Thursday, September 13, 2012

Music of the Unquiet Mind

In her recent Op Ed piece (“Music of the Unquiet Mind,” NYT, 9/1/12), the pianist Margaret Leng Tan recalls how counting in music was relief for someone who suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. “You can imagine how delighted I was to count the beats in a piece of music,” she remarks. “I could now count to my heart’s content in a totally creative fashion.” The piece is also a recollection of her relationship with John Cage. In l944 Cage had composed “ ‘Four Walls,’ a 70 minute work using only the white keys of the piano.” The piece had not been performed for decades when she came upon it in  the ‘80’s.  “Its repetitive insistent nature struck a deep chord within me. It was as if someone had entered the innermost rooms of my mind.” The music is not only a triage of sorts, it facilitates her relationship with Cage whose anthology of writings on Zen, Silence, enables her to attend to her condition. “Running like a vein through the writings in ‘Silence,’ is what Cage liked to call the ‘now’ moment,” she explains. “Living in the ‘now’ moment means relinquishing the previous moment and forgoing anticipation of the next…I have recently discovered that this focus on the ‘now’ moment can counter the grip of an O.C.D. attack.” Who would have thought that one of the great modernists, a maverick composer whose work eschewed the soothing content and order of the classical canon (and of music itself in his famous ode to silence 4’33”), could have provided the script (in a pharmaceutical sense) that diagnosed and attended to OCD. Well stranger things have happened. Didn’t Alexander Fleming discover penicillin by accident? Indeed, as it turns out, chance (in the form of the I Ching) was another way that Cage made music.

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