20th Century Americans - John Cage
John Cage eavesdropped on the strange noises coming from his own imagination. Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith eavesdrop on the wise words emanating from the man himself, in one of the final interviews of his trailblazing life and the last in MT's exclusive series on modern American composers.
The final interview in our series on leading 20th Century American composers was to be one of the last given by John Cage before his death in August last year. It's a fitting way to conclude the series: the final pronouncements of the man whose name seems to crop up in all the other interviews. It crops up precisely because Cage had already established a reputation within the avant garde fraternity by the time the others were born, and continued to act as a beacon of radical ideas to them and many others for the rest of his life.
During that life, many of those ideas - at first shocking and confusing - found fruition in unexpected quarters, not least during the explosion of progressive musical endeavour in the 1960s that also launched minimalism, Riley, Reich and Glass upon the world. It was this period that saw pop musicians embrace methods which echoed Cage's own experiments from decades before, with prepared pianos, ambient sounds, backing tapes and chance elements expanding the vocabulary of music in chamber and chart alike. The legacy was not always recognised, but pervades modern music making with increasing relevance.
Right up to his death Cage was pushing back the boundaries, working with choreographer Merce Cunningham on a ballet, the music for which utilised a computer's analysis of sound waves produced by the composer's own voice.
All the interviews in this series - Philip Glass (MT, January 1993), Harold Budd (MT, February 1993), Terry Riley (MT, March 1993) and John Cage have been taken from Interviews With American Composers, an extensive enquiry into contemporary musical thought on the other side of the Atlantic. The book has been compiled by Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker-Smith, and will be published later this year by Faber & Faber.
You've held many positions at various universities, most recently a post at Harvard, held by Buckminster Fuller in 1962, the Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetry. You once said that universities were on the side of government, so I wondered how and why you sometimes work in that environment?
"Well, my position has always been somewhat aside from the institution itself. I once asked David Tudor how he thought I should behave in going to universities, and he said, 'As a hit and run driver'."
Did you feel your string of university posts has lent your work increased 'credibility' and helped you to be taken more seriously in certain circles?
"I'm afraid I don't think of whether I'm being taken seriously or not. I take myself seriously and I do as well as I can and if other people do or don't take me seriously that's their business, their action, rather than mine. I always had opposition from the beginning, so I'm used to it. I noticed the opposition of people to ideas and actions when I was a child, with my father's experience as an inventor."
How have you managed to cope with the amount of opposition that you've experienced?
"Well, you can measure, if you wish, or you can get a kind of description of what you're doing, by the reactions of other people. If there isn't opposition, I have the feeling that I'm not going in a radical enough direction. Not that I want to shock or offend people, but it's very good, it's like a thermometer."
You must have had some high readings. Some people think that you don't 'suffer' enough for your art, that you enjoy it too much...
"Well, there are two ways of looking at the work of an artist, and I think that most music is thought of as some form of talking or some form of communication - or if you wish, the expression of ideas and feelings. I think the path of my work has been such that that's more and more not done. Instead of saying something, I'm doing it so that the sounds, if there's any talking or speaking, are doing it themselves. I'm doing less and less - in my recent work it seems almost absurd that I should even be involved, but then I see that if I weren't involved it wouldn't be done."
Such movements as Dada, Futurism, Surrealism and the theories of Artaud can be seen as precursors of many of your ideas. Could you say to what extent these influenced you?
"The most was Artaud through his book The Theatre And Its Double. The idea that I had from reading his book was that all the elements of theatre can be viewed independently, one from the other, with none being subordinate to a narrative thread that goes through everything. I went to a performance recently that involved dancing and music and moving pictures. The unfortunate thing was that there was a narrative that continued through the whole thing, making it all make sense, so to speak, making it understandable, whereas everything else was not doing that. My feeling was that it was spoilt. I really think that it's important to be in a situation, both in art and in life, where you don't understand what's going on."
To be bewildered...
"Yes, where you are bewildered. I think it's absolutely essential. I think this is the nature of the Zen koan. If you're not in such a situation, you find yourself dealing, so to speak, with dust for which you have no use."
How do you view the work of living composers who continue the Western classical tradition?
"I would group most music as talking, saying something, and I for one am not interested in being spoken to by music. I'm not even really willing to be spoken to with words. I want to also be bewildered by words. I still enjoy Joyce and I enjoy non-sense in general and I don't like clear messages - they're too intentional. The moment you enter the world of non-sense, you don't know what's being said and so you're free to hear whatever you wish."
And to structure it for yourself?
"Yes, or structure yourself differently in relation to it. I don't see any need for theory or laws or government in music or life. I think we can perfectly well get along with intelligence, in the use of materials and in social situations. By 'intelligence' I mean recognising the problems and solving them, and the problems would seem to be such things as having something to eat, some place to live, air to breathe - all of these things, the utilities."
How do you view the presentation of electronic music? You once said that it wasn't enough just to turn out the lights, so do you feel that there should be some live element in electronic music in order to give a sense of theatre?
"I think so. Insofar as we can make things theatrical, I think we should. This is my feeling. Which is to say, that we should involve seeing. If you go to the Museum of Modern Art here and walk slowly through the gallery on the second floor, you come to the Duchamp room. You soon realise that you've come to something that is not like what preceded it - it's entirely different and that difference changes our way of seeing, so that the things in the room that are not art have become as aesthetically interesting as the artwork."
You once said, 'If you want to write music, go study Duchamp'. Yet there appears to be a large contradiction in your ideas. Duchamp said that he wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. Whereas you say we should hear a sound suddenly, before our thinking has got in the way of it.
"Yes, I know. They seem almost to be saying the opposite. Morton Feldman was aware of this contradiction and he said that I had nothing to do with Duchamp. Very often people think that the arts are doing the same thing, but I think that music is doing one thing and painting is doing something else. What was being done in music had to take a different shape to what it was in painting. You can see that the background of painting was, say, a field with horses. It wasn't a fugue. Whereas the background of music is a fugue. So what had to be done in music was to get the ears to work and what had to be done in painting was to get the mind to work."
There was a great deal of cross-fertilisation in the arts in New York during the '50s. What did you learn from the painters and poets?
"Well, I studied with musicians. But musicians continually refused to accept what I was doing as music. As late as 1941 or '42 I applied as a musician to WPA (Works Project Administration) for a job - it was an arm of the government that gave artists jobs for doing their work and didn't tell them what to do. So I applied to the Music Branch in San Francisco and they said, 'But you're not a musician'. I said, 'But I work with sound, where should I go?' and they said, 'Try the Recreation Department', which I did."
You've always placed great emphasis on making music socially useful. Is it possible to do this without making a point, without 'saying something' as perhaps Cardew did?
"Well, he was not averse to politics. Whereas I am opposed to politics. So I have to find some way to do it without telling people."
So how might you convince the man in the street to drop hierarchical forms and thought patterns?
"The man in the street is not apt to need music, let alone modern music."
Can't music help him?
"I don't know. I think he has to find out whether he needs it. Don't you think so?"
"I've always been attracted to having something very slightly disturbing coming from another room"
Do you think that anyone really needs music?
"I need it. I always have loved sound and I continue to love it."
But then, as there's sound all around us why bother to make music?
"Well, why not? You know that there are many answers to that but I think one could say 'Why not?' to the question 'Why?'."
Can you tell us about some of your recent work and ideas?
"I find I have perhaps two ideas. One is multiplicity and the other... I guess the best word is non-intention. I keep this image of traffic sound in mind, and environmental sound, and I want my work to have the same purposelessness and, I was about to say, constant and unpredictable change. But lately I've been getting interested in these constant sounds, such as this hum from a fan on the one hand and from this humidifier on the other. I like both sounds, the unpredictable one and the constant one - I'm really in a very pleasant situation. I haven't yet heard anything that I don't enjoy. Except when it's full of intention, and is directed in a way to hurt someone."
You have to be careful in your work to avoid the creation of fixed objects...
"Yes; a wall, for example, receives so many things, like dust and shadows and so on. Or look at this movement of air, what it's doing to the plants. In other words, anything that produces change will be useful. So what you want is something that will introduce change in what affects the seeing, and something that would affect the hearing wouldn't be bad either. I've always been attracted to having something very slightly disturbing coming from another room."
I believe you keep even your earliest serial works. Are you conscious of a development?
"I'm not sure that it's a development, but it's a wandering, or an adventure, a series of changes, and I felt obliged to keep those changes, insofar as I can, 'study-able' or noticeable."
Is that for us or for you?
"For other people. It would be better for me, for my reputation, to get rid of some of the bad works."
Could you tell us something about your use of the I Ching?
"Well, my use of it is in order to open... to free me from likes and dislikes. I was looking for something to open my mind."
Do you ever use it as an oracle?
"Sometimes. Quite rarely. I began going to an astrologer about twelve years ago. I went to her first because I was becoming so well known and I didn't know quite how to behave. She made my horoscope then said, 'Well, it's going to get worse so you'd just better adapt yourself to it'."
You've said many times that particality is of the essence. Knowing how things are and accepting that in one's work and plans.
"That's true. I had at one time some students, and one of the first things I taught was that you shouldn't do something that wasn't going to be performed. Or, if you wanted to, that you should take the consequences and not be glum over the fact that it wasn't being performed."
Do you think perhaps that a work is never completed until it is performed?
"Right. I would say so, but at the same time I would like to say that they have nothing to do with one another. That they are really different things."
Are you still working as much as you always have done?
"I'm almost incredibly active. I don't know why I do so much, and sometimes I don't seem to be doing anything, so I turn to my correspondence and try to get rid of it. But there's always a lot to do and there's always the plants to water and the cooking to be done. My astrologer says that now things are getting really complicated for me, so I must use cooking and taking care of the plants in order to remain unaffected by the complexity, undisturbed."
Every few years you seem to be asked for your top ten book list, so I feel a responsibility to ask you for an update.
"Well, you ask me that at a time when I'm, so to speak, changing or leaving the doors open to change about what the books would be. That's why I've been reading Emerson lately. But I'm not convinced that I'm going to take Emerson, so to speak, to heart. And that's my present problem, discovering whether or not Emerson is involved. I've also been reading Wittgenstein, without understanding it, and enjoying it. I find it very mysterious. I also find it elating. If you put me in a corner and have me read Wittgenstein to myself, not understanding it, then get me out of the corner four hours later, then you'll see that I'm quite light-headed."
A kind of drug?
"I think so. Do you think that art in general is a kind of drug? Have you noticed that when sitting at a concert say, and then you go outdoors, that the sounds seem to be outside too? In other words, you've been led to listen in a particular way to whatever you hear."
It's difficult to say 'The piece changed my life' without sounding sickly...
"But if you say 'it changed the way I hear', it might not be so."
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