Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jeffrey Saletnik reviews Experimentations

Branden W. Joseph. Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 217 pp. 

Review by Jeffrey Saletnik

A collection of previously published individual essays, Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture provides its reader with an overview of Branden W. Joseph’s two-decade engagement with John Cage and represents some of the most intellectually rigorous writing about the composer. Essays focus on key moments in the development of Cage’s aesthetics: from his early interest in the historical avant-garde and chance operations to his embrace of indeterminacy. Joseph freely acknowledges that his study of Cage has served as a “prerequisite” for the kind of art historical investigations that he has pursued more broadly (p. iix). Indeed, as one reads Joseph’s essays in aggregate, Henri Bergson, Theodor Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari are recurring figures of significance. In engaging these and other theorists, Joseph identifies themes—including the composer’s employment of multiplicity, indeterminacy, and actualization—that open onto discourse regarding the relationship between art and life beyond the immediate parameters of the volume. Moreover, and as testament to the composer’s significance, Joseph explicates how Cage contributed to the development of the very ideas that help fuel Joseph’s own analysis. The pressure Cage brought to bear upon “ideology, purely rational subjectivity, and dialectical thinking” appealed to Deleuze and Guattari, who cited the composer in their articulation of art as experimentation (p. 90).

Over the course of the first four essays, Joseph demonstrates Cage’s move from primarily aesthetic concerns in his early career to increasingly political—and thereby critical—concerns motivated by anticommercialism and a desire to emancipate sounds and listeners from oppressive structures. In the volume’s fifth and most recently published essay, “HPSCHD—Ghost or Monster?,” Joseph shifts his attention from constructing an art historically inflected framework within which to view Cage’s practice to diagnosing the paradoxical complexities of the composer’s “aesthetico-political project” (p. 187). His insight is nuanced and important. Joseph brings to the fore the friction between the aesthetics of the composer’s large scale theatrical work of the late 1960s and early 1970s and his anarchism. His assessment is worth quoting at length:  

By seeking to evacuate affect, emotion, and any other irrational or ego-motivated aspects of human behavior [in the theatrical genre of happenings], Cage removed from the underlying [anarchist] political model upon which his aesthetic was predicated all elements of contention a priori. In so doing, he not only relied on an ultimately unrealistic situation, one that puts to the side all aspects of the irrational, including desire, by which individuals are motivated to enter the political arena, but also effectively (and explicitly) sought to eliminate the dimension of the political altogether as a realm of antagonism and conflict. (p. 187)  

Joseph draws upon Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls to frame this view of the Cagean public sphere, which HPSCHD modeled. (The audience ambulated without direction amidst projected images in a soundscape of amplified live harpsichord performances and prerecorded sounds, all derived by chance.) Deleuze and Guattari undergird his assessment of the impossibility of the endeavor; nothing happens, Cage provides a space for political withdrawal rather than action (pp. 26–27). Moreover, in eliminating the possibility of typical mechanisms of social transformation (antagonism) in HPSCHD, Joseph shows that Cage is left no choice but to approach technologies—like the ILLIAC II supercomputer used in composing HPSCHD or those employed by NASA—as benign mechanisms to which one subjects oneself so as to drive social change. This observation brings the composer’s longstanding rapport with Buckminster Fuller and Marshal McLuhan into new focus and highlights Cage’s “techno-optimism” (p. 190), a general theme of relevance today.