By John Allen
"The riddle is the process." —John Cage
If you take the phrase "cobble together" literally, it means bringing things together quickly without much thought. My intent in posing the question, though, is to show that once you start cobbling, you will find yourself falling into a more intentional and developed creative process. I also want to know more about how we choose which things to combine, and how the elements of that cobbling can illuminate what Cage and Buddhists call "interpenetration": the dynamic, center-less relationship among all things.
Performance artist Ted Rives explored this interpenetration of ideas when he created a slam poem at the annual TED conference in 2006. By cobbling together statements from various TED presentations, he created an anthem for the TED conference attendees: "It is the voice of life that calls us to come and learn":
In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, writer David Shields brings together hundreds of short writings from a diverse group of writers, thinkers, artists, philosophers, scientists, and historians. Shields claims that each of our individual realities is a cobbling of ideas from almost innumerable sources; the problem, according to Shields, is that we just don't recognize and embrace that reality of interpenetrating ideas. Shields, therefore, challenges copyright laws: if there's really no genuinely original idea, why must ideas be protected by such laws?
This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.
A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.
However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).
Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do—all of us—though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted (208).This first time I'd experienced an extended work of literary cobbling, however, was not Shields' book, but rather a biography of Gustav Mahler by Kurt Blaukopf (Editor), Herta Blaukopf (Editor), Zoltan Roman (Contributor) titled Mahler: His Life, Work, and World.
Initially, I was taken aback by this biography's lack of traditional prose and structure. Instead, the book provides a masterful sequence of reviews, concert programs, letters, articles, photos, journals, and just about anything else created about Mahler. The biographers' cobbling of artifacts relies on us to embrace and consider their interpenetration, a striking and very moving way to learn about Mahler.
Which brings us back to John Cage and his work, Williams Mix, as explained in Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson:
In 1952, at the same time Cage was exploring the interpenetrating vision of Theater Piece #1 with its wide-open and indeterminate compartments for actions, his own music seemed to be going in the opposite direction.
Cage worked with David Tudor and Earle Brown to make several pieces for magnetic tape, all funded by Cage’s Black Mountain College friend, architect Paul Williams. The labor was mind-bogglingly painstaking. Cage had discovered that fifteen inches of audiotape would make one second of sound. With so much tape to play around with, Cage and his helpers— Earle Brown sat across the table from him for most of the year— could slice the fifteen inches into tiny slivers of tape, then splice the fragments back together, generating sounds they couldn’t get any other way. Some of the tape was slit on a long, difficult diagonal (260).
The result was Williams Mix, just over four minutes long. Cage’s friend Richard Kostelanetz told Cage he thought Williams Mix was his “most neglected masterpiece.” The score, comprising nearly five hundred pages of graphics, is “like a dressmaker’s pattern— it literally shows where the tape shall be cut, and you lay the tape on the score itself,” Cage said. Williams Mix “took a considerable amount of time and extreme precision,” Cage explained in a masterpiece of understatement (260-261).
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