From the book How to Begin and Other Essays on Art
I know exactly when I became interested in music. I can't remember the year and I don't know the date or the time but it was when I first heard a recording of La Monte Young's Drift Study from 1969. For the first time ever I thought to myself, "This has something to do with me." Like everybody else, obviously, ever since my teenage years I had listened to loads of music. The first album I ever bought was Parade by the British band Spandau Ballet. I don't recall albums two or three, but I know for sure that number four was 2:00 AM Paradise Café by Barry Manilow. Both of the mentioned albums were released in 1984, and so I'm guessing I probably bought them that year. I was 13 years old. By the time I was 15 I was listening to Jean-Michel Jarre and Philip Glass, and by the time I was 17 it was Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich and Laurie Anderson. Living in a small town on the west coast of Jutland, I had access to such music because at the time we had a very progressive library policy in Denmark that said that libraries were required to buy all the best of what was put out there. Not what the public wanted, but the best. Our local library took that very seriously, and consequently they had something like 10 or 15 Stockhausen albums. I used to go to the library and sit there and listen to them, fascinated by the covers and by the booklets. Sirius was my favourite, released on LP by Deutsche Grammophon in 1980. Another album that particularly impressed me and which the library also had was the monumental A Sound Year by Danish pioneer composer Gunnar Møller Pedersen, twelve times 30 minutes of electronic music, one piece for each month of the year. These days I have it on CD and I still listen to it a lot.
For a teenager, maybe, my choice of music was odd. The reason for that was simple. Like all teenagers I felt like an outsider, and like most teenagers I used music as an identity marker. I felt that I was different from the people around me and rather than trying to become more like them, I nurtured the feeling because it gave me a sense of identity. I listened to a different kind of music than they did, I read different books, etc. Later in life, obviously, I came to realize that I was just like everybody else and it was a big relief to me. It meant that I didn't have to prove anything to anyone and that I could just relax and read and listen to whatever I happened to fancy without having to justify it. People who follow me on Facebook will know that I have no problems posting a piece by Xenakis right next to Kiss My Country Ass by Blake Sheldon (and none of them will get any likes). These days I do not care. For young people it is very important. My teenage niece would rather die than get caught listening to the wrong band or the wrong singer. I make fun of her but the truth is that I used to be exactly the same.
There are many kinds of stupidity and some of them are surprising clever. Others are just silly. Through all of the years when I just listened to music, I wasn't interested in music because to me music was MUSIC. It was something that composers and musicians did, and I was neither. It consisted of MUSIC, music did, which was something I knew nothing about. Notes and chords and whatever. Scales. Cadence. Ostinato. To approach music one had to take music classes, I thought, and become one of them. One had to learn. Since I felt confident that I had no capacity for learning, music was out of my reach. I couldn't even get to a place where I could begin to become interested for there was nothing for me to grab hold of. It had nothing to do with anything I was familiar with, I thought. It never once occured to me that music is actually just sound. This is why Drift Study by La Monte Young became so important to me. The piece was produced by fiddling with sine wave oscillators and it pretty much sounds like that annoying sound you get when you have the TV on but there's no transmission. It's just beeeeep for seven minutes. Listening to it made me feel like a moron, not because I had just wasted seven minutes listening to a beeeeep―but because there it was. This wasn't alien to me. This was music and it was sound, and I knew that sound. My dad used to be a foreman at the Bang & Olufsen factory in Struer and I grew up in a house with five people in it and eight TVs. One in every room except for the bathroom, and two in the living room. I knew that sound extremely well. For the first time ever it dawned on me that music was not something special in the sense that it was completely unrelated to the rest of the world. Like a painting is just paint that has been added to a canvas in a certain way, a piece of music consists of sounds that have been similarly organized. As a painter I have never been the slightest bit interested in theory and I have never studied colours or read a book on technique. If I could get to painting while just ignoring all of such stuff, now―all of sudden―I felt that I could probably do the same with music. I became interested. All I had to do was to stop listening to music as MUSIC and start listening to it as sound. And so I did. I started over. I listened to the music that I had listened to before and I listened to new music, and I listened differently. Like my friend Jens Rossel would say, "Happy new ears!" I became fascinated by the work of British composer Trevor Wishart, which is technically insanely complicated but it's all about sound. Our local library got me a copy of his 1985 book On Sonic Art and I read about two pages and then had to give up because I didn't understand a word of it. But then I read, also, John Cage.
I think it would probably be hard to overestimate the influence John Cage has had on my understanding of music and of art in general. In his book Silence (1961) Cage comes to the same conclusion that I had managed to reach on my own, that one is better off replacing the word music with "a more meaningful term: organization of sound." "The composer (organizer of sound)," he also writes, "will be faced not only with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time." Whereas I had previously felt that I knew nothing about music and that it wasn't for me, reading Cage made me feel that this was actually right up my alley. To me, his idea about a "field of sound" sounded very similar to poet Charles Olson's notion of the "open field", something that was (and still is) very important to me. Talking about Edgard Varèse, for instance, John Cage wrote that he "moved into the field of sound itself, not splitting it in two by introducing into the perception of it a mental prejudice." It reminded me of what Olson said in his famous essay on Projective Verse: "The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold ... " The important words being "therein" and "outside". They weren't talking about the same thing, though, not exactly. Charles Olson's main concern was getting rid of what Frank Zappa (a great admirer of Varèse) later dubbed "cheap emotions" in order to get to what was real. John Cage on the other hand was out to undermine all of Western art. Or large chunks of it, anyway. Soft spoken and polite as he was, Cage was the most subversive of all of the 20th century artists and he was so because what he proposed was the most subversive thing you can think of. It was at the same time endearingly simple, almost childlike, and absolutely horrifying: get rid of intention in art. Or rather, for the artist will obviously have a motive for making art in the first place, however obscure, what Cage suggested was to give up on the idea that the artist has something that he or she wants to communicate, and then you have to sort of decode the work to figure out what it is. Which is what most people, including most artists, understand as art. You have a feeling you'd like to express, or maybe an idea you'd like to communicate, maybe a religious or a political idea. Maybe you want to provoke people, or you want them to stop for a while and contemplate something. Maybe you just want to really show them the beauty of something, like a person or a deer at a lake or a sunset in Hawaii. John Cage's answer to all of this was NOTHING. Get rid of it and replace is with nothing. In the Cagean version, an artist is not a person with an intent to communicate like that. It's simply a person with a strategy for making art. Cage himself came up with several strategies involving various kinds of chance operations. Some of them were quite poetic, like the 32 Etudes Australes, which were based on star charts, but basically the strategies were all just different versions of throwing a dice. No composer searching his or her soul or wrecking his or her brain for something clever or profound to express about the loveliness of the countryside or the horrors of war of any such thing. Just a person throwing a dice to determine what the next sound should be.
It's quite possible that I haven't managed to express what Cage meant properly, and if I have, one could perhaps argue that what Cage suggested, really, wasn't to give up on personal, artistic intentions entirely but simply to replace all of them with his own. The purpose of music, he said, was "To sober the mind and thus make it susceptible to divine influences." That is to say, he did in fact have a kind of Buddhist agenda of his own, which he was trying to push. In this particular context, however, it doesn't matter much. I never became a Cagean. What impressed me about John Cage wasn't as much what he was saying as the way that he said it, his approach to music and to thinking about music. This was extremely valuable to me. Also, even though I was (and remain) unwilling to adopt Cage's idea about giving up on content, his emphasis on strategy certainly helped me get myself better aligned in regard to my painting. There is a wonderful and humorous quote by Morton Felman, a friend of Cage's and a fellow composer. "For years I said," he said, "if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart." Thanks to Cage I started worrying less about content or about coming up with stuff to communicate, and I became much more focused on practicalities and strategy. In his essay on Projective Verse Charles Olson quotes poet Robert Creeley who in a 1950 letter to him had said that "form is never more than an extension of content". It's become like an Olsonian mantra. What John Cage helped me realize was that often it's much more interesting and rewarding to just focus on form and then let the content reveal itself as you progress, rather than doing it the other way around where you start with having some content or an idea you wish to communicate. These days when I paint, I never know what I am painting, not to begin with. Having something to say is far less of a concern to me than having a good chair to sit in while I paint. And so on.
Another thing I got from John Cage was a lack of interest in originality. Ever since Ezra Pound's Make It New (1935), artists (and critics) have been obsessed with originality and new-ness. For many it's one of the main criterias for being considered a real artist in the first place, that one's work is truly original. In other parts of the world, being an artist isn't about coming up with new stuff but about doing something already familar in a particularly refined way. Like Chinese calligraphy. In Silence Cage ironically points out that the call for originality is well in tune with the spirit of capitalist entrepreneurship: "Thus it is economical for each / one of us to be original. We get / more done by not doing what / someone else is doing. This / way we can speed up history." I have no interest in partaking in that. I am much more interested in stasis, artistically. In classical music these days, I guess, there's a strange paradox with composers getting recognition for being original and musicians getting recognition and becoming famous for doing old stuff really well. If a contemporary composer did piano music that sounded like Chopin, he or she would be laughed at (if not publicly then at least behind his or her back). When Martha Argerich plays Chopin, however, absolutely nobody's laughing. But then, personally, I don't. I don't listen to Chopin. Having in a way come full circle, I now mostly listen to what could perhaps be described as variations of La Monte Young's Drift Study, the beeeeep. It's the kind of music that slightly annoys and sometimes even offends trained composers and musicians because it's so easy to make and so unoriginal that it almost feels like a fraud. I listen to dark ambient music, which―to put it rudely―is music made by taking just about any sound you can find, and then using what is called a PaulStretch filter. And then maybe add some mumbling or something, preferably in a language no one understands. A few years ago I did a whole series of drawings and collages inspired by the album Dyatlov's Pass (2003) by the Russian dark ambient project Velehentor. Interestingly, or at least to me, the series afterwards inspired the composer Ailís Ní Ríain to do a piece, Dubinina's Tongue, a percussion quartet for four bowed cymbals. So it went from music to visual art works, and then to new music. I also listen a lot to French composer Éliane Radigue, and I listen to German multimedia artist Thomas Köner. As a painter, as inspiration for my painting, this is the kind of music that I now listen to. But then, of course, there's life. Sometimes things will just jump right up and grab you. I've also done a painting inspired by an album by the Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura, Roots. I happened to come across it on Youtube and I even went and bought the CD. It's pretty awesome.