Unreal Nature

May 9, 2017

The Thing That Runs Through the Silence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… I want the things that happen to not erase the spirit that was already there without anything happening.

This is from the 1966 interview with John Cage found in David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists (2001). Sylvester was accompanied by Roger Smalley:

[ … ]

David Sylvester: In one of your stories you talk about Schoenberg’s pointing out the eraser on his pencil and saying ‘this end is more important than the other,’ and you go on to say things which clearly show that you are out of sympathy, rather strongly out of sympathy, with that remark of Schoenberg’s. And I take it that you might also feel that Webern was a composer who used his eraser too much.

John Cage: He must have. He must have.

What’s wrong with the eraser?

It means, does it not, that an action has been made, that it has been decided that is not an action which one wishes to keep, and so it is removed by means of the eraser? Not like the way of painting that we know of from the Far East, where the material upon which one is painting is of such value that one dare not make an action that requires erasure. So one prepares himself in advance before he makes a mark. He knows when he is making it that he is going to keep it. The possibility of erasing has nothing to do with that kind of activity.

Right. This is an important moral principle for you, isn’t it? In your essay on Jasper Johns you say: ‘There are various ways to improve one’s chess game. One is to take back a move when it becomes clear that it was a bad one. Another is to accept the consequences, devastating as they are.’


And that Johns is an artist …

… who accepts the consequences.

This seems to me a marvelous characterization of Johns as an artist and it’s obviously something which you feel is morally a very important point in Johns’ favor.

Oh yes. Absolutely.

And this presumably is an important principle for yourself in your own practice.

It’s also an extremely useful principle in all the circumstances of our lives.

It’s a principle of generosity: is that what it is?

Yes, and it leads towards enjoyment, experience, and all these things, and away from the things we know about through Freud — which brought about inability eventually to act at all. Guilt, shame, conscience.

[ … ]

The painter of course erases by painting another layer over what he’s painting. He doesn’t entirely get rid of what is there before, and somehow the virtue of what is there before comes through in a mysterious way. But he is erasing. Presumably in the same way, it’s not the eraser that you’re objecting to, it’s Schoenberg’s notion that the eraser is more important than the pencil.

I might put it this way, that I’m not objection to exploration.

Roger Smalley: You’re objecting to rejection? The total rejection …

Yes, look at what I’m doing. You see, I’m keeping all of those sketches, exactly as Duchamp did. I think his example is the one that impresses me. He didn’t throw anything away. He wasn’t ashamed. Finally, what I’m objecting to is those things I mentioned, guilt, shame and conscience, in the desire to appear good rather than bad.

[ … ]

… I’m averse to all these actions that lead towards placing emphasis on the things that happen in the course of a process. What interests me far more than anything that happens is the fact of how it would be if nothing were happening. Now, I want the things that happen to not erase the spirit that was already there without anything happening. Now, this thing that I mean when I say not anything happening is what I call silence, that is to say, a state of affairs free of intention, because we always have sounds, for instance. Therefore we don’t have any silence available in the world.

[line break added] We’re in a world of sounds. We call it silence, when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds. We say that it’s quiet, when, due to our non-intention, there don’t seem to us to be many sounds. When there seem to us to be many, we say that it’s noisy. But there is no real essential difference between a noisy silence and a quiet silence. The thing that runs through from the quietness to the noise is the state of nonintention, and it is this state that interests me.

[ … ]

DS: And what you’re really saying is that, by submitting oneself to listening for a very long time, one does discipline oneself, one does learn attentiveness, one does learn to focus, which is what the whole thing is about, I take it?


But there is a totally other way. I mean it seems to me that Webern’s way is, by the very pithiness of it, by the extreme concentradedness of it, that you know that the thing is not going to go on for long. So you achieve from the very start an intense effort of concentration. And I’m not sure that this is a way that doesn’t to me personally make more sense, because assuming you’re using a gramophone, you have the possibility of hearing the thing again and again but each time listening with intense concentration, because you know it isn’t going to go on for long. Webern does create a situation of that concentration, does ne not?

He did for me. He no longer does. He might for another now still, and he might two hundred years hence have that usefulness for another person. It’s just that it doesn’t work for me any longer in that way. It just sounds like art, that’s all.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.




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