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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

(Music is) instantaneous and unpredictable.
—J Cage, Themes & Variations
The story is current.
—HD Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers
The unwritten music of Boursier-Mougenot’s drifting chimes is haunting and resonant while I drive in to W Jefferson to the dump, for gas, to the ABC and grocery store through mountain farmland, dumbstruck by the grace of animals afield—by their casual explorations, by their music, by their delight in each others’ company and in eating, by their beautiful unmade patterns, by the way they huddle together for warmth on cold days in front of dirty white factories and by the way they draft off from each other in the wind.
K and I have lived adrift for most of the past year. We have been uneasy and lonely. We have been poor, despairing, disappointed by job opportunities and unstable living situations, hungry for contact. We struggle with insecurities and anxiety that stem from bruised egos and a lack of faith, tethered to hopes and expectations that hamper our ability to be present, despite the fact that we are surrounded by cows, horses, goats, and bison that all instinctually know how to be organized by the fields that they step into. Boursier-Mougenot’s “Variations” continues to serve as a startlingly reminder that we waste precious time worrying as music (always), finally, composes itself. In this sense, it refreshes our attention to something we already know—namely, that relinquishing authorial agency is a central, spiritual, prerequisite to our daily poetic practices. C Olson: “from the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—put himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined” (“Projective Verse”). Boursier-Mougenot’s attention to water as a medium also awakens us to the fact that all music is essentially stray (to our ears) and improvisational—the result of all of the energy that is present in a given field: currents, collision, jets, drift, textures and patterns, etc.
We have been reading P Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart back and forth before bed at night, in attempt to be mindful of this dissonance we feel between what we know (instinct) and the nagging doubts that plague us. Chodron believes that suffering is born of our addiction to our “narrow perspective[s]”: “All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death.” Like Olson, she also locates relinquishment as the root of process: “we practice to liberate ourselves from a burden—the burden of a narrow perspective caused by craving, aggression, ignorance, and fear. We’re burdened by the people with whom we live, by ongoing daily situations, and most of all by our own personalities” (120). Thank god that the indeterminacy of writing and daily experience teach us to die (gracefully or ungracefully) by carrying us across the threshold into activity. Susan Howe says all of this with exhilarating clarity and force in My Emily Dickinson: “Liberated from agency, each lyric ‘I’ dies into action.” A mottled white bull and two black cows quietly eat in the shade of maples at the edge of Carter Miller Road and another black cow begins to cross the field towards them—chimes. What happens next is something else. Ever a man of action, HD Thoureau sees the constellation emerging: “Music is the sound of the circulation in nature’s veins” (Journals).
In Todd, NC, where we live, people still celebrate a rich culture that associates wakefulness with being immersed in the activity of a current; they swim, float with coolers of beer buoyed to their rafts, kayak, canoe, fly fish, and put their lawn chairs out into the river to cool off all summer—they are occasionally still baptized (“born again”) in the river (better still, the New River, the second oldest river in the world).
I feel a real connection with the pulse of river-life. As Thoreau asserts in A Week, roads make impositions on the landscape, they reflect our intentions (“narrow perspective”); they carry us to places of business. River-life is a humbling, collaborative process that honors “higher laws” because it requires us to move through the landscape with the current. When we see the blurred reflection of catalpas and arrowhead in current, we see them as they truly are: dynamic. When we see the blurred reflection of our own faces, we see ourselves as we truly are.
The hope (faith) of river-life is that we find we are organized by a much wider realization of presence. Thoreau: “These motions everywhere in nature must surely [be] the circulations of God” (Journals). In the expansiveness of summer, on the other side of a harrowing year, we are learning to be at home in the possibilities of new circumstances. Plenty is underway. A pitchy melody begins to surface through static, crickets, and rhododendron near the compost while a hornet sews violets through the deck rail. My father cuts the engine and we drift under the bridge a hundred times. We are immersed in music that’s like no music I’ve ever heard before. (J Cage in Themes & Variations: “Music = no music.)
Cage’s talk on “Silence”:
Health (“sanity”) is a process of cultivating attention to life and sounds that are already underway. Radio static, commercials, and stray music drift up through the moans of cows in the morning when I walk Franklin along the unfinished road. Listening to these sounds is a process of externalization that is a restoration: ear/ hear/ here. There’s nowhere else to be. Last weekend in the bakery, I watched a tired father trying to teach his antsy five-year-old daughter how to play chess: “See that piece that looks like a horse?” Daughter: “It’s a horse.”
Excerpt of Cage performing “4:33”:
Like Thoreau says in his Journals, “Nothing in nature makes noise.”