SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #16: Indeterminate Activity

By

Lovers of contemporary experimental music will likely remember the moment in the early eighties when John Cage, the godfather of minimalism and of most New York City experimental music, referred to Glenn Branca (he of the pieces for ensembles of multiple electric guitars) as having “fascist” qualities. I heard about it then but never really made myself familiar with the entirety of the back story, until I recently purchased a copy of Branca’s “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses” (released on his own Atavistic label), which, amazingly, contains an audio recording of the very Cage interview (with Belgian composer Wim Mertens) in which the godfather of minimalism pronounced this legendary f-word. The album, containing the piece that Cage heard at the New Music America Festival in 1982, the piece which caused all the trouble, and then the interview, and then a more recent orchestral piece, is a marvel of contemporary curation. How many composers would think to include an audio recording of their most devastating critic on the album? I decided the correct interlocutor for a discussion of the implications of the work was Tim Ramick, with whom I wrote some lines a couple months back about Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Ramick recently quit his job working at a Santa Fe, NM, think tank, in order to do something where he used his body a little bit. More on this below. He still writes and his work can be found at http://www.timramick.net/.

Rick,

Laura told me about the Branca blog possibility and my first thought was to do a point-counterpoint (one of us take Rhys Chatham and the other take Branca* and have a semi-mock-debate as if it were the “Dostoevsky or Tolstoy” question all over again) but I know we lack the time or resources to do that idea justice and then I thought if The Rumpus could handle color html text we could engage in a Google-chat and then I could take what we said and weave it into a tapestry of monologues within dialogues within monologues (keeping our voices color-coded for purposes of differentiation-integrity—or it wouldn’t have to be colorized, you could be italics and I could be the regular guy) but then I thought why go to all of that trouble just for a blog although I quite admire your willingness to engage in intelligent ephemera and of course I understand all is ephemeral (Shakespeare is ephemera, Homer is ephemera) and I also know this sort of conjunction-strewn rambling is a facile and tired and affected gesture but now that I’ve climbed aboard I’ll ride it to the crash and (speaking of which) the new stockboy job is grinding me down through humiliations and repetitive idiocies and sheer bodily weariness (yes, I know, it still isn’t coal-mining or lettuce-picking) and I feel silly for having ideals and moldy notions of status and non-status and for failing to ever really find a way to reasonably engage the world as far as “making a living” goes and I’m free-falling into a self-emptied and self-darkened and near-bottomless never-properly-overturned soapbox of interior scrutiny (“near-bottomless” in all its illogical linguistic inaccuracy)—and sure the thrift-shop autoharp to glorious host of daemonic overtones that is Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses might indeed be the missing link between Mahler and Godspeed You Black Emperor! or Feldman and Mogwai or even Wagner and Orthrelm and is worth serious critical attention but Mertens’ “So That Each Person is in Charge of Himself” interview with Cage is almost as remarkable a piece of “music” with its Lake Michigan fog horn or whatever that haunting sound is pulsing behind them and the moment when you hear Cage pick up his iced drink and sip and swallow before his Vincent-Price childlikeness ovidians into Socratic force when he turns the tables on Mertens and becomes the brilliant inquisitor (“It’s probably useless”—”Then how can you use it, if it’s useless?”) is worth the $10 all by itself, and I suspect I might not be able (with foreknowledge) to sincerely engage in a public literary or musical or filmic discussion because I’m too self-conscious to a pitiable fault and lack arms-length discipline around the arts as this tossed-off screed shows in its blaring self-trumpetry.

Still, you flatter me by asking, and I wish I knew how to engage the cultural dialectic with equilibrium instead of rampant narcissistic intrusive desire (why can’t I just play and have fun?).

I’m sick unto spiritual-nausea of my aesthetic judgments.

I hope you’re well.

Tim

*I didn’t know until yesterday that it’s pronounced “Brainca” and not “Brawnca” and that seems telling to me (both about my ignorance and for obvious analogical content).

Rick,

More sober-like today (nothing to do with alcohol, which I’ve never been drawn to). I was given the latest Vollmann tome as a going-away present from a co-worker at SFI. I’m reading it slowly. I grew up near Imperial Valley in California and my month-long solitary desert experience (fleeing Manhattan and fear of Laura) took place in the Anza-Borrego at Imperial’s edge (I subsequently fled myself back to NYC [Staten Island] and Laura and life). The work as a whole (I’m not quite halfway through) is the finest Vollmann I’ve thus far encountered (heavily and silently influenced by Dos Passos and not so silently by early Agee and prime Steinbeck), although it still suffers from swaths of smirkiness and lazy excess. I think you might enjoy the six-page chapter on Rothko (a deft blending of Rothko’s trajectory as opposed to representational inclinations, as well as Imperial County as a conceptual abstraction). Anyway, it’s excellent, and it made me think of you. It begins at page 302 (chapter 46) and could easily be read while standing in a bookstore.

Tim

Tim,

I keep meaning to get that book, just because my new novel is set in the desert, and I like that border and its culture a lot. I know the AZ/NM part of it, not the CA part of it, but still. I think the ambiguity runs the length of the border. My birthday is coming up, so I will scam one for my birthday. I can’t tell if your demurral on the Indeterminate Activity question is genuine or an opening salvo. What I want to get at is Branca’s (you’ll notice that Cage pronounces it Brahnca) decision to release an album containing the most damning condemnation of his own work imaginable. The music on there is not his best, but it is of interest, I think, especially in the context of the Cage remarks. No? Yes?

r.

Okay. Opening salvo. Let’s chat and edit it properly this time…

Tim

Tim,

Okay. Not sure the other was edited “improperly,” or what “editing properly” as opposed to “editing improperly” means, although I suppose I know what “unedited improperly” means, and I suppose that blogging by its nature is “unedited improperly,” and that is part of the form, and it would be a mistake, for my side of things, to overedit what is produced casually and read casually, but I understand, and I will endeavor to live up to your standards or at least to make sure there is time for you to live up to your standards. more soon.

R.

[Rick,]

Mostly I meant I can’t “get away” with letting it ride “as is” again, now that I have foreknowledge of the unfolding blog process, so therefore I want whatever we post to be “correct” in its grammar and punctuation (and even intent—if I’m able to actually have some control over what I think of as intent) to the best of my abilities (within whatever time-constraints are by necessity imposed). But I understand what you mean by it being a “mistake…to overedit what is produced casually and read casually” and so then I wonder if we should just include these side-chats as part of the Branca-Cage discussion of Branca allowing the most potent criticism possible to sit beside the release of his work, or in this case, to let our personalities and private concerns sit beside our willingness to espouse our opinions in a public forum as if (from my side of things) I have any real authority to do so. When Cage says in the interview that his knees almost gave way when listening to the Branca piece the night before (that he wanted to sit down, although he didn’t sit down), my first thought was, well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it, like when my friend said he got viscerally ill from the incredible low-end throb of a Merzbow performance or when another friend fled our apartment because she “couldn’t stand another second” of Martin Arnold’s obsessive loops. So I worry that I’ll feel a little ill inserting my aesthestics into places they might ill belong. I’m not a music critic or a musician, I’m not a professional—or even amateur—blogger, I’m not an “expert” on Cage or Branca or experimental music—I’m just an obscure writer of interwoven texts whom you peripherally know and who shares some musical and literary tastes with you, that’s all—and yet you’ll allow me half (or some significant portion) of the stage from which to spout my views to the several dozen good (curious) folk who will gather at the Moody tent at the Rumpus festival in the cyberpark because they feel as if they might stand in need of some intellectual distraction (community). Will you let me critique the form from within the form? It might be too particularly self-conscious of me, but I feel some fraudulence around this sort of endeavor—no matter how much my ego wants to be Cage-like in its willingness to publicly put forth what are inevitably ever-changing feelings about ineffable matters—I don’t think of myself as a relativist (more as an idealistic fatalist), but what precise matters within our experiences aren’t at least potentially ineffable? Very soon now I have to go to my job as a stockboy (a job I chose) and perform adequately (or perhaps even a tad more than adequately) for eight hours and for a “living wage” with a half-century old body that still has some pluck and brawn and sinew in it but that is also well on its way to the dust-bin—and I feel as if I were Mertens and the world were Cage and it will always turn on me just when it is looking like the petulant child and I’m looking like the open-minded sophisticate and suddenly I’ll be stumbling for words around what I thought were intricate ideas I had some grasp of and existence will turn its Cage-like lens of clarity upon me and I’ll shrivel into the expendable self I’ve been all of my writing life. At the official Glenn Branca website, by the way, its says Branca is pronounced “Brang-ka and not Bron-ka” but I like the obvious “Brainca and not Brawnca” connotations better in lieu of Cage’s disparagement of the overt power endemic in Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses compared to the “subtleties of intellect” Cage obviously prefers (and considers absent from Branca’s work). He was wary of the abuses of technological power in the arts (and also in the world as a whole). I loathe intellectual casualness. I’m as wary of the excessively casual as others are of the fraught contemplative. — Tim

Tim,

Did you ever listen to Cage’s piece Indeterminacy? That piece is very lovely and very central to Cage’s ideas of chance operations, as he had been elucidating them through the fifties. He’d been experimenting with using the I Ching in his work, and so on. Some of the European composers who had been promoting his efforts were not much taken with this direction. Boulez, for example. I’m cribbing this thumbnail sketch from Wikipedia, but I guess it holds true, largely. Anyway, he made this piece, Indeterminacy, with David Tudor, an electronic composer who had performed a lot of Cage’s work. (I think Tudor did the first performance of 4’33”, the famous silence piece.) In Indeterminacy, Cage told stories about music and mushroom identification, and the like, and Tudor made sounds in small chunks of about a minute, and the text and the sound were randomly conjoined. Cage had to try hard to make his texts fit the one minute framework, and sometimes you can hear him slowing down or speeding up to attempt to do so. It’s a seminal piece, though perhaps not as seminal as “4’33”” or “In a Landscape,” which is a piano piece from 1948 that I really love a lot. “Music isn’t useful unless it develops our powers of audition,” Cage says in the ninth episode from Indeterminacy. And I think what he means is that random eruptions of sound, such as we hear in nature, are the way nature sounds, and maybe indeterminacy as a program, as an approach, is music-making as it is done in nature and is somehow more realistic. I incline toward this view to the extent that I like chance operations in the literary sphere, I like Oulipo, I like the automatic writing of the Surrealists, I like Burrough’s and Gysin’s cut-ups, and all such things, at least as a corrective against the stylized realisms that we get elsewhere. In music, Cage was reacting against the florid romanticisms of European music, and I think with good reason. The big climactic moments are sort of too predictable.

One thing Cage did, I’d argue, was to take music out of the hands of academics and to put it back into the hands of the enthusiasts, the people out there who wanted to make it, without having to go through all the rigor of Western notation and classes on counterpoint. For this reason, he was a father of the ambitious edge of popular music, as well as serious music, and you can feel some his ramifications everywhere, even in mid-sixties free jazz. More transparently, someone like Brian Eno, especially the Brian Eno of Music For Airports, is unthinkable without Cage (and without Cornelius Cardew, who was Cage’s British counterpart). La Monte Young, who was very instrumental in creating a sound that was transported wholesale to the Velvet Underground, in the person of John Cale (who played with Young before playing with Lou Reed), was very informed on the matter of John Cage, with whom he corresponded. In a way, then, chance operations and indeterminacy were or are important source material for a lot of music that I love these days (and, I’d venture to say, things you love too). This was the point I was making in this long essay I was writing recently on the New York Underground—that it was interesting that Cage could be the godfather of the New York underground, and also sort of a villain in the moment that we’re trying to write about, namely the moment in which he called Glenn Branca’s music “fascist.” This is to reduce radically the significance of his remarks, yes, but it is central to them. As you have already pointed out, he heard Branca’s piece Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses at the New Music America festival in Chicago, and he gives a complete account of it in the interview with Wim Mertens, “So That Each Person Is In Charge of Himself,” that Branca includes on the album of the same name, viz., Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses. The recorded version of the music includes Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and they were both playing with him in this period (as they were also playing with Rhys Chatham), and so it’s reasonable to assume that they were playing with him in Chicago that day, so that this entire controversy had some kind of impact on Sonic Youth, which would mean that it had some kind of impact on great swaths of popular music later on, since Sonic Youth was, arguably, among the most influential bands of the later eighties and earlier nineties.

One preliminary question for me would be Why did Branca entitle the piece in this way? Was he alluding to Cage’s earlier piece? Or was he alluding to something more rigorous (if by rigorous we mean less art-related)? Like quantum indeterminacy? “Referential indeterminacy” refers to the fact that there are different names for the same object in languages. Is that the subject under discussion? Not long after this piece, Branca kind of abandoned naming his pieces anything but Symphony Number One, and so on, as if to relieve himself, in part, of the burden of being about things. But there’s some kind of about-ness to the piece called “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses” for me, because unlike a coeval piece like “The Ascension,” which to me is related to Coltrane’s piece “Ascension,” “Indeterminate Activity” sure has a lot of dissonance and chaos to it. Sure, it is played on electric guitars, and has the noise that is associated with that ensemble (I like how Cage says, by the way, that the only unpredictable thing about the Branca piece is the unreliability of its amplifiers), but its uppermost feature is its dissonance. There was an article about Branca in the New York Times recently and it opined that the Branca piece never lifts off before the drums come in; there’s a march-like quality once that rhythm section becomes a part of the piece, and this is true, but there’s also a way that the many of the pieces come back to tonality. They explore dissonance, but then they come back to tonality, to a certain Western idea of tonality, or at least this is true of a lot of the early pieces, whereas “Indeterminate Activity” is sort of dissolute for much of its course, until it nears the end. And yet Cage accuses it of being Wagnerian in its attention to climaxes.

I guess I have not thought carefully about if “masses” in the title in some way refers to some kind of Marxian rhetoric, as if the resultant masses, are, e.g., the remnants of modernism or modern bourgeois culture, attempting to render some kind of artistic activity with what remains to them. All of this, for me, being preliminary to discussing what I imagine is going on in the interview. And, meanwhile, I know you want a copy of the liner notes from the album, and I’m working on that, and will try to photocopy them this week. I haven’t edited this bit yet (despite agreeing to “edit properly”) because I think that in this dialogue, you, actually, have Branca’s role, and I have Cage’s role, which is to say that the casual context of online posting suits a certain haste that is endemic to my life, right now, in which editing must always be postponed a little longer.

R.

Rick,

I’m confused. I don’t know how I can play Branca to your Cage when I didn’t put forth a work (even metaphorically) that you roundly criticized and that I much later in my career decided to append to that work’s re-release. Isn’t that still what we’re discussing? That strange act of juxtaposition? Isn’t that what got you excited in the first place—not really Branca’s Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses—wasn’t it the odd fact of the included interview that made you want to process it with me? The half-hour Branca piece—as you admit yourself—isn’t among his greatest and isn’t terribly groundbreaking (in terms of Cage and Young, etc.)—are we really going to spend time analyzing its title (unless we think he was creating a dialogue with Cage from the outset by using words like “indeterminate” and “masses” and that Mertens was his accomplice—though that might be an intriguing hypothesis)?

I’m willing to accept your Cage-ness in the sense that you possess a measure of fame and you’re definitively the music authority and the literary statesman among the two of us (even though I’m older). I’ve felt most like Mertens all along, as I said before, and I recognize that moment when the Cage-world turns on one and one suddenly feels flat-footed and totally inadequate when it comes to defending one’s aesthetics (one’s failure to speak eloquently of the nuances and courage in the things one most loves).

I’ve never experienced public (or even much private) criticism—beyond that of condemning silence—around my writing. What if you decided to attach Dale Peck’s hatchet job to a new printing of The Black Veil? Or put the last few pages of B.R. Myers’ Reader’s Manifesto at the end of every novel of yours? Isn’t that somewhat comparable? But then, neither Peck nor Myers holds any of the clout and historical esteem of a figure like Cage and neither are writers in your arena, so those hypothetical gestures on your part would still pale in comparison to what Branca (and his record company) decided to perpetrate. On the other hand (cynically), I doubt Peck’s or Myers’ presence would help sell as many copies for you as Cage’s presence might for Branca.

I’m a fan of Oulipo (in principle), and I admire the efforts of Perec and Queneau (and satellites such as Calvino and Roubaud), but I’ve never been very smitten by any of the works (those I’ve been able to track down) of the lone American (Harry Mathews)—and most of the Oulipians who are genuine systems mathematicians don’t create literary works I care for at all. To put it romantically—they lack heart (or viscera). I’m also a fan of Arp and Dadaism and Duchamp (again, in principle), but I’d still rather read a paragraph by Genet or a poem by Dickinson where the intentionality’s verve is palpable (even if the meaning is elusive).

I haven’t heard a whole lot of Young or Cage since I had access to UCSD’s vast musical library as an undergraduate long ago, but both left an impact on my taste in music and my way of viewing artistic control—I agree with you when you say that “chance operations and indeterminacy were or are important source material for a lot of music that I love these days (and, I’d venture to say, things you love too).” I’m drawn to the aleatory, but not so much to notions of randomness. When we speak of chance aren’t we really just speaking of approximate chance or the intent to allow chance more air-time (since chance could be said to permeate all art, depending upon one’s view of free will)? What is the degree of chance in Coltrane’s Ascension? Why does Cage seem to intimate that Branca’s piece would have been more valid in his eyes if it had been composed (which it was) and if the musicians had been reading music from music stands (as Mertens states categorically they were and which somehow Cage failed to notice) rather than if it had been improvised? How did he know at the time of the interview that Branca hadn’t organized the piece around some sort of indeterminate operation along the lines of the I Ching or rolls of dice? Is there really more chance in a single performance of 4’33” than in a specific performance of Ascension? Can we speak with any certainty about “degrees of chance”? Are we able to detect chance (can we hear or read or see it) in a work of art without some cognitive knowledge of its being there—in other words, why should we need information from outside a piece to fully appreciate its self-identifying structure?

What would it be like to play 4’33″ each day for one week while alone in a room (perhaps at the same time of day all week)? One would be the performer AND the performances’ only audience. How different would the seven performances/experiences be? Really. How different? Very, very different, I would suggest. The silences would all be unique because they aren’t actually silences (they’re ambiences-in-waiting). And what would the elements of chance be within oneself (in terms of one’s responses to one’s own performances)?

When one reacts against the fashions or traditions of one’s own time (however inveterate or fleeting they might be), isn’t it the somewhat-too-obvious gesture to migrate to the opposite pole? But could we have predicted Branca’s gall of situating the Mertens-Cage interview alongside his own recording? Is there precedent? Is it innovative enough to be influential to future marketers (if it is merely a marketing gesture) or future introspectioners (if it is an honest examination of one’s own moment in time)?

Tim

PS Have you considered contacting Branca or Mertens and asking them directly about all of this?

Dear Tim,

I suppose my dialectical configuring, or apportioning of identities (you: Branca, myself: Cage) was hasty, and it was mainly meant to suggest that I continue to feel that I am the one engaged in a “detestable” casualness in this online medium, whereas I feel your desire to compose, or perhaps to organize particular outcomes, in your call for “proper editing.” But perhaps the way that I am more like Cage (and it seems adolescent to keep raising this point) is that I am capable of willfully moving the conversation away from a particular point, whenever it suits me to do so, by being, I guess, enough attached to the aleatory to prevent the systematic. Maybe this is Cagean. Nevertheless, I release you from playing the part of Branca.

As you know, I typed up the liner notes from Indeterminate Activity (like Cynthia Ozick copying out Henry James by hand), and while I can’t paste them in here in their totality, for copyright reasons, let us agree that there are many revelations contained therein. When I was harping on the title of the work (as opposed to the album of the same name) in my last letter, I was doing so because I was trying to figure out what Branca imagined was “indeterminate” about the piece “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” especially since Cage heard it as overly regimented. But Branca’s letter, which constitutes the second half of the liner notes of the album, answers this question: “I don’t know if Cage ever knew it, but the piece he heard that night was not a movement from Symphony No. 2, as it was inaccurately listed in the program, but Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, a piece that I had premiered in NYC almost a year earlier. I think that if Cage had known that what he hard was virtually an homage to him, his reaction would have been very different.” Well, so I guess the piece is meant to partake of Cagean operations somehow, or at least constitutes part of the tradition (according to the composer). Actually, I asked David Grubbs, who plays in my band, and who wrote his dissertation on Cage, if he knew about all of this, and he does, of course, and he said he believed that the pitches performed by the players on the Branca piece are not notated or are notated as “free,” meaning that the pitches themselves are indeterminate, though this is distinct from their being arrived at entirely by chance. Grubbs, that is, made a distinction between “indeterminacy” and “chance operations,” but he did seem to imply that the Branca piece had an aleatory component.

It would be ironic if Cage felt that a piece that was based on, or refracted from, his own compositional strategies was the piece that was most forbidding to him. But it seems to me that this is how influence works. David Miller (whose letter to Musicworks magazine (to which Branca responds) constitutes the first half of the “liner notes” on Inderterminate Activity of Resultant Masses) concludes thus: “Readers with an interest in either or both of these composers may appreciate knowing that this story involves something other than a tired Oedipal romance. Or as [Cole] Gagne puts it, the purported ‘axiom, Cage says Branca “Fascist”’ is in reality barely a hypothesis.” But if it is an Oedipal romance, it’s intergenerationally backward right? Because Branca is surely correct that none of the brouhaha (this word always seems really inadequate to me, but I don’t have time to “edit properly”) was really his, Branca’s, responsibility. Cage made the offending comments. So it’s really a reverse Oedipal romance, and I’m not sure that merits the term exactly. Students always want to kill their teachers, but do teachers always want to kill their students?

I’m only mildly offended that you brought up a certain uncharitable review of my work, and though I normally stop talking to people who bring that up, I’m going to assume that you are just having one of those Ramick moments and don’t know that this is a really impolite subject, or, maybe, that is, I am just responding like Branca, when he says, “It seems to me that the real problem here is simply the fact that Cage’s followers can’t bear the thought that he might be anything less than a saint.” What he’s saying, I think, is that there might be more going on, in Cage’s response than an evaluation of Branca’s work, and this is certainly the case with the writer you brought up, vis a vis my own work. I never felt like the assault had very much to do with me, really, and it certainly had nothing to do with me personally, or the person I think I am. (The writer in question and I have since buried his hatchet jointly, and the less said about this the better.) I suppose, therefore, what I am saying is: Is it possible that John Cage had moments of professional envy?

It’s a feeling that I find most loathsome in myself, and most loathsome in the writing community generally, and it’s something in the aftermath of certain bad reviews of my own work that I have gone out of my way to attempt to purge. (That is, I have said to myself: if I want to be certain that people are not extracting a pound of flesh from me because of ill feelings about my modicum of success, I had best never do the same thing myself.) I still have my moments. I have often said bad things about David Sedaris’s work simply because Little, Brown (my publisher), spends more promotional money on him than they do on me. I repent of these remarks. Sedaris is a very nice person, and he certainly understands things about his audience that I will never understand. Professional envy, that is, is loathsome, but I think, whether we want it to be true or not, that it is a frequent feeling among people in the arts. Even though we are all on the same team, even though it’s us against the Philistines, who are numerous as Attila’s Huns, we seem to want to weed out some of our teammates. I abhor this. And the idea that John Cage might have had a similar problem is disappointing. (Branca says elsewhere: “The likes of Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, and Julius Eastman had all been publicly tongue-lashed by the gracious master.”)

That’s one possible interpretation of what was going on. Another interpretation, and one I find somewhat compelling, is that Cage just didn’t like rock and roll. I actually came to this when I read your question: “Why does Cage seem to intimate that Branca’s piece would have been more valid in his eyes if it had been composed (which it was) and if the musicians had been reading music from music stands (as Mertens states categorically that they were and which somehow Cage failed to notice) rather than if it had been improvised?” For the record, I’m taking it as an article of faith that the scores were not conventionally notated (I don’t think, for example, that Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are accomplished readers of conventionally notated music), so much as there were scores with instructions, like in a Terry Riley composition, or in a John Zorn composition. That is, I’m wondering if the opposition is less between serious music and improvised music than it is between serious music and popular music, which is certainly composed (“Great Balls of Fire,” that is, was not improvised, nor was “Eleanor Rigby”), but not written down, because most rock and roll players cannot read. The “fascist” music, in truth, may have been rock and roll, and maybe Cage was reacting against the fact that both Branca and Rhys Chatham, as well as others (Arthur Russell, Peter Gordon, and, later, Bang On a Can) were in those days incorporating elements of rock and punk into their compositions, and rock and roll, especially in its very masculine iterations, did (and does now) have a Wagnerian aspect, and while it is not “conducted” the way Cage claims Branca conducted, it certainly is organized in a way where the individual players are subjugated to a certain individual, a Mick Jagger, or a Bruce Springsteen, etc. Cage, therefore, would prefer a notated piece, even though he went through a long stretch where he didn’t notate, because composition is more in the tradition of serious music and less in the tradition of the wild beasts of popular music.

By the way, I think we have both watched the inexplicable, and hilarious, and out of control television interview with Branca that was taped for the local Seattle affiliate on the occasion of one his recent symphonies being played there, and two things stand out for me. I mean, many things stand out for me, but one thing that stands out is his completely rock-centered background. He seems to like all the same shit (his word) I liked when young, including a disagreeable inclination in the direction of Alice Cooper, and the bad period of Lou Reed (viz., Rock and Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live). Also David Bowie. I liked all that stuff too. Oh, and he says he took guitar lessons for six months. Six months! How can he compose if he never took a music theory class? This is of interest to me, because I only ever took three years of piano, and one year of voice, and maybe a tiny bit of violin, and zero years of guitar lessons, and I would very much like to compose, but I have this feeling that I don’t know enough theory and can’t read very well. I can read the melody line in a hymnal, but that’s about it. I wish I could read better. But part of Branca’s charm is he has no lack of belief in himself, no self-consciousness. He just goes out there and wails. It’s appealing.

The other thing that stood out for me was the fact that the tuning he uses for the guitar is his “octave” tuning. I think Sonic Youth used it sometimes too. And I think James “Blood” Ulmer used it as well. Ulmer tuned all the guitars to the note E. This is great, because it’s so guitar-centric. You get six sympathetic strings for every note you pluck. I wonder if Branca uses a conventional tuning standard, though, or if he just uses some alternate tuning, like La Monte uses.

Meanwhile, I have not thought to ask Wim Mertens or Branca any questions myself. I find Branca a little terrifying. But I do want to know more about Mertens. And I do like that you keep asserting him as a third term in the whole story, like some kind of post-structuralist, anti-dialectical element. I do want to hear some of his music, and maybe I will try to do that right now.

Best,

R.

Dear Rick,

I notice you added the salutatory dear this time (despite my bluntness having caused mild offense), and I’m glad you’re still talking to me (at least for the duration of this discussion—when will it be over, by the way, haven’t we already gone long past the expected audience-patience limit, as if this exchange itself were an homage to Branca or Cage or Young or Feldman by virtue of its length alone?)—and again I salute your musical knowledge and your nimbleness when it comes to concise and comparative historical summary. I feel inadequate sitting across this particular virtual table from you.

I insist on Mertens as crucial to all of this because “So That Each Person is in Charge of Himself” couldn’t have developed into the astonishing artifact it is without his languorous and generous approach as an interviewer (in letting Cage talk on and on without asking any cloying follow-up questions)—although I suspect my trying to portray him as some sort of Flemish Everyman to whom I can relate is flawed substitution (as if he were some specter of enantiodromia inevitably arising from a superabundance of Cage). It’s a scream (as in 50′s slang and as in Munch’s painting) that all Mertens can muster to say in defense of Inderterminate Activity of Resultant Masses is that “it’s a scream”—or that his momentary counter-assault against Cage consists of “misusing language against itself” when he ill-advisedly tries to corner Cage into admitting that Cage’s aesthetic of “no goal” is in fact a goal. I suppose it needs to be mentioned that Cage didn’t trust improvisation because the outcome of any improvisation will always depend too much upon the various entrenched selves of its creator(s)—it can’t circumvent an artist’s personal biases as successfully as chance operations (though it may be argued that the setting-up of chance already rests upon a specific foundational bias of agenda).

Branca’s f-bomb laden interview in Seattle (laced with enough “you knows” and “I means” to rival the speech patterns of an average high schooler) is so rock-and-roll as to almost come across as an act. Whatever I might think of Branca’s musical compositions when compared to Cage’s (I appreciate aspects of both), it would be no contest between the two of them as to whom I’d rather listen talk about himself or music or the world we inhabit together. I don’t find Branca’s self-presentation at all appealing (will you be adding a link to that “monologue” as well as the Ubuweb link of the Mertens-Cage interview?).

[Branca tv interview: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=4205; Cage interviewed by Wim Mertens: http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/chicago_82/Chicago_82-B2_Cage-Mertens_So-that-each.mp3, ed.]

Two more personal matters from my corner:

The new grocery store where I work laid off one-third of its employees this past weekend. I’m told it isn’t uncommon to utilize a larger labor force to get the ship out of port than is required to keep it going at sea. But these are people I very much liked and thought of as shipmates in some longer haul (well, of course, they are, in the grandest sense) and who I’ve worked beside with a physical and even emotional intensity for the past two months (feels like two years) and now they’re back out job-hunting or in unemployment lines and I want to excuse them one-by-one from any list of Philistine hordes (even though I doubt more than one or two of the forty-five have ever heard of John Cage—much less Glenn Branca—and they likely haven’t heard of Rick Moody either, for that matter, and certainly not Tim Ramick—much less read any of our writing—although they were unloading trucks and stacking crates of milk and arranging apples and wiping shelves for hours and hours day after day beside the latter). And this self-absorbed Ramick fellow (this I of now) can’t really know what Branca felt when Cage dismissed him and his work with such vehemence, but I do know I’m just as susceptible to professional (or amateurish) envy and jealousy as any artist.

This should be about Branca and Cage, I understand that, but my funnel can’t help but place myself within it, since if we’re going to try to psychoanalyze the intents of others we must be willing to make ours as transparent as possible. I must confess I felt some prideful inner-puffery when my work was compared for the first time in a public way (by you elsewhere on the Rumpus site awhile back) to that of canonical writers (Olson and Pound—though I think of neither as a particularly strong influence), and I felt some small-hearted boyish glee when my structures were esteemed by you above those of Mark Danielewski (I know nothing about Danielewski as a person—although I suspect he’s a good guy and a fine thinker—but I’ve read two of his books and everything in me wants to say that as a writer I wouldn’t choose him as a teammate—we don’t normally get to choose our teammates—and perhaps I need to read his works again in order to perceive their intricacies and resonances—either way, I’d almost assuredly quite enjoy tidying displays of soup cans with him while discussing his life’s adventures). My ego is alive and esurient. As you know, I fell into my own raw and embarrassing emotional trap of wanting some recognition from Cormac (not approval or assistance, just a nod of a compatriot’s recognition—despite the differences in our approaches—anything but more of the same condemning silence my back-alley work typically elicits) before I left his company in that rarified space where I spent a decade of my life, and despite my having worked in the library of a scientific “think tank” I’m still a Philistine (or just a neophyte) around any serious scientific discussion (I lack the language, as I lack your experience and lexicon around music—I wish I could address your points about odd tunings and notation with some confidence, but I have nothing to give). Perhaps next time you can call upon David Grubbs (Bastro is dead, long live Bastro!—I often listen to his defunct band’s quirky brilliance whenever I need a dose of elsewhere).

So that was my awkward rendition of Branca’s inclusion of the Mertens-Cage interview with his Inderterminate Activity of Resultant Masses and my own marginal “Ramick’s Folly” regarding Danielewski. They aren’t comparable gestures, I know, not really, but it’s the best I have to offer. I should get out more.

As I look back over this exchange, I feel some chagrin about that “opening salvo” (which was just a stylized burst of writerly self-consciousness masquerading as critical thought— a child saying no when he obviously meant yes) and my tiresome ever-yielding resistance to this chatty blog form and the fact that I’ve allowed you to somehow again usher me into letting our dialogue (more or less or more as less) stand as it happened while we conversed at our own out-of-the-way email cafe. Someday maybe we’ll find a way to sit across from one another at a real table. I wish (my half of) this were either more authentic and vulnerable and sharp-edged or more articulate and clever and wrought with the utmost investigational and analytical care, or both—but I wish this about most things and about all next things.

Much respect (and gratitude for the opportunity to mingle-with-purpose),

Tim

Dear Tim,

I’m sitting in the godforsaken Tea Lounge of Park Slope, a sort of purgatorial joint where writers with nowhere else to go make use of free WiFi before the guy arrives who does a singalong hour for pre-schoolers. It’s a living hell. Normally they play Grateful Dead and more Grateful Dead on the sound system, but there must be an unusually savvy barista, because this morning it’s The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. I love this album and fear it in equal measures. It’s a recording that took me a very long time to understand. I guess that’s true of jazz in general. I was too stupid for jazz for a very long time, but now I love it, in a very deep, abiding way, the way I love Basho or Rothko (and that reminds me, I still need to get that Vollmann book) or Clarice Lispector. The interplay between Ornette and Don Cherry on these pieces is lovely to encounter. And it was released in 1959, when Cage was at the height of his powers, and when Glenn Branca was eleven years old, and living in Harrisburg, PA. Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station wasn’t constructed yet, by the way. It didn’t come online until 1974. Unit 1 anyway. Unit 2, the one that melted down, started generating in 1978, when Branca was probably playing in the Theoretical Girls, in New York City.

I want to admit to having done some considerable perusing of Wim Mertens’s compositions since I last wrote. They are hard to come by on iTunes, these works, but you can hear a few on YouTube. To me, they sound like a little bit like Michael Nyman, who is sort of the British analogue to Philip Glass. It makes sense that Nyman and Mertens would have some like qualities, since they both have composed for Peter Greenaway. What they sound like is: minimal, if by minimal we mean the Philip Glass of the popular period, the opera-composing period, but slightly more acoustic than most Glass (excepting, say, Solo Piano or Glass Works), while remaining organized around very inherited chords progressions and harmonic gestures. This means, for me, that Mertens verges on the New Age. Which is perhaps a harsh thing to say, but I think not inaccurate. This, therefore, is the third term in our post-structuralist dialect that is Branca (fascist) vs. Cage (anarchist). For me, alas, the work of Mertens is a disappointment. What I have heard of it.

Mertens’s output was mainly released on Les Disques du Crepescule, a Belgian label that also released Nyman, as well as some rock stuff, such as Tuxedomoon, Duritti Column, A Certain Ratio, and, at least initially, the famous Cage/Mertens interview, “So That Each Person Is In Charge of Himself,” later included, as we have discussed, on Branca’s Indeterminate Activity. I think the question we’ve been orbiting around and have not quite nailed down is: why did Branca release it? Obviously, he had to request the rights (unfortunately, my sleuthing skills, this morning, are not up to finding out if the interview was included in the original 1985 Branca release of “Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses,” or if it appears only in the 2007 re-released pagkage) in order to do so. And if copyright in music follows copyright in literature then Mertens would have been the copyright holder in the case of the interview. (It is maybe Mertens’s most beautiful piece of music! The way the foghorns of Lake Michigan are, as you pointed out, tolling mournfully in the distance.) That means that Branca probably asked Mertens if he could release the interview. Is Mertens listed as the composer? It doesn’t say on the liner notes. Does Mertens get a royalty? In any case, I suspect that Branca made a methodical decision to release the piece, and not because (as his own comments indicate in the liner notes) he felt like Cage had a valid point of view, but more because he a) wanted the truth to be known, and b) he thought it was only just that if Cage was going to deliver a body blow to his career, he (Branca) should get some of the proceeds from the destruction. This is Mithridatic, right? It’s drinking a little of the poison in order to build up the immunity?

I not only like the gesture, I like the way it sits between the two pieces—the nasty, provocative “Indeterminate Activity,” and the indecipherable, placid, floating “Harmonic Series Chords.” Incidentally, I have been listening to a lot of Branca as I have been writing these lines, and the First Symphony is really excellent, as is the Third, and as is The Ascension. But symphonies Eight and Ten, which are advertised as great milestones nearly made me physically ill. (Not emotionally, or intellectually, just physically.) I suppose my reaction was not unlike Cage’s in Chicago. Just listening to the sound of Eight and Ten makes me feel weak. It would be good music for extracting Manuel Noriega from his redoubt in Panama City. These symphonies are called “The Mystery,” parts one and two, and they are mysterious if by mysterious you mean containing a lot of tritones and minor-seconds and stuff like that. (I do think that tritones sound like car horns, tho, and maybe all these tritones are a testament to the fact that Branca has lived in New York City for a long time.) I noticed in the television interview we both watched that Branca said it was “easy” to write tonal music, and I agree, but a reliance on dissonance this pronounced seems like a bid for academic credibility, at least to me. On the other hand, whenever in my life I have felt that a particular approach to harmony was too severe and too strident (Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” is a good example), I have later come around and found it so beautiful. What seems too severe to me now is, e.g., Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson. (I once tried to write an essay about my violent hatred of American Idol, but I couldn’t watch the show enough to have anything substantive to say about it. My hatred actually prevented me from speaking out on the subject.)

It’s worth wondering aloud, I suppose, if Branca’s career would have developed in a different direction, if he would not have required academic credibility and its attendant tritones, if Cage had not used the f-word on him in 1982. What if Branca, alone of all the No Wave musicians had somehow managed a crossover audience? After all, there are ways that the early Branca is not terribly different from Sonic Youth, or Swans (both of whom he is on the record as admiring), or even, at some remove, Metallica or Megadeth. Maybe the “mystery” of symphonies eight and ten is how one grows so as to recover after the unjust and hasty logorrhea of John Cage one afternoon on the Navy Pier.

I also neglected to mention that I myself saw Branca perform the Fourth Symphony (the one which, in the Seattle interview, he says isn’t recorded and may never be) in a dress rehearsal at the Kitchen in mid-eighties. I knew a guy who worked at the Kitchen, and he said he was going to the dress rehearsal, and did I want to go. We sat in the sound booth, because, as my friend Steve said, if you were to sit by the amplifiers “your ears would bleed.” Even in the sound booth, it was shockingly loud, and I don’t know if people wore ear plugs back then with the ease that they do now. One ensemble member was playing one of Branca’s self-designed zithers, which was a long metal string fitted on a wooden apparatus, broken down, I think, into harmonic intervals. And someone else, as I recall it, was banging on something like an anvil. I remember that Branca started out conducting like a conductor, you know, precise, engaged, and by the end of the piece he was sort of throwing himself around, as though the volume and duration of the composition were causing some seizure-like activity in him. When I think of Cage’s observations that the players in Branca’s ensemble were somehow at the whim of Branca, this is what I think of, not of a conductor controlling, in fact, but of a dervish, a Sufi initiate flinging himself around and around to the dense thicket of overtones. Branca, it seems to me, was dancing to the work, not conducting it, and wanted to be onstage for this purpose, not to make sure the performance worked properly so much as to express himself and to express what he felt in the presence of his creation. Which sort of means that the ensemble conducted him.

I agree with the idea that “each person should be in charge of himself,” and I agree with the idea that the resistance to tyranny is a brave journey, but I guess in the end that I don’t think Branca is or was the appropriate target. Maybe some rock and roll is, especially some corporate pre-formatted vomitus, like Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift. Maybe someday Branca can get clear of this carelessness, and the Cage estate can too. Neither of them is worthy of it. Or that’s what I think today.

Best wishes to you and Laura,

Rick.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a recently released collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, just released their third album, NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com. More from this author →