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BRANCA, GLENN. JOHN CAGE: Indeterminate activity of Resultant Masses
A strange confection this. The title piece, by Branca, is a clean recording of one of his more celebrated compositions, thought lost (this is a studio recording made in 1981). Branca fans (of which I am not one) will be interested. Of the 10 electric guitars, two are played by Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, so of interest to Sonic Youth fans. If only for the sake of historical footnoting, then, this would be a useful release. What interests me, however, is track 2 - a 19 minute conversation about Branca's piece in concert by two attendees: John Cage and Wim Mertens. Cage (famously) is highly critical. Not only is this curious recording a worthy Cagean piece in itself( with an interesting and noisy background: the navy pier on lake Michigan; the voices very spaced out); but as an informal conversation it reveals a lot about Cage's character and philosophy: he certainly does not think that anything goes, and his careful articulation, Socratic questioning and general civility, crossed, as they are with suppressed anger, make for quite a deep and complex audition. Mertens' attempted defence adds nuance. This was an unintended artwork - usefully raising the old questions: can such a category exist? Can it be defended? If so on what grounds? Then there is a third, short Branca piece (a sequence of chords) to round the CD out. The sleeve-notes reprint two letters about the controversy the Cage/Mertens conversation (released on a record in 1982) sparked, the second of them by Branca himself, who seems both proud and hurt - and certainly rather insecure - making the whole CD a passing strange object; either boasting about 'Cage's Folly' - as Branca has it -, or using the Branca piece as evidence for Cage's case (it's hard not to take sides). And although I think Cage does show a certain arrogance, perhaps it is with justice. Certainly, to me, the Branca does sound, at best, like a failed experiment; at worst like child breaking its toys. There is an emptiness; as Werner Herzog once said, "Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.". Cage sems to hear something like that in Branca. Avoiding the hyperbole, so do I.