Sunday, February 08, 2015

Hindu sonatas and interludes


Last month I reported on the loss in transit of Raga Virga from Ars Choralis Coeln and Amelia Cuni. Now I am happy to report that a replacement CD has arrived and was certainly well worth waiting for. My earlier description of Raga Virga as Indian Dhrupad songs fused with the chant of Hildegard von Bingen fails to do this project justice. Raga Virga does not so much fuse past traditions as build on them to create something entirely new. Star of the show is Amelia Cuni, seen in the foreground above. She trained in the North Indian Dhrupad vocal tradition and has recorded her own realisation of John Cage's eighteen microtonal ragas from 'Solos for Voice 3–58' in his 'Song Books' - sample here.

Cage is usually stereotyped as a Zen Buddhist composer. But Hinduism also shaped his music, and, in fact one commentator talks of Cage’s 'borrowings' from the British-Ceylonese art historian and metaphysician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Cage is known to have studied Coomaraswamy's writings, and there there has been much debate as to the degree of influence exerted on the composer by a philosopher who has been described as "ultraconservative". But there is evidence of influence, if not of borrowing. Coomaraswamy’s book The Dance of the Shiva discusses rasa and the Hindu view of beauty and art, and one of Cage's most important works, the 'Sonatas and Interludes' for prepared piano, is shaped by the Hindu aesthetic theory of rasa which defines the nine main emotional states. Coomaraswamy is grouped with the conservative perennialists, and, in view of this, Cage's artistic direction could be considered as a radical return to perennial values, rather than breaking radically new ground. This very different viewpoint challenges another stereotype - Cage the iconoclast - and is reinforced by his opinion that "[Nam June] Paik's involvement with sex, introducing it into music does not conduce towards sounds being sounds".

Hinduism also influenced Cage via his pupil the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai. In 1946 Sarabhai gave Cage a copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and the 19th century Indian mystic shared with Coomaraswamy the view originally expressed by Thomas Aquinas that "Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation". This philosophy influenced Cage's experiments with chance composition techniques; these can be viewed as an extension of Chaos Theory, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent can cause a hurricane on another.

The view that art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation stands in direct contrast to current views that art is the imitation of science - music as a digital commodity - and that art is the imitation of industry - as in the recent statement by Helen Boaden explaining that "the BBC should provide the risk capital of creative industries". (This industrial metaphor is put into perspective by a Facebook comment on my recent post Stop trying to serve everybody, instead just serve the music which suggested that if classical music is treated as an industry, it can expect to be downsized and outsourced). Thankfully Raga Virga eschews these fashionable views, and instead provides a line of transmission via John Cage and Amelia Cuni of Gita Sarabhai's belief - which so influenced Cage - that "The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences".

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3 comments:

Unknown said...

You are quite right to bring up the connection between Cage, Coomaraswamy, and the Perennial Philosophy. Coomaraswamy was a critical influence on Cage in the 1940s. Much of the writing on Cage and Coomaraswamy is too influenced by Cage's later views and glosses over the degree to which Cage endorsed Coomaraswamy's spiritual view of art, even while the traditionalist nature of that view was completely opposed to Cage's own path as an avant-garde composer. Cage's lecture "A composer's confessions" (a nod to St. Augustine) is the important source for understanding this part of Cage's musical+spiritual journey. I've written about this lecture and what it tells us about Cage and Coomaraswamy on my blog.

Pliable said...

The theme of the 2015 Ouverture Spirituelle at the Salzburg Summer Music Festival is Christian and Hindu sacred music. The influence of Hinduism on John Cage is recognised in a concert by the JACK Quartet which places Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) alongside works by Webern and Boulez.

http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/concert/salzburg-contemporary-2015/jack-quartet

Unknown said...

Cage/Webern/Boulez: that's an interesting and thoughtful program. Cage started work on the quartet during his visit to Paris in 1949, the visit where he met Boulez and became an advocate for his music. It will make for an interesting and diverse program.

James