Chapter II: Cage and Schwitters — Two Historical Precedents

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948): The Collage Aesthetic
John Cage (1912 – 1992): Indeterminacy

Although the technological ideas in Bits and Pieces are new, its aesthetic has many precedents, drawing from the works of visual artists and composers. The primary historical art forms that it draws from are collage and indeterminate art; forms pioneered and developed by artist Kurt Schwitters, and composer John Cage respectively. Both forms are used in Bits and Pieces through sampling the Web and randomly choosing which samples to process. The following chapter will discuss works and aesthetics developed by both of these artists, with respect to their influence on the creation of Bits and Pieces.

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948): The Collage Aesthetic
It is only when one realizes the contempt that existed at that time for any form of life not exalted or decked in finery that we can estimate the power of his courage to demand respect for that which was discarded as rubbish. — Katherine Dreier on Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters is acknowledged by many to be the 20th Century’s foremost master of collage. Before Schwitters’s use of collage can be discussed, a definition of collage must be given. Webster’s Dictionary defines collage as "an artistic composition made of various materials (as paper, cloth, or wood) glued on a surface." It further defines it as "an assembly of diverse fragments." Princeton Art Professor Dorothea Dietrich defines it from an artistic perspective:

Composer and theorist John Welsh's definition is perhaps more appropriate to Bits and Pieces:

Historically, the advent of collage art has coincided with and responded to political and social upheaval. Schwitters’s move to collage came after the end of World War I, when the Wiemar Republic was in economic and social turmoil. His collages, which he termed "Merzs," (German for garbage or refuse), were responses to these events. He defined the word "Merz" as "essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials" (Schwitters 37). In describing one of Schwitters's early Merzs, Dietrich states that "it is a work in which the formal discontinuities of the collage medium serve as analogues to the dislocations typical of postwar German urban environments" (9). This description, although applied to a specific piece, can be taken in a broader context as signifying an aesthetic approach utilized in collage art that involves the fragmentation of the subject(s). Furthermore, it involves the ‘sampling’ of prefabricated material, both physical and ideological, to create a new language of artistic expression. According to Schwitters scholar Gwendolyn Freundel, "inner tension that derives from the sensitive juxtaposition of abstraction and realism, aesthetics and rubbish, art and life, and their innate dynamism is one of the characteristics of Merz."

According to Dietrich, Schwitters "transformed his method of artistic production, developed new subject matter grounded in modern culture and the spectacle, and created an organizational apparatus, Merz, to lend it structure" (17). In developing this new subject matter, Schwitters borrowed from previous forms such as Expressionism, Futurism and Dadaism to create his new language. The act of borrowing from other styles was, in itself, a form of collage. From this perspective, the collage aesthetic is prevalent in much of today’s both commercial and art cultures. Other prominent and diverse visual artists, such as Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol have used collage or elements of collage in their works in various ways. Joseph Cornell, a seminal collagist from the mid-twentieth century, created works using wooden boxes into which he placed various cultural ephemera such as magazine cutouts, stuffed birds, and photographs.

Figure 4. Picture with Light Center (1919) – an early Schwitters painted collage

Collage art seems to be a 20th century technique. Technological and industrial advancements in printing, photography, and textiles in the early part of the century provided artists with new means and materials by which to realize their works. Critic/theorist Walter Benjamin, writing in 1935 about the effects of technology on art at the turn of the century, stated that "to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility." The use of garbage and ephemera for collage works was in part a result of the Futurist and especially Dadaist movements that questioned the very nature of art and what constitutes it. According to WebMuseum curator, Nicholas Pioch, the Dadaists created works of found art (called ready-mades) and ‘anti-art’ that "were engendered by disgust for bourgeois values and despair over World War I." This "disgust for bourgeois values" led to the appropriation of mass produced/reproduced bourgeois artifacts in their works. The result "was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production" (Benjamin). Of course, there were other issues, too numerous to discuss here, that also helped bring about the aesthetic shift eventually leading to collage art. The advent of modern warfare and communications technology, and their social impacts, had a primary influence in Schwitter’s Merzs. One can assume that the images of battered bodies, bombed out buildings, and an impoverished country on the losing end of the War, must have had a large influence on the fragmentation, discontinuities, and juxtapositions in Schwitters’s works:

Media technology, especially as we know it today, has created a world in which images and sounds can easily be disconnected from their original source. Furthermore, they can be fragmented, spliced and reconstituted to such a degree as to often blur the distinction between original source and reproduction, as is evidenced by the increasingly realistic digital effects used in most of today's action and science fiction movies. This, compounded with the advent of the Internet, has created an environment and a medium with almost unlimited artistic possibilities.

John Cage (1912 – 1992): Indeterminacy

John Cage, like Kurt Schwitters, created collage art amongst other things. However, the definition of collage used in Schwitters's works must be reinterpreted slightly for application to Cage's works. Cage used collage in a musical sense, and he also used it in a less deterministic sense than Schwitters. In the early 1950s, Cage began to use chance operations to determine certain aspects of his compositions. Later referred to as indeterminacy, Cage first used chance operations to determine the score for his piano piece, Music of Changes (1951). Specifically, he used chance operations described in the Chinese I-Ching (Book of Changes). Cage describes a method in which he tossed three coins six times to obtain values that would determine the outcome of the score (Johnston). One of the most important processes in creating an indeterminate work, according to Cage's colleague Christian Wolff, is setting up the parameters in which the indeterminacy would be used. In deciding on the parameters, Cage actually exercised a large degree of control over his works. Collage, as defined with respect to Schwitters's work, means the intentional juxtaposition of objects by the artist. In many of Cage's indeterminate works, he did not choose specific juxtapositions of sounds, but rather, through the setting of parameters, created environments in which particular juxtapositions could occur. This too, is a form of collage, and is particularly evident in his works, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) and Radio Music (1956) (Wolff). In these pieces, Cage used radios as sound sources, with scores defining the players' manipulation of volumes and radio tunings (see Figure 5). These pieces are particularly applicable to Bits and Pieces because they use randomly sampled "broadcast."

In an interview with Richard Kostelanetz, Cage stated that, "there was a tendency through the whole twentieth century, from the Futurists on, to use noises, anything that produced sound, as a musical instrument. It wasn’t really a leap on my part; it was, rather, simply opening my ears to what was in the air" (218). Yet, it is Cage who is generally credited with opening up 20th Century musical tastes to the use of all possible sounds. In his early works, such as Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), Cage used metallic percussion and a variable speed turntable playing a recording of a sine wave as musical sources. He also invented and wrote many pieces for the prepared piano, in which objects were inserted between the piano strings to produce a wide range of percussive timbres. To him, however, the music still bore his personal stamp. This, in his opinion, prevented music from creating completely unimaginable experiences because the composition was still tied to the composer’s ego and habits and thus, the limitations of the composer's imagination. Music critic Art Lange states that Cage "may have felt that in order to circumvent our desire to find emotion in music, and go beyond our powers of imagination, he too had to abdicate compositional control—to remove all traces of personal identification with the musical material. Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) was a drastic step in this direction" (4).

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is for 24 players and twelve radios (two players per radio). The score is predetermined, with detailed parts for each radio. The notation is written in traditional staff form, except that the notes are accompanied by numbers and other dynamic markings telling the players what frequencies and volumes to tune their radios to. A note combined with dynamic markings determines whether or not to increase the radio's volume. In giving up a large amount of control over the sound sources for the work, yet controlling the overall structure, Cage created a totally new musical experience:

The use of twelve radios to provide source material assured that the composer had no control over what the music would sound like, though he provided meticulous directions over how it was to be heard by structuring the volume levels and areas of frequencies. This meant that the listener had to accept sounds on the very edge of recognition—fragments of music and speech, aural debris, noise, static, and silence— and make of them a confluence, find comfort in discontinuity. (Lange 4)

Figure 5. Part A from Cage’s Radio Music. The rows are lists of frequencies for the players to tune their radios to. The lines indicate silences, of which the players may determine the length. It is also divided into four parts, represented by the Roman numerals. Players may decide whether or not to include a silence between the parts.

According to Wolff, "it was a very drastic demonstration of the theoretical notion that he had, that there should be no connection between your feelings, your intents, your desires, your preferences and the sounds that you as composer would be putting out."

Radio Music, like Imaginary Landscape No. 4, is based completely on radios as sound sources. It is different in several ways, however. It may be played by one to eight players. The score is less determinate – each player’s part is a series of columns with numbers representing the tuning frequencies of the radios. The players may hold each note for any duration, and there are no dynamic markings or instructions except for a few lines that indicate a silence. This piece was composed five years after Imaginary Landscape No. 4, and it is reasonable to assume that Cage had pushed his aesthetic further to remove even more evidence of personal preference in the work.

Outcomes of performances of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and Radio Music are always different and completely unpredictable:

The nature of the differences between performances is what fascinates me the most about the radio pieces. For example, there is a definite difference between a performance of these pieces now, and a performance of these pieces five, ten, or twenty years ago. This is due to the change in content on the airwaves based on the passing of time. Place is also important. A performance in New York City sounds very different from a performance in Hanover, New Hampshire, or Beijing, China. Performances of this piece, more than many other pieces, demarcate time and place. Instead of attempting to impose his musical style and ego on the local environment, Cage let the local environment determine the outcome of the piece. This concept is similar to Schwitters, in his collage work, except that Schwitters chose the prefabricated items for his Merzs. By doing so, Schwitters created meaningful juxtapositions of objects. Cage did not personally choose the individual sound objects that were present in his radio works, but set up environments in which juxtapositions were bound to occur. According to Wolff, it was Cage’s intention that these juxtapositions occur. However, it was also his intention that he not have control over their content, or when or where they occured. Cage’s approach was not to listen to the music from the radios, but to listen to the sound as some member of an overall sound environment. In his interview with Kostelanetz, Cage described his approach toward the radio:

The other aspect of Cage’s music heard in these pieces is that of layering many unsynchronized sound sources as opposed to focusing on minimal, individual sounds (the exception may be Radio Music if performed with only one performer). He later cites David Tudor’s Rainforest, indicating that "One should go . . . to a multiplicity of sound sources, rather than to a few" (227). Cage was influenced by city sounds and the mass of sounds that exist in one’s everyday environment. In a radio discussion with composer Morton Feldman, Cage spoke about the change in his attitude toward the radio:

Many of Cage’s pieces can be played either alone or simultaneously with other pieces. Cage's layering further adds to the unpredictability of his works. In Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and Radio Music, completely unrelated sounds converge or occur close to each other, creating new and surprising sonic experiences. It is this idea that led me to create processes in Bits and Pieces based on randomly selected samples. As the samples are mixed and cut up, they create a sound collage that at times produces meaningful juxtapositions of sonic material.

Bits and Pieces, like Schwitters's collages and Cage's radio works, takes preexisting materials and combines them in new and constantly changing ways. Unlike Schwitters, the material is randomly chosen, so the juxtapositions that occur are random, but intended. This is similar to the processes behind Cage's radio pieces. Bits and Pieces also differs from Cage's radio pieces in several important ways. Unlike the radio pieces, Bits and Pieces is not specific to location, i.e. it will sound the same if run from any server in the world. The sound sources on the Web are global, not local like radio. It is also not temporally specific. The sound sources, because they are recorded, will not change over time, and could be found at any time of day. It is, however, temporally specific in the long term. As new sound files are available on the Web, and old ones are removed, Bits and Pieces will incorporate the changes if run for several months or years.