This bunch of ideas served as program notes for a concert I gave at the UCSD art gallery on June 7th, 2002. John Cage's Ryoanji was the first piece on the program
"My memory of what happened is not what happened" – John Cage
I have a dog in Israel. Her name is Katherina, but everybody calls her Kathy. Since I started my musical studies abroad (first in Holland, now in San Diego), she’s living with my parents. I think the big house and garden they have is much better for her than the small apartment I had in Tel-Aviv when she was with me. I think she is much happier now that she has her own little “kingdom”.
I find it embarrassing that I haven’t paid any attention to it before, but a few months ago, while I was on a vacation in Israel, I noticed the way in which she behaves when the family gathers in the living room to watch TV. We, the human beings, are of course completely engrossed in what happens on the screen. We are really “experiencing” the TV program. Kathy, on the other hand, seems completely oblivious to that little black box. She just lies there on the carpet and either looks at us or sleeps. Sometimes she comes over to one of us for some loving.
I tried to understand Kathy’s behavior with the TV, and the explanation I came up with is that her sensual perception (aesthesis) is total. I think she can’t separate between her senses. I also think she is unable to remove herself from what she senses. So, if she sees a pattern of dots on the TV screen that looks like a dog, but she doesn’t smell a dog, then she will not regard it as a dog. We on the other hand, see a bunch of dots that look like a dog, and by using our ability to recreate sensual experience (“memories”) and extreme power of imagination, we really believe we are seeing a dog in front of us. Oh, Kathy is so smart! And we are so dumb!
After I had this thought, I thought immediately about John Cage. I’ve been acquainted with him relatively briefly (just since I got here), but I feel I already learned so much from him. One of his ideas that I like the most is that of overcoming that which separates us from the world around us. We are able to synthesize an experience from partial aesthesis, but at a cost. Kathy, on the other hand, is totally immersed in the world. She is part of it. Unity. Joseph Campbell talks about that. Erich Fromm too (in the Art of Loving). To do that by deriving such immense pleasure from everything in the world around us, however small it is, however trivial. Like one stone. It’s just a stone, but if you look closely, it is so complex. Is it really inanimate, or does it have a very slow metabolism? One sound, also a very complex phenomenon, any sound. By taking part in life, in any and every activity. Not being a passive bystander. Enjoying making food, or cleaning your apartment, or even writing a check, or having a candy. To at least try and reverse that divine curse in Genesis – the expulsion from the garden of Eden, which is the place of unity – of human and god, human and nature, male and female.
I think this event in Genesis is the moment when human beings realized they were alone. It is told as a mythology, but I tend to regard this as a history. This is the beginning of human consciousness. This is why we watch TV. And this is also why life is so painful - the feeling of being alone, the curse of knowledge.
Through John Cage I learned of so many more people and ideas: the I Ching, Socrates, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, Confucius, Buddhism, mushrooms, meaningless work (Walter de Maria), and being able to spend a whole day doing nothing, just being alive, and not feeling any guilt over lost “productivity”.
John Cage says that all sounds are equal, and all music is equal. One can say, following from that: all music is the same. This is how I will know when I become a good, worthwhile musician: When everything sounds the same to me, when all music sounds the same, then I will have become a good musician.
Most people’s perception of John Cage is so untrue. He was such a good composer, an excellent craftsman. I look at every score of his and see such attention to detail, such meticulousness, and also so much humor and joy. And I haven’t yet played a John Cage piece, which was “easy”. I find all of his pieces extremely hard to play/interpret/perform. There is always a “catch”. 4'33", or The Widow of Eighteen Springs, or Ryoanji. And I think the most important thing I learned from John Cage is to love music and to love sound and to love the world.
"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason." - John Cage