach and Mahler, Haydn and Stravinsky, Charpentier and Messiaen.
Is that not an unexpected thing to find in the music of John Cage?
It's easy to make jokes about contemporary music. You could even say it's essential: it's our way of coping with it. But when a piece of music not yet six years old, by a difficult dead-serious quirky ageing American who goes in for stunts like amplified cacti, and pianists sitting silent on stage for 4 minutes 33 seconds, comes groping out of the loudspeakers and entwines your heart and spirit as Bach's Mass in B Minor and Mahler's Second Symphony did all those years ago when you were young and would let music do anything with you -- then, I say, then you are in the presence of God-in-Man, and let there be no more jokes until we have grappled with this mystery!
It's not the sort of grappling that can be done on paper, I can tell you. I have done a fair bit in the way of attempting to write about music (most of it, thankfully, unpublished), and the more I try, the more I listen and the more I read, the more I am reminded of the character in Strindberg's The People of Hemsö who needed a fiddle to say exactly what he meant. And if you didn't understand, all he could do was play it again.
I suspect that some such sentiment is responsible for the excesses of the minimalist school of composition.
And what has all this to do with the art and science of book editing anyway? To be frank: not much. But Jackie said I had to fill two pages this month, and here they are. That aside, as someone involved in publishing, and one aware of the exciting things going on right now in Australia's music life, I am appalled at our publishers' lack of interest in music. We are supposed to be so good at identifying markets for books, too: it's what publishing is about, we're told. So where are all the books about Australian music-making?
The Society of Editors Newsletter, March 1984
A FEW MORE BARS
I sent a copy of that issue of the Newsletter to Ros Bandt, care of the Music Department at the University of Melbourne. Four years later I started work as assistant editor of Meanjin, and was delighted to learn that "my" first issue was largely devoted to music. Not only that: I would be working with a number of composers and musicologists, including Dr Bandt. How, I wondered, had she reacted to my article? Had she even seen it? I was a little apprehensive about meeting her. I needn't have been. Ros mentioned the article before I did, and said she was particularly pleased to appear in a piece about John Cage because she had written her Arts Honors thesis on his work. In an untypical onrush of gallantry I produced a copy of "Chance, Silence" and inscribed it "For Ros". She put it on a wall in her lavatory. I felt singularly honored: the walls of Ros's lavatory are covered with musical memorabilia, and my humble PCV is in some very distinguished company.
Ros very kindly did not point out the mistakes I made in "A Few Bars of Cage". From talking to John Jenkins, and with the assistance of his book 22 Contemporary Australian Composers and Ros's book Sounds in Space, I can now do that myself. The sound-sculpture in Temple Park, Brunswick, called the "Sound Playground", was dismantled because it had been damaged by vandals, not because of any outcry from the ratepayers. While it remained intact it had been much enjoyed by the children it was designed for. My reference to "unsightly and dangerous junk" was very wrong: there's a photo of the Sound Playground in Ros's book, and it looks delightful. There is also a photo of it being recorded, so I was wrong about that too.
The Metaphysical Review (Bruce Gillespie, ed.), no.14, November 1989