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Notations: John Cage’s Experimental Book Reveals the Very Origins of Creativity


269 ​​musical scores with commentary by John Cage, in his own unique manner.

At a distance, creativity or artistic talent might seem like a mystery. Some culturally constructed notion of “the artist” allows us to think that this is a person with a special, unique, inexplicable “gift.” In this same sense, we come to believe that artists are great beings, one in a million, and who come from beyond the norm just to perform their extraordinary works.

Such appreciations carry a grain of truth, at least with respect to the exceptional character of art and creativity. But perhaps we could look more closely at how we understand such a condition. Why should art be an exception? Why can’t the creative life be life itself?

To such questions, we present a book which John Cage produced in 1969. Notations results from an ambitious project which combined music, writing, editorial design, with Cage’s interest in oriental culture. Cage gathered and commented on the scores of 269 different composers, most of them from so-called “classical music”, but also several from popular music. All of them were selected more for circumstantial reasons than for any decided or rational reasons.

One fundamental characteristic is that both the conception and the execution of the work were governed by a very peculiar element: the I-Ching. This “book of mutations” from the Chinese esoteric tradition has served as a method of divination for the past 1,000 years. As Cage explains in the preface to Notations, the number of words in his comments, the variations in typography, and other elements of editorial design, were all decided through use of the I-Ching. It’s as if Cage had given access to the very process of the work’s elaboration, but not a process carried out through random choices, but through the “elective chance” of which André Breton once wrote. It’s one in which coincidence and chance converge with choice, luck and desire, coincidence, and necessity.

Importantly, the book isn’t a sample of erudition or criticism. If it could be defined in any way, we might call it a game, not far from those which Marcel Duchamp proposed for the visual arts, and for museums and exhibitions. Like Duchamp, Cage always had a restless spirit, one which sought at any cost to leave definitions behind and to establish ways to experiment and one which continued trying for the sole pleasure of doing so.
Thus, we return to the questions posed above. What is creativity or artistic talent? If we look at this work of Cage’s (along with so many others made over the course of his life), we realize that the artistic will is nothing more than the energy of life: energy exerted consciously, but also playfully.

Perhaps the artistic life is not as extraordinary as we often believe. Perhaps this is its natural state: a way of life guided by the desire to create, to invent, and to transform the world in which we live.

Click here for a digitized version of Cage’s Notations.

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