Interview with Massimiliano Viel

A few months after the release of A year from Monday. After Silence, the second volume of writings by Cage published by Shake, here is an interview with Massimiliano Viel who is in charge of this new series of writings around music that started with this Cagean volume. I thank Massimiliano for his kindness and answers and I hope you will enjoy the read.

1) Where does the idea of publishing a book like A year from Monday come from? And is the addition to the original title of After Silence a connection to the previous volume written by Cage? Why did you insert it?

First, the idea stems from a project to create a series of books that aims at bringing writings and musings of Twentieth Century composers to the attention of both the curious Italian reader as well as the expert. I felt the need to present the readers first hand testimonies of the music world which is currently undergoing a great transformation. I wanted to introduce them to a way of making music which is also and for a great part a way of thinking.
The presence of the subtitle After Silence indicates a link to the previous Cagean text which shares the same autobiographical slant of this book, but also a connection to the previous publication of the text Silence by Shake.

2) Cage texts are in some ways proto-hypertexts, they precede what we now experience every day with internet. Is his modernity the strength of this book?

It is true that Cage’s texts are filled with quotations, whether direct, transfigured or re-contextualized; in his “Cambridge Companion to John Cage” published by Nicholls, David Patterson counts five different types. Then we have links to artists, literati and inventors, which make us understand how intense the cultural movement was at that time and by contrast how weak it is today.
Therefore, we can imagine being in front of a hypertext, although this flow rather reminds me of an Atlantic ridge, a cable that connects different continents to internet where data of millions of users pass through and merge to form the human being of the global society.
We should also say however, that this way of writing owes at least a debt to Pound and Beckett, just to list two authors of the stream of consciousness, and to James Joyce, who wrote Ulysses and the dizzying Finnegans Wake. We must remind ourselves that these texts have deeply influenced Twentieth Century composers, who explicitly used them as texts needing a musical accompaniment – as with Berio and Cage for example – or just as reading material or source of inspiration like with Boulez and Stockhausen. Therefore Cage’s writings surely echo this kind of style which not only is how some Twentieth Century literature presents itself, but also, initially through television, then through internet and smartphones, a (bad or good) way for the mind to establish a rapport with the world, like a drunken monkey, as Buddhism puts it.

3) John Cage used to take someone else’s material as a base for his own works – speaking of textual works, mesostics come to mind – proving that old ideas can generate new ones. Is it possible that the same can happen with this book as well?

Cage has indeed referenced other authors in his texts and music works, but in various ways. The direct quotation is just one of them.
It is rare however to see Cage making direct quotations without applying some kind of modification through ’disciplined actions’ which completely warp the original source as what happened in Cheap Imitation for Satie or in Empty Words for Thoreau.
Direct quotations are few, actually quite rare, inside A year from Monday, while on the other hand we stumble upon a flow of entangled references that are not leaning on a spine of names – as what happens with mesostics – but freely follow the chain of his thought.

4) Each time a book or a record by Cage is released I wonder – knowing how he was always in search of new ideas – what is the purpose of such an endevour? Doesn’t it look like ’violating a basic Cagean principle’? Similarly to the oxymoron of ’willing to do things at random’, what Cage defined as purposeful purposelessness?

There is a huge difference between a book featuring the writings of Cage and a record with renditions of his musical works. Surely Cage was not against the publication of his texts, which is understandable because his writings, forgive the tautology, which could not be made public without a publisher, were indeed designed to be published. The same holds true for his scores! It does not make any sense to write a score that no one can use because it is not published (by the way, this is a huge problem today). On the other hand, it is well known that Cage was not a fan of the recordings of his music. For Cage, music is generated by the encounter between a creative mind that ’provokes’ the sound somehow and the listener, also creative in his own way. This is valid for any piece of music, from any era. Even for acousmatic music which is interpreted by the person at the mixer, by the equipment specific to the concert, even the domestic one, by the acoustic environment, whether it be a hall or a private room where it is performed.
Thus, even if every recording is not music in the Cagean sense, it is a document that testifies it. It can become music – though this is just me saying it now –  if it is listened to as music without indulging oneself into easy associations, that is, without the piece fetishisms. In the end, for Cage a radio, a turntable or even a computer and smartphone are musical instruments and part of the sonorous landscape by which we are surrounded.

5) Thinking of Cage, I often recall his conference named Overpopulation and art whose title gives us the perfect summary of the incredible amount of festivals, exhibitions and works with which we are daily bombarded. It seems like we are chained to an idea of art-museum, while for Cage and other artists art was/is something else. Is the arrival of artificial intelligence going to wipe out the idea of needing a job to live and going to enable us to do whatever it pleases us, like a multiplicity of centers that Cage was hoping for?

Artificial intellingence will probably determine so big a change, that we might have to redefine the concept of music. I am not a clairvoyant, but I have no problem imagining that AI will expand the gulf between those who hold power, for example the power of spreading music, and those who do not. Theoretically, if all of us can use any sound to make the music that we want by just pressing a button, then music will become something taken for granted, which does not possess any special value and for which no one would like to make a cognitive effort to appreciate it.
K. Stockhausen once told me “I think that music as we know it should become some sort of underground thing for a while before it can be appreciated again“. Music will then be something tied more and more to the social identities of the globalized world, something to wear rather than to hear and that will contrast the development of a sensitivity towards sounds. The subversive role of music as something different from what is around us and that requires a special attention will become more relevant, but ignored by the majority. And if this resembles the present more than the future, it then means that AI will worsen the problems of the current situation.

6) Considering the habit of putting background music in any kind of situation, we might be tempted to say that ’music is everywhere’, even though not in a Cagean sense. Music seems a necessary and inevitable counterpoint to our activities (dinners, training, meetings, etc). This was allowed by technology and so I ask myself: how can we learn how to listen today and use technology in a more Cagean way?

Cage taught us that making music, as composer, performer and listener, can be a subversive practice if we use it to fight against the imposed habits of listening generated by mass-media. Consequently, it is with the encounter with those statistical minorities of listening, those pieces and sounds that are overlooked by media that we must seek for because they are hidden, that enables us to diverge from the habits of the masses. We must search for those authors, pieces and acoustic phenomena that we cannot easily access in order to dilute the presence of inevitable music, that is, music which is continuously offered to us even if we do not want to listen to it and that will eventually influence us intimately.
We may ask ourselves why we should flee from mass-music, why endure the pain as it is a difficult and ungrateful effort. My answer is this: to foster the sensitivity towards sounds which are a primary sensorial component; to appreciate details, but most importantly, the different sonorous practices that is, the multiplicity of the world.

7) Regarding technology, due to the ease of finding audio and video materials, the sense of possessing an object seems to be weakening. There are still collectors surely, but when quantities become enormous, abstract and easy to reach, it then becomes somewhat easier to detach from them. Since Cage was against collections or recordings of his own works, can this weakened link between person and object be considered a gain or a loss? (I am thinking of Cage’s diary where Fuller and McLuhan are often quoted)

From the perspecitve of freeing a person from the attachment to objects, which is a Zen perspective, this is certainly an opportunity which, as I mentioned above, can become however a chance for subjugating forces. Because the development of sense and taste depends on the repertoire of sonic events we have at our disposal, whoever can control what we can hear through the fluid mass-media, that is, public places, social media, YouTube, Spotify and television can also guide the development of what we are. It is true that sounds and noises are still around us, at least until virtual and augmented reality devices that manipulate sounds in real time become prevalent. However, impoverishing the opportunities of listening risks diminishing our sensitivity to what is offered to us instead of opening it up to the universe. In this sense then, anything that does not belong to the media morphs into a key to open ourselves to the acoustic landscape, but also to the possibilities of our imagination. Cage speaks of ’demilitarization of language’ when describing his Empty Words, but he could have easily said ’demilitarization of music’.

8) It is somewhat funny that the next title of this new series (Classici della Nuova Musica) following Cage’s book is by Stockhausen, because this reminds me of that inflammatory text by Cornelius Cardew (Stockhausen serves imperialism) where Cage too is put on trial together with the German composer. Thirty years after his passing, can we say that Cage has been ‘assimilated’ and is now part of the mainstream as Cardew declared, or is his message still anarchic and revolutionary?

During his artistic trajectory, Cage deconstructed the European idea of music. I am talking of dismissing the idea of sound as opposed to noise, dismissing the expressive desire of the composer, the material, the expressive desire of the performer, the way of writing music, the method itself, that is, the technique, up to the score and the idea itself of what an artwork is. What is left, and it could not have been otherwise, is the idea of labelling a music piece which is the name of the composer. Even the most extreme piece, Musicircus, of which we have only the title and the description of its first execution, or even better, 0’00’’ where it is only asked to perform an action and amplify all the accidental sounds that it generates, are both tied to Cage’s name. This dismissal could not have ended but with the dismissal of Cage as an author. On the contrary, Cage never ceased to act as a composer because his trajectory is not a personal ascension, a fact that would have remained private, but a radical approach to making music which is composition’s eternal challenge. In this case, if it is true, at least partly, that Cage as a composer inserted into the mainstream network of committees and publications has become a symbol, an instuitution to write and debate upon, his artistic path remains unique and difficult to retrace without risking to be accused of being an epigone.
I said a radical approach to making music, that I intend as a reflection on those elements that are taken for granted and eternal and always present in the European history of music. We could even dare to say that the history itself of this tradition is the history of the continuous trasferring of what it is taken for granted as the idea of music in a certain period of time into the compositional domain, that is, the arbitrary choices of the composer. The prepared piano for example, is the idea of utilizing the piano differently than what it had been usually used for (with a few exceptions). Then, each prepared piano is different because it is the composer who decides how it will be prepared, therefore a mixture of sounds that is always different.
Essentially, from an artwork point of view, Cage is an example of painstaking radicalism of musical practice as a thought process. A composer who investigated the meaning of music deeply, as few other composers did.
And that’s where he discovered a way of composing, playing, listening which witnesses the void at the foundations of every ’myth’, like music. Today it is more evident, and it will be more so when AI platforms will be easier to use and more widespread, that writing music is an activity of self-alteration, a technology of oneself, as Foucault would call it. Therefore, the musician hands a gift, a gift usually not requested, of a a real thing that did not exist before, a new piece of music. This gift is a chance to meet the performer and the listener both taken with their own existential paths, their own challenges, their own sensitivities. Cage advises/suggests a way to facilitate this encounter, the way of Zen Buddhism, that is, hearing sound as pure sound, freed from the network of meanings attached to it by society. It is a tension, an orientation to go beyond one’s expectations and prejudices and be open to the world’s multiplicity. However, as Cardew maintains in his critique, upon which I will not add anything more to not derail excessively from the original question, we will get used to Cage’s provocations sooner or later and the burgeois (how history proved him wrong!) now listens to his works as extravagant social events. After all we get used to everything and it is impossible to avoid this situation. Listening to a piece of music for the second time as if it were the first is impossible because it would mean to reset one’s memory.
It is clear then, that hearing a sound as just sound, that is listening here and now as a testimony of the universe is a way proposed by Cage that Cardew, steeped as he was in the Maoist ideology, could not understand. A certainly hard and tiring way that aims at freeing people from ideologies, from the subjugating forces in which we are immersed. It is this kind of listening, but also this peace in writing and performing that still remains, in my opinion, a revolutionary lesson that should always accompany us: as composers and performers, but also and above all as listeners.





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