Kyle Gann, over at Post Classic, has emerged from the end-of-term chaos for his first post since last month. In the post, he discusses his writing a book on Cage's 4'33". He has so far enjoyed getting "hip-deep" in Cage knowledge, as Gann says:
"In my teens I became too overwhelmed by Cage's influence and had to finally get away from him. Now I've got a much stronger artistic backbone, and can pick and choose, criticize and admire, whatever I fancy. He wasn't a philosopher, and any musician who calls him that just doesn't know what philosophers are or what they do. But he was an innovative composer with an original personality and an incredibly elegant and memorable flair for words, which latter did a tremendous amount to promote his career."
This philosopher/composer divide is a bone of contention with many Cage scholars. Most music history surveys cast away Cage as a thinker and ignore what he actually did: as James Pritchett says in the introduction to his The Music of John Cage, Cage is remembered as a philosopher, not composer, despite his having written "hundreds of compositions that are published by a prominent music publishing house, have been recorded, and are performed regularly worldwide.” Or, as James Tenney wrote in his essay John Cage and the Theory of Harmony: “some of Cage’s critics (even friendly ones) seem to think that he is primarily a philosopher, rather than composer…I believe, in fact, that it is primarily because of his music—his very substantial credibility as a composer—that we are drawn into a consideration of his philosophical and theoretical ideas.”
But that's neither here nor there. Gann's post resonated with me not because I'm very much devoted to Cage, but because I can recognize in myself what he now acknowledges in retrospect: I am easily overwhelmed by other's influence. In my last few years of grad school, I have seriously considered half-a-dozen different lifelong devotions to various musicological topics. Often, periods of intense crushing followed inspired studies with inspirational thinkers.
The topics I've bounced to-and-from are closely related, but disparate enough to sometimes worry friends and mentors. An in-course-work graduate student is not expected to have a dissertation topic nailed down completely, but he is also not expected to radically change topic ideas from term to term.
What's a boy to do? I don't feel like waiting 30 years until I have enough artistic backbone" to better handle influence. I'm reminded of one of my favorite ballads:
The life of a young scholar is a strange one. Four years of college lead to another four-six year term. In this graduate school phase, one is expected to interact with and learn from the greatest minds around, in print and in person. One is also somewhat expected to develop an independent voice, outlook, way of thinking. And, like red wine, one is certain to get better with age, but one best be palatable by 28-30 years, or there's little hope of acquiring that important-first-post at some-school-somewhere.
I watched a documentary on the Amish Rumspringa last night. This rite of passage (literally "running around") is a period from age 16 onward in which an Amish youth is freed from the constrictive rules of his faith. For the first time, he might wear "english" (ie: non-Amish) clothing, go the mall, drink liquor, drive a car, not go to church, or smoke crack (no, really, watch the documentary).
The point of this period is to give one the chance to see what the other side is like. Then, one can choose to be Amish and whole-heartedly devote oneself to the traditional life without a doubt as to how things might have been different. Most youth eventually come back to the church, are baptized, and spend their life Amish. Some, however, do not. (particularly the crack smoking ones, I would think.)
Could young scholars need the same period of freedom? Maybe it should be expected that after finishing our coursework we will do everything non-academic for a year or two. No work past 5pm, no notes in the margins of books, not visits to libraries daily, spend more time outdoors than in, no making really bad music puns, and so on. Perhaps a year or two of running around will only strengthen our academic ties. Only after a year in the "normal world" might we more confidently confine ourselves to the ivory tower.
And, maybe, after this Rumspringa, a youngin' like myself might feel more comfortable sorting out individual ideas from those overwhelmed by influence. Or maybe I'm just a little sad that my summer ends next week and I'm back to teaching daily!—my month-long Rumspringa is almost at an end.