John Cage at 70 : abridged
Saturday, January 13, 2007 11:58:09 PM
John Cage at Seventy: An Interview
From "American Music" Summer 1985
The following material is taken from interviews the author conducted with Cage on March 18, 1982, at Cage's loft on West 18th Street, New York, and on May 29, 1982, before a live audience during the "Cage at 70" weekend at the Almeida Festival, London, England.
(1) "It strikes me that since there's obviously a shorter length of time left than I've already had, I'd better hurry up and be interested in whatever I can.
There's no fooling around possible. No silliness. So where I used to spend so much of my time hunting mushrooms, I've recently become interested in indoor gardening.
I now tend to spread myself thinner and thinner. I'm always looking for new ways of using my energy but meanwhile continuing the other activities."
(2) Montague: Do you have any regrets, anything you might have done differently as you review your seventy years?
Cage: You mean, how would I re-create the past? Well, I said long ago that if I were to live my life over again, I would be a botanist rather than an artist.
At that time the botanist Alexander Smith asked me why.
And I said: "To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts. Because people think of art so often as self-expression." I don't, but so many people do.
"And therefore, if their work is not receiving what they consider proper attention, they then feel unhappy about it and get offended."
One of my teachers, Adolf Weiss, got very angry at me simply because I became famous.
He was sure I was, in some way, being dishonest, because he had been honest all his life and he'd never become famous. So he was sure I was doing something wrong and evil.
But when I said to Alexander Smith that I would like to change my life by being a botanist, he said that showed how little I knew about botany.
Then later in the conversation I mentioned some other botanist, and he said: "Don't mention his name in my house!"
So I think that all human activities are characterized in their unhappy forms by selfishness."
Montague: Didn't you once say that your early work in electronic music was somewhat terminated because of your fear of electrical shock?
Cage: Well, it isn't exactly terminated, but there was a concert I gave with David Tudor in the late 1950s or early 60s in New Jersey where everything we touched gave us a shock. It must have been a very amusing concert because we were always jumping. Everything we touched shocked us. Everything!
Montague: That must be one of your definitions of a nightmare. Did you continue?
Cage: Yes, but we couldn't escape. We were constantly shocked everywhere.
Montague: Do you have any interest in pop music?
Cage: No, but every now and then I'm obliged to be curious because someone says, for example, Brian Eno likes my work very much. So what do I think of his?
I don't have a playing machine, so it's awkward to find out. Recently I've been making etchings in California, and most of the artists that go to the Crown Point Press like to have music played while they are working. So there is a sound system.
Realizing that, I asked them if they had some Brian Eno I could hear, and they did. So I heard some.
What I liked about it were the silences in it.
What I didn't like about it was the fact that after each silence the same kind of thing happened that happened after the first silence-or before the first silence.
He had too much of an idea plus the idea of silence, and I liked that idea.
Also the silence had a kind of unpredictable length.
Montague: Earning a living as a composer in any era has traditionally been difficult. How old were you when you could really say you were earning a living just as a composer?
Cage: Well, I began to make money not from actually writing music but from lecturing, concerts, and all such things, what you might call the paraphernalia of music, not until I was fifty.
But then I did.
Now I could get along without giving any concerts if I chose to live in a poor corner of the world. My income from my past work is sufficient to live on in a very modest situation. I used to suggest to Merce Cunningham that it was time to retire, and he said: "Where would you go?" And I said: "To Bolivia." He said: "Why?"
So I said: "Because surely no one there is interested in modern music."
I'd like to be somewhere where the phone doesn't ring. You see I refuse to have an answering service. I consider it a form of twentieth-century immorality.
Montague: You don't have double glass on your windows. Is that because you've always been fascinated with sound, noise, and so forth?
Cage: I became very interested in noise a long time ago through Oscar Fishinger, who made abstract films.
He made a remark that impressed me: "Everything has a spirit and that spirit can be released by setting whatever it is into vibration."
That started me off hitting things, striking them, rubbing them, working with percussion, and getting interested in noise. I wouldn't dream of getting double glass because I love all the sounds. The traffic never stops, night and day. Every now and then a horn, siren, screeching brakes, extremely interesting and always unpredictable. At first I thought I couldn't sleep through it. Then I found a way of transposing the sounds into images so that they entered into my dreams without waking me up. A burglar alarm lasting several hours resembled a Brancusi.
Montague: Is there some place else where you'd prefer to live? Say politically?
Cage: On the moon.
Montague: You said in a lecture: "The past must be invented, the future must be revised. Doing both makes what the present is. Discovery never stops." Is the avant-garde dead?
Cage: People ask what the avant-garde is and whether it's finished. It isn't. There will always be one.
The avantgarde is flexibility of mind. And it follows like day, the night from not falling prey to government and education.
Without the avant-garde nothing would get invented.
If your head is in the clouds, keep your feet on the ground. If your feet are on the ground, keep your head in the clouds.
Montague: How would you describe your politics?
Cage: I'm an anarchist.
I don't know whether the adjective is pure and simple, or philosophical, or what, but I don't like government! And I don't like institutions! And I don't have any confidence in even good institutions.
Just recently ... well you know how interested the English composer Cornelius Cardew was in politics. He made the mistake of being interested in what he would consider "good government." Good communist government. And now that the poor fellow is dead, the friends around him want to start institutions in his memory to further the institutions in which he was interested.
I think that we should be sad that we have lost an individual, Cornelius Cardew at only forty-five, and look around for someone else who was as sensitive and open to changes. But not form an institution in memory of him, which I would certainly not support.
I won't even support something like the Wilderness Society, and I love mushrooms, the forest, and all that. But I hate what those institutions are doing to them. Do you know what they do? They buy up a big piece of what you might call wilderness, or waste land, land that no industry or metropolis has thought suitable for a city or factory. Then they make rules that you can't pick anything. You have to approach the whole thing as a museum. And they are turning the whole of nature into museums in the name of saving the wilderness, but with no good reason or purpose.
Montague: What would you do as an alternative?
Cage: I would let it all go to heaven and to hell at the same time.
That happens automatically. There's a poem by e e cummings: "sweet spontaneous earth." Have you read it? He says in it: "we poke and prod thee and thou answereth us only with spring." Look at the highway on the Hudson River which is not being used any longer. Walk on it, and you'll see that plants are growing up through the cement. Even in England, which seems to be such a small place, there seems to be plenty of land.
I think we have to embarrass the government out of existence.
Cage: By not voting. By not accepting their offer of letting us vote. By refusing any connection with the government. Thoreau said: "Government is a tree, its fruit are people. As people ripen, they drop from the tree"-his Essay on Civil Disobedience.
Montague: Most composers like some of their own works better than others or at least feel some are more important than others. Which piece or pieces of yours would you consider the most important?
Cage: Well the most important piece is my silent piece, 4'33".
Montague: That's very interesting. Why?
Cage: Because you don't need it in order to hear it.
Montague: Just a minute, let me think about that a moment.
Cage: You have it all the time. And it can change your mind, making it open to things outside it. It is continually changing. It's never the same twice.
In fact, and Thoreau knew this, and it's been known traditionally in India, it is the statement that music is continuous. In India they say: "Music is continuous, it is we who turn away."
So whenever you feel in need of a little music, all you have to do is to pay close attention to the sounds around you. I always think of my silent piece before I write the next piece.
Montague: Where was it first performed?
Cage: In Woodstock, New York, 1952, in a hall quite suitably called the Maverick Hall, which was out in the woods. The back of the hall was open to the forest, and it was performed on a program of piano music given by David Tudor.
Montague: How did you come to compose a piece which is silence?
Cage: I had thought of it already in 1948 and gave a lecture which is not published, and which won't be, called: "A Composer's Confessions." And it was given as a lecture at Vassar College in a course of a festival involving artists and thinkers in all fields.
Among those was Paul Weiss, who taught philosophy at Yale University. I was just then in the flush of my early contact with oriental philosophy. It was out of that that my interest in silence naturally developed. I mean it's almost transparent.
If you have, as you do in India, nine permanent emotions, and the center one is the one without color-the others are white or black-and tranquillity is in the center: freedom from likes and dislikes.
It stands to reason the absence of activity, which is also characteristically Buddhist well, if you want the wheel to stop, and the wheel is the Four Noble Truths: the first is "Life is Activity," sometimes translated "Life is Pain." If the wheel is to be brought to a stop, the activity must stop.
The marvelous thing about it is when activity comes to a stop, what is immediately seen is that the rest of the world has not stopped. There is no place without activity. Oh there are so many ways to say it.
Say I die as a person.
I continue to live as a landscape for smaller animals. I just never stop. Just put me in the ground, and I become part and parcel of another life, another activity. So the only difference between activity and inactivity is in the mind. And the mind that becomes free of desire, Joyce would agree here, free of desire and loathing-that's why he said he was so involved with comedy, because tragedy is not free from these two. So when the mind has become in that way free, even though there continues some kind of activity, it can be said to be inactivity. And that's what I have been doing, and that's why the critics are so annoyed with my work. Because they see that I am denying the things to which they are devoted.
Montague: What other works of yours do you feel have also been very important?
Cage: All the others.
Montague: All of the others, but the silent piece stands above the rest.
Cage: It's more radical.
I think the pieces since the silent piece, in a sense, are more radical than the ones that precede it, though I had an inclination toward silence that you can discern in very early pieces written in the 1930s.
One of my early teachers always complained that I no sooner started than I stopped.
You can see that in the Duet for Two Flutes or in those early piano pieces that are written in the '30s. Then I'm always introducing silence right near the beginning when any composer in his right mind would be making things thicker and thicker.
I was getting thinner and thinner.
Montague: Your music often suffers bad performances because it looks easy
Cage: And we don't have to practice it, right?
Montague: What can a composer who writes music that looks deceptively easy do to defeat this kind of attitude in performers? Try to give them some insight into the difficulties of "simple" music?
Cage: I don't think you can do that.
You have to do what I did for a recent performance of my Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras at the Metz Festival in France. I had written into the contract that there were to be ten rehearsals devoted entirely to this work.
That is to say, thirty hours of rehearsal.
About three-quarters of the way through rehearsals, the musicians obviously became interested in what they were doing. So interested that they wanted to hear it. Every time they had a chance they would leave the group and go out and listen, then go back.
The performance was excellent!
Do not write for an orchestra unless you have in the contract, some way that will hurt them, plenty of rehearsals. In other words, you have to get them into a situation in which they have nothing else to do but that work.
Then while they're working, they'll become interested. But there is no way, as they say, to lead a horse to water and make him drink. You can't be sure that they'll get interested even though you make a time length in which they might, but that's the first step.
Nothing else will work because you can write books galore as I have ... they won't read them. And even bright people won't read them.
In Metz some of the musicians got interested in a way I would never have imagined. One man came up to me and said: "I like this music. It has pulse."
Well that was the last thing I would have thought that it had!
Montague: What outstanding works besides your own works spring to mind if I were to ask you for some works you've heard that were written since say 1945?
Cage: I think that piece with the Spanish title Hay una mujer desaparecida, by Christian Wolff is a wonderful piece. I don't know his work sufficiently well, but I think his work is important.
I thought Alvin Curran's For Cornelius on the March 13 "Wall to Wall Cage" marathon (New York) was very touching. I think the music of David Tudor is extraordinary.
You see my situation is such that I write music all day, and I don't hear a great deal.
So I don't know that my answer to you is of any use to anyone but me.
Montague: You have been using texts taken from James Joyce for at least forty years. In one of your recent works, Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, you read another setting of Finnegans Wake along with a sixteen-channel tape and eight Irish musicians performing their instruments around the audience. You seem to have a great fascination with Irish culture. Are you of Irish descent?
Cage: No, I'm an Englishman. I have a little French blood and a little Scottish blood, and perhaps some Swedish blood. I would love to have some Irish blood, but I don't. Maybe if I were ill and had to have a transfusion in Dublin, or even New York, I could have some Irish blood.
Montague: Do you always drink Guinness, or Irish whiskey?
Cage: Well, now I don't drink alcohol because of my macrobiotic diet. It's a funny thing. I don't have any desire for it either. But when I was drinking, it was a very fine single malt whiskey. Let's see, what do I like to drink now? I guess I like water. (laughter) It quenches the thirst.
Montague: Do you ever go to the cinema?
Montague: What do you do for leisure?
Cage: I don't have any leisure.
It's not that I have my nose to the grindstone. I enjoy my work. Nothing entertains me more than to do it. That's why I do it. So I have no need for entertainment. And my work is not really fatiguing, so that I don't need to relax.
Merce's work is physically tiring, so he likes to look at television.
But I don't so much enjoy that. Or put me down in a situation where I have plenty of energy and I'm not permitted to do my work, then I'll look at television.
Montague: I was interested in your comments on Watergate in your talk during the Almeida Festival.
Cage: "Watergate: It took Americans 200 years to produce its own form of theater. Compare The Persians by Aeschylus, Noh drama, boredom, fascination. The only time I wrote any music was between 12:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. when the Senators went to lunch."
Montague: And what was it you said about interruptions?
Cage: "Divide the work to be done into parts and the time into equal numbers. Then you can proceed giving equal attention to each of the parts. Or you could say, study being interrupted. Take telephone calls as unexpected pleasures. Free the mind from its desire to concentrate. Remain open to what you can't predict. I welcome whatever happens next."
Montague: This is your seventieth year-the beginning of a new decade for you. Your life-style and the macrobiotic diet seem to agree with you. You're in good health and seem very fit.
Cage: I'm gradually learning how to take care of myself. It has taken a long time. It seems to me that when I die, I'll be in perfect condition.