John Cage+T.S. Eliot=Bewilderment: Break the Rules
Our American Mavericks Break the Rules series—based on the work of Music Humanities students at Columbia University—concludes with Helen Chen, who uses John Cage's embrace of chance operations combined with the words of T.S. Eliot to linguistically experiment with her increasingly bewildered friends.
John Cage's inclusion of chance operations in his musical, literary, and artistic works revolutionized the philosophical discourse of modern art. I have been fascinated with Cage's methodology since I was introduced to it in my 20th-century art class. Prior to actualizing my plans for this challenge, I researched Cage's different rituals of chance operations. Influenced by the mantras of Zen Buddhism and Chinese mysticism, he often used the hexagram patterns from the I Ching to provide the layout for his musical compositions. The purpose was to remove the artist's intentions from his work; the musical piece is based on random simulation rather than personal taste. Cage also took on the legacy of 20th-century poets and wrote a number of mesostic poems. The lines of these poems were constructed by methodically and objectively choosing words and phrases from preexisting works. Obsessed with dissociating subjectivity from his creations, Cage incorporated elements of chance operation in his everyday life. According to one source, he often had with him a sheaf of pages showing I Ching–derived numbers, computer-printed and ready to use to get answers without the need to throw coins1.
Cage's use of chance operations was not limited to the musical scene, but extended into literary and linguistic sectors. Thus, I decided to remain loyal to his methods for this challenge. I created my statements by writing a mesostic of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I used "T.S. Eliot" as the template for the mesostic, just as Cage used "James Joyce" as the template for his "Finnegan's Wake" poems. To choose the lines from the poems, I decided to use a random number generator to point me to the starting stanza from which I was to find the first word containing the appropriate letter of T.S. Eliot. From there, I subjectively decided where to end the phrase for the poetic line, usually for the sake of keeping the lines short. Another subjective element of this project was which conversations I chose to record. I also approximated the amount of time the conversations were to be recorded. Within the estimated time frame, I used a random time generator to decide on the approximate times I was going to use the phrases. I also used a random number generator to pick out the corresponding phrase to each individual time. I chose not to notify the person that our conversation was being recorded to keep the natural flow of the conversation on the personsf parts. Furthermore, without knowledge of my project, I allowed the other speaker to dominate and determine the course of the conversation, especially since they would start the conversation.
Overall, the random insertions of these statements made the free-flowing exchanges awkward and eventually my friends would even ignore the ridiculous comments I was making. Occasionally, the predetermined phrase would miraculously fit well within the conversation. Nevertheless, my general experience with simulating this project was encompassed by frustration. By citing these phrases at random times paradoxically gave the conversations a contrived feeling on my side. Conversations are multi-sided and require harmony from all parties. In this sense, Cage's attempt to remove personal intention proves difficult in such situations, as harmony in speech is often based on intention. Musical compositions, in the same manner, are often dialectal works where instruments and voices are in correspondence with one another. Thus, I found it incredibly interesting that Cage's methods of chance operations were applicable to his musical creations but did not work well in this linguistic project.
Mesostic for T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Transcribed Excerpts from Conversations:
I had my GarageBand on recording this conversation throughout the movie and did not tell my friends until the end of the conversations, in order to preserve the natural flow of the conversation.
Alana: Whatare you guys doing?
Irene: Just about to begin Annie Hall. Wanna join us?
Alana: Nah, I'm gonna take a shower and then meet up with Jenn.
Irene and Helen: Have fun!
(After the film)
Helen: I wonder if Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were ever together in real life. She's been in so many of his movies.
Irene: That's a good question. Someone should look it up.
*Helen: Shall I say.2
Irene: I didn't think this movie was as funny as his other stuff.
Helen: Same, I liked Manhattan way better. Also, the ending didn't do too much for me.
Irene: I just didn't like this storyline that much.
Helen: It was still pretty funny though—like waiting on line in the movie theater scene. Also, now I really want to watch The Sorrow and The Pity.
Irene: Haha yeah. Wow, it's 12:30 already. Yo, come into the kitchen with me while I make toast and tea.
Helen: Yeah, sure.
Nicole: I don't like the tops of zucchinis. They're very weird looking.
Helen: Haha, I guess.
Nicole: Is this what zucchini flower is? It's all the rage in Rome and in Italian cooking in general. They put it on pizza or just fry it. They put it on everything, really.
Helen: How was Italian pizza?
Nicole: It was good except for the first night because it was just a combination of cheeses that I really didn't like together.
*Helen: Time yet for a hundred indecisions ...
Nicole: What ...? Sorry, I don't have very much pasta, I gave a lot of it to someone on my floor so this is all I have left to split between the three of us.
Helen: Oh, that's cool.
Nicole: It's going to be a greater vegetable to pasta ratio. Do you like garlic? I'm going to mince some and then saute it with these vegetables.
Helen: That sounds good. Need any help?
Nicole: No, I'm almost done with prepping everything.
Helen: Haha, that's a weird looking asparagus.
Nicole: Yeah, I think I'm going to toss it.
Helen: Haha, we both don't like weird-looking vegetables.
Nicole: Hold on, someone's calling me.
*Helen: It was a soft October night.
(Someone comes into the kitchen to microwave some food.)
Helen: Is it okay to keep my laptop under the microwave like this?
Nicole: Yeah, I'm sure it's fine. So one of my classmates recorded sounds of different fountains in Rome for her final project for our seminar, isn't that cool? She wants to examine the relationship between sound and art, and relate it back to the techniques in particular installation art.
Helen: That's awesome. How did she go about doing this?
Nicole: She just put a recording device right by the fountains.
*Helen: Shall I say.
Nicole: Yeah. I think the pasta is done, although I'm really bad at making pasta because I never actually know when it's done. I'm fine with the consistency as long as I can eat it.
Helen: Same. Let me move my laptop into the lounge.
(In the lounge)
Helen: Hi what's up? What're you working on?
Stephanie: Cell bio.
Helen: Fun stuff.
Stephanie: Yeah, definitely. Let me go get Nicole some bowls.
*Helen: Time yet for a hundred indecisions.
Stephanie: Uhh I guess ...?
Nicole: Stephanie, do you have forks? I realized I don't have any. I'm a horrible host.
Helen: We can eat with our hands.
Stephanie: Haha, I have some forks.
Nicole: I'll put the salt here in case anyone wants it. I warn you though—it's turned into a solid rock mass.
*Helen: Advise the prince.
Nicole: So I have 150 more pages to read before I write my colloquium paper due Tuesday and I have to dog-sit.
Stephanie: Aw, that really sucks.
Nicole: By the way, speaking of filmmakers, did you watch the Oscars?
Helen: No, why?
Nicole: There was one little segment that was just a tribute to filmmakers and there was a clip of Werner Herzog, and I thought of you.
*Helen: Voices wake us.
1. Kathan Brown. John Cage—Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind, San Francisco: Crown Point Press, 2000: 79
2. All lines with asterisks indicate that I used one of the line from the T.S. Eliot mesostic.