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Purposeless Play: John Cage as Gamifier

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The following is an Op-Ed piece by Adam Tendler

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with games.  In Little League, I’d stand in the outfield and cover my face with my baseball glove, at once bored and petrified by the idea of the ball flying in my direction.  The one physical fight I’ve ever been in occurred at a swim team practice when the coach’s son noticed me cheating, finishing my laps only when everyone else finished theirs regardless of how many I had left.  I’ve never once won Monopoly, typically filing bankruptcy within a half-hour.  I lose the game of Life with more kids than can fit in my car.  In Apples to Apples, I aim for comedy but often go hours before winning a round.  I’ve lost friends playing Pictionary, draw a blank during Scattegories, and have forfeited matches of Uno with six-year olds.  Whatever, they cheat.

As a concert pianist, I entered my first competition in high school.  I won, but never wanted to do anything like it again.  While most classical musicians use competitions as the cornerstone of their careers — check out any pianist’s bio — I bought a Hyundai after conservatory and drove around the country looking for places to play.  Fear and insecurity aside, I at least told myself that competitions — or rather, games — have nothing in common with music.  People lose games.  I lose games.

But I’m growing up into my inner-gamer, you might say, perhaps because I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last five years performing the music of John Cage, the composer who blurred the role of creator, performer, and audience, revolutionizing everything he touched from about 1930 onward, from music to literature, philosophy to mushroom hunting, an “inventor,” as Arnold Schoenberg called him, “of genius,” and to many others a musical anarchist, and to me, a titan of modern art who pretty much — let’s just say it — gamified music.

Yes, most of Cage’s music from the mid-twentieth century onward involves strict rules and varying results.  These pieces act like games, and indeed are as fun to play (once one learns the rules) as they are often bewildering to watch.  Think of standing by a craps table with little clue as to the rhyme or reason behind all the shouting and dice throwing.  

Cage often changed his compositional approach from piece to piece.  Just because one learns to navigate through the stacks of sheets and transparencies constituting one score, it doesn’t mean they’ll have a clue what to do with another.  The instructions and notations of Water Walk (1959), which require a musician to perform a number of sound-making actions (including dealing cards) don’t at all resemble the instructions and notations for, say, HPSCRD (1969), for which Cage had a computer program created to simulate coin tosses in great number, each toss leading to a respective I Ching hexagram to which Cage had subscribed a particular musical action.  Before then, Cage had actually spent a great deal of time literally flipping coins in his apartment.

But this diversity of form between one piece to the next isn’t dissimilar to the inherent difference between one board game and another.  I have friends who collect board games and each week get together to play a new one.  An aspiring Cage aficionado might benefit from joining such a club, as Cage had an almost pathological obsession with not repeating himself in form, style, or sound, often moving further and further away from the universal language of music (staves, notes, clefs, etc.) to create with each piece a unique microcosm of sound with each its own language, rules of play, and symbols.  A performer greets each work like a new board game.

The metaphor isn’t that far off, really, because even before embracing the I Ching around 1950 and inventing new musical ways to exploit it, Cage developed what he called a “gamut” technique, in which he composed music by arranging musical actions, notes, rhythms, and dynamics across what could only be described as a checkerboard, moving his musician like a gamepiece across this chart to create a sequence of musical events, resulting in the piece itself.  I simplify, but for Cage this approach served as one of his first formal invitations of chance elements into the process of composing, intentionally weakening his own personal influence over how the music would sound, a kind of musical cuckolding that he would spend the rest of his life refining with increased devotion.

To Cage, deciding which notes, rhythms, and dynamics would appear on the page and the overall meaning they should convey —  in other words, the nuts and bolts of what we commonly think of as the composer’s job – were akin to “rigging the game” to fit his own preferences.  How unfair, Cage might have thought.

This is out-there stuff, I’ll admit, and much of it came from Cage’s increasing interest in Eastern religion after a series of emotional crises — he started his career composing quite conventionally, in that he had programmatic objectives and composed music to express those objectives — but I think it helps to think of Cage’s devotion to indeterminacy as a manifestation, in the most absolute terms available to him as a composer (sound, action, a score), of his personal reverence of order combined with his borderline-nihilistic embrace of chaos.

“Purposeless play,” as Cage once called his life as a composer.  And what really is “purposeless play,” if not another name for a game?  The Superbowl is, for all intents, as purposeless as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so where do we draw the line of purpose, to determine what’s purposeful?  Of course Cage wanted us to ask that question and confront it in his music, because of course for him – spoiler alert — there was no line between noise and music, life and art.  ”And what is the purpose of writing music?” he once asked.  ”One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds… a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play.  This play, however, is an affirmation of life — not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

A natural game enthusiast, Cage enjoyed chess (which he learned from and played regularly with Marcel Duchamp), as well as Scrabble, bridge, poker, solitaire, backgammon, dominos, poker, even dice games.  Cage couldn’t resist even gamifying a late interview about his colleagues and influences:

But even here, we see him thinking, formulating emotional responses to the prompts, even if these responses have to occur within chance-determined allotments of time.  When he fails to meet the challenge at one point, Cage requests to try again, ever a disciple of structure, of order, of making sure his razor-sharp intelligence stays razor-sharp.  It’s not improvisation, really, which Cage once deridingly referred to as “playing what you know, and what you like, and what you feel,” adding, “most of my life as a composer I’ve resisted improvisation,” but rather a kind of strictly controlled, spontaneous creativity — forced creation outside of one’s comfort zone — not unlike a Cage piece that requires a musician to do something with a metal music stand between such-and-such space in time.

Only the most fervent Cage critic will deny his brilliance, typically because this critic subscribes to the idea that a composer should make music in a conventional sense with conventional goals.  But if we think of Cage as not so much a classical music composer — our label, not his — and instead as a musical gamifier, structuring each game in a way as to not guarantee results (can any classical composer really do this?) but rather guarantee the possibility of a range of results, on the stage or on the page, Cage’s genius can’t be argued.  Just like Philip Glass and Steve Reich once demonstrated a jaw-dropping ability to stack tiny melodic fragments into massive, ever-changing structures of sound — not easy to do, by the way — so did Cage become the ultimate architect of chance-based music, carefully tiering his indeterminate elements like a ship in a bottle.

But the music, by the way, isn’t always mind-numbingly esoteric, nor does it always sound like an incomprehensible splattering of notes flitting about helter skelter.

One might even argue that from around 1950 onward, Cage strived with each piece to find ways to make the meaninglessness, well… somehow meaningful, if not philosophically, even aurally.  He even came to a kind of truce with tonality in the final years of his life, while still remaining a tried-and-true chance composer.  His serene “Number Pieces” and Europeras, some of the last pieces he ever composed, allow for moments of conventional beauty to shine through, even if those chance alignment of elements, those happy accidents, were never Cage’s intention nor even a source of delight, as they often are for the rest of us.

Pretty or not, I myself enjoy every indeterminate minute of Cage’s music, and lucky me, it’s his centenary year!  2012 offers a smattering of festivals, journals, conferences, and concerts to honor him, including a John Cage camping trip (though it’s actually a piece) which I’ll attend this summer.   Still, celebrations notwithstanding, musical establishment as a whole has yet to fully reconcile John Cage into its hallowed halls of music history, a history that, if we’re honest with ourselves, he changed with nearly every compositions.  I recently visited a progressive university to perform his Sonatas and Interludes and the dean of the music school had no sooner shaken my hand before he started cracking jokes at Cage’s expense, digging into his pocket for some nickels and offering them to me “to prepare the piano with.”  Everyone laughed.  I was stunned.  ”No, thank you,” I said.  ”The piece doesn’t call for nickels.”

Yes, it’s much easier to relegate Cage and his advocates to the looney-tune fringe than to invite us to the table, just as it’s easier to write off Cage’s genius, if inconvenient, inventions of musical gamification than to just learn how to play them, just as it’s easier to shave off a couple laps at the pool than to keep going as the rest of the swim team watches and waits.  Easy, yes.  Fun, no.  Fair?  Absolutely not.  It makes me think of a few weeks ago, the first time I performed Cage’s notorious “silent” piece, 4’33″, and how it seemed to last forever sitting up there in front of the closed piano lid, but how the second I started my stopwatch a feeling of community came over all of us in the hall, a sense of getting through the piece together, of playing it together.  When it finished, we were speechless, exhilarated, exhausted.  We won, and all we wanted to do was play it again.

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