When I’m hiking, I’ve noticed I can’t really remember most of the campsites I end up in. I really can’t remember most of the trail I’ve hiked. Sure, there are a few panoramas that were amazing and at least one memory of waking up on a mountain top that still makes my eyes watery.
But for the most part while hiking, my entire mind and body are engaged in the act of walking nowhere. It is a very active act of getting nowhere; it takes a lot of effort. With legs straining, arms pumping, and back aching, I move for 8-10 hours in order to end up in a place that looks more or less like it did the night before. In fact, the woods behind my childhood home are not dissimilar to the woods in which I hike. I could go there much more easily than to the Appalachian Trail if the object of my hikes was to go somewhere.
There is a story that appears in much of John Cage’s spoken work. It tells of three friends walking along and they see a man up ahead of them standing on a high place. The three friends begin to speculate as to why the man is standing up there. One says he is looking for his pet, another that he is looking for his friend, and the third that he is enjoying the breeze. They argue about this until they reach the man standing upon the high place. When they question him as to why he stands there, the lone man denies all their theories. They finally ask him why he is up there and the man says simply, “I just stand.”
When I go for a hike, I just walk.
And more and more, and slowly (to quote Cage’s Lecture on Nothing), I am realizing that when I perform music, I just play. Because to perform music is to go precisely nowhere. At the end of a concert, not much has been accomplished on a certain level except that an amount of time has passed. Chances are I am sitting in the same chair at the end of a concert as I am at the beginning. Chances are, I have not said much about anything. There is nothing to prove that I performed music there except maybe a recording which only feebly captures that moment.
But, that process – that act of going nowhere – can be incredibly powerful. To strain the legs, pump the arms, strain the back, and then realize that these things are the only processes happening, is amazing.
To be able to perform music with no aim except to perform it is an amazing experience.