"Mureau" (first page), John Cage, from M: Writings ’67–’72

I've been throwing around this term "furniture text" as if it means something. (Results 1 - 10 of about 2,080 for "furniture text"; result 19 is this blog, none of the rest seem relevant.) It's loosely based on Erik Satie's concept of "musique d'ameublement", translated as "furniture music", his concept of background or ambient music, to be, at best, half-listened to.

But I'm drawing on my own experiences with furniture music. I think of it as music to be grazed, music which rewards active but inattentive listening, where moments of sense or clarity or beauty, moments of interest, might occasionally bubble up. But furniture music prevents you from fully immersing yourself in it. It encourages floating, rather than swimming (or drowning). And by preventing you from total immersion in it, it retains its status as something that is there, a piece of furniture, rather than fooling you into thinking you're being "transported to another world". It becomes a form of meditation, but one that keeps you grounded in your present situation.

This is, I assume, not quite how Erik Satie thought of it. That's OK.

It might be a bit closer to how John Cage thought of it, though. He was a Satie booster; he organized the first public performance of "Vexations" and reworked Satie's "Socrate" into his own "Cheap Imitation".

Cage was a great producer of what I'd consider furniture texts. "Mureau", above, is a piece written through writings of Henry David Thoreau. (I'm not going to the specifics of the process because discussion of these types of pieces always get bogged down with the specifics of the process, as if it's a strategy to avoid reading the works!) You can graze over the text for snippets of sensible fragments, mixed in with a hum of less sensible fragments.

The title is a portmanteau of "music" and "Thoreau"; the piece is a mix of Cage's and Thoreau's sensibilities. As you might expect from Cage, the text is intended to also work as a score for performance. You can listen to Cage read a sample of "Mureau" at Ubu (mp3). Sensible bits, nearly-sensible bits, and not-at-all sensible bits carry you along as you float.

If I felt up to it, I'd talk about "active but inattentive" listening (or reading), the kind that furniture music (or text) encourages, and how it problematizes the suspicious binary of "active" and "passive", or maybe I'd tie it in with some half-understood Buddhist precepts, or even with advanced channel-surfing techniques. But all that seems, I dunno, obvious.

But also: I suspect a lot of people who don't regularly attend poetry readings think that this kind of listening is not appropriate for such a lofty art form, or find it too similar to "being bored", or feel intimidated because they couldn't "make sense" of "everything". Which is a shame, because it's a mode of paying attention that I really enjoy, and I appreciate poetry that encourages it.

(To be continued. Also, sorry for the atrocious title.)


  1. Chris said...

    Bonus points for anyone who can guess the typewriter that Cage used to compose "Mureau". (Jake got it right away.)  

  2. khrushchevinlove said...

    Oy, active but attentive listening. What would Adorno say?  

  3. Sam Lohmann said...

    In typesetting, "furniture" is the wooden blocks and quoins you use to lock your text into a chase. So maybe a "furniture text"is (also) one that's kept permanently "furnished" a la Lorem ipsem.
    There's an illustrated
    essay or poem by Tan Lin called "Ambient Stylistics" which seems to address a similar issue (I once skimmed it inattentively in an old Conjunctions). And there's a Peter Gizzi poem called "Cheap Imitation", after Satie and Cage, which has some reference to Socrates or at least to hemlock (the tree, though, not the poisonous parsley).
    I can't read nearly as inattentively as I can listen, though.
    Thanks for these, Chris. Boring is the new interesting!  

  4. Chris said...

    Oh, nice "furniture" connection!

    I've seen Tan Lin talk about ambient poetics (or, stylistics?) but I haven't read any of his writing on it. I need to check it out.  


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