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An Interview with John Cage
John Held Jr.
The interview takes place in 1987 at the Dallas Public Library Cable Access Studio, Dallas, Texas. Mr. Cage was in the area to attend an event in his honor at the University of Texas at Dallas.
John Held, Jr: It's my distinct pleasure and honor to
welcome John Cage.
John Cage: Thank you.
JH: Mr. Cage grew up in California and went to Los Angeles
High School and then Pomona College.
JH Jr: You never graduated from Pomona?
JC: I went to Europe instead.
JH: This was about 1930. Yes?
JC: Yes. I would have been in the class of '28.
JH: What does...
JC: It would have been '32. I started in '28. I would have been graduating in '32.
JH: What made you decide to leave school and head for Paris?
JC: I think that our education teaches us to write rather
then anything else. And I thought that for a writer, experience would
be more valuable then education. And my mother and father agreed. So
I left after my sophom ore year. Later I was hitchhiking in California
and was picked up by my history professor, and he said he was so glad
to see me. And I said "why?" And he said, "Well, all
the more interesting students have dropped out of college." (laughs)
JC: No. I just went there to get some experience to write some books.
JC: ...but I was so impressed. When I saw Gothic architecture, I began studying. It's hard to believe, but I began to start studying the details of flamboyant 15th century Gothic Architecture in the Bibliotheque Mazarin. I'd go early in the morning when it opened and I wouldn't leave until it closed. Fortunately, a professor from Pomona, whom I'd not studied with, but whom I knew, it was Jos Pijoan, do you know his name? At one time for the League of Nations, when it was in Switzerland, he was the one who listed all the contemporary works of art. Anyway, he asked me what I was doing and when I told him, he literally gave me a kick in the pants, and the next day he introduced me to a modern architect, who I started to work with. And after a month or so I heard this architect say to one of his girlfriends, "To be an architect you have to devote your life to architecture." And so I put down my pencils. He had put me to work drawing Greek columns, ironically. I went into his room and I said, "I'm not going to devote my life to architecture." And so we left in a friendly fashion. And I had seen modern painting, and I'd heard a concert by John Kirkpatrick of modern music. And my reaction to both of those was that if that's how things were, I could do it too. So I began without any further ado to write music and paint pictures. And it was only somewhat later when - it was the depression - when I left Europe and came back to California, I did a number of things, but it led my meeting the Arensbergs and Galka Scheyer, do you know her name?' She brought the Blue Four from Germany to California. And I met Richard Buhlig, who was the first to play the Opus 11 of Schoenberg. I met all these important people because I needed some way to make a living, and the way I hit upon was to do the gardening in what would now be called a motel, but was then called an auto court. And in return for doing the gardening I got a place to live. And then I needed someway to buy food. And over the the garage at the back of the auto court was a large empty room without any walls. I mean interior walls. And I went from house to house in Santa Monica, and I said that I would give lectures on modern music and modern painting, and that I didn't know very much about either subject, but that I would learn enough to give a lecture each Friday. (laughs) I sold ten lectures for two dollars and a half, and they had a card, you know, that would get punched. But at that time you could buy a pound of beef for five cents, did you know that?
JH: Those were the good old days.
JC: You could go to a restaurant and eat all you could
eat for forty-nine cents
JC: No. No, that came later. My connection with the WPA was entertaining. I went to San Francisco to the music department, and I'd already worked a good deal in the field of percussion music. I said I wanted a job on the WPA. And they said. "But you're not a musician." And I said, "I deal with sound. Where should I go?" And they said, "Try the recreation department." (laughs) So I did. And I worked with children after school hours in Telegraph Hill. The Italians. The Black kids in another part of town. And the Chinese in Chinatown. And I used to get a splitting headache from the Italian children. I'd bring them instruments to play, and things I had made, and they'd smash them. And I'd always left that session with a headache. But the Chinese people I got along with beautifully. The blacks were so gifted that they had no need of me. But I always remember how well I got along with the Chinese people. The only trouble was that the school was Catholic, and the sisters were not confident that my influence on the children was good. (laughs) So one day one of these tiny children came to me and said, "You're not teaching us anything about counterpoint." (laughs) And they couldn't have even known the word. So then the next thing I knew they were gone.
JH: Soon after that you met somebody who was really a turning point in you life, and that was Merce Cunningham...
JH: ...up in Seattle. How did that come about:
JC: Well, I decided to make a move away from Los Angeles, and I went with - I was married then to Xenia Kashevaroff- and she and I, and my mother and father, went up to Carmel. They stayed up in Carmel with Xenia's sisters and friends, among whom was John Steinbeck. And I went up to San Francisco for one day and I shopped around for jobs accompanying dance classes. I got about eight jobs in one day. I had a choice so to speak, and I choose the one in Seattle with Bonnie Bird, who had been in the Martha Graham Company. And the reason I choose it was that she told me when I talked to her in San Francisco that they had a closet full of percussion instruments. And that was what I was working in. It had been left there by some German modern dancers.
JH: And Merce Cunningham was a student...
JC: He was a student of Bonnie Bird. Yes. And he was absolutely remarkable. In fact when Martha Graham saw him, she took him immediately in her company. He was a creature of the air. And no one knew it at the time that he would come down to earth as he has in recent years. (laughs) He's been forced down to the earth, but he refuses to stop dancing. I'm sure he'll dance the day he dies.
JH: About this time you were also collaborating with Kenneth Patchen, a well known poet, on a CBS radio...
JC: That was a little bit later. It follows the meeting with Merce and wor king with Bonnie Bird. In between was... I spent a whole year trying to establish a center for experimental music. I wrote to companies and universities, anyplace that I thought might house such a thing. And I aroused a good deal of interest, but each place needed money, and they didn't have the money and I couldn't raise that. I did get a job in Chicago teaching experimental music at Moholy-Nagy's School of Design. And while I was there, I organized a group of players, and I got a commission from CBS for a CBS Workshop play. It was a very important radio program. It was the one that made everybody leave home because they thought the end of the world had come. Did you hear about that.
JH: War of the Worlds?
JH: It followed that?
JC: It was at that time that CBS Workshop was so important for everyone, so I proposed doing a piece for them. My idea was to take a play, and thinking of the script as having ambient sounds to use those sounds, not as sound effects, but as the sounds of a music which would accompany the play. CBS liked that. The man in charge was Davidson Taylor. The letters that came into Chicago after the performance were so enthusiastic - they came from the Middle West and from he West- that Xenia and I decided to seek our fortune in New York, even though we didn't have any money, so to speak. We arrived, actually, in New York with twenty-five cents. We took the the bus from Chicago to New York and in the station we arrived with twenty-five cents, and only the confidence that CBS would have received a favorable response. And also we were invited to stay with Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst. Do you know the story?
JH: Of what?
JC: Of what happened in the bus station? (laughs)
JH: No. But I want to hear it.
JC: I put a nickel into the phone, and I called the number that Max had given us when he visited the Arts Club in Chicago. This time he didn't recognize my voice. And he said, "Are you thirsty?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, come over Monday for cocktails." And so that was the end of the conversation. And I went back to Xenia, and she said, "Call him back!" (laughs) She said, "We have everything to gain and nothing to lose." So I called him back, and he said, "Oh, It's you." And this time he recognized my voice, and said "Come right over. Your room is ready." And it was then that we met anybody whom anyone would want to meet in the artworld.
JH: This is when everyone had come from Europe...
JC: They were all here. Mondrian was one of the first. Mixed in with the artists, including Marcel Duchamp, was Gypsy Rose Lee, whom Joseph Cornell just idolized. It was marvelous. We stayed there for two weeks, and then Peggy and Max were going away so they asked us to leave. Meanwhile, Merce Cunningham, who was earlier in New York, was preparing a program of dance with Jean Erdman. Jean Erdman was the wife of Joseph Campbell. He taught at Sarah Lawrence and knew a great deal about mythology and oriental philosophy, and so on. He wrote With a Thousand Faces. Anyway, Jean and Joe were going up to Vermont for the Summer at Bennington, and she and Merce were going to do a dance at the end of the Summer. So they gave Xenia and me their apartment, which had a piano. That's how we began in New York.
JH: You mentioned Marcel Duchamp, and as he's a favorite of mine and alot of other people maybe I should pursue that. What was your relationship like with him?
JC: I admired him so much I didn't want to impose myself on him. For instance...I was very ambitious. And I met everyone I could meet who would facilitate my giving a percussion concert in New York. Even though Peggy Guggenheim had immediately said she would like a concert of my music to open the Art of This Century. Being so ambioutions (laughs), I still wasn't satisfied and went to the Museum of Modern Art, and they also wanted a concert. So I came back to Peggy, and at dinner one evening, I told her there was also going to be a concert at the Museum of Modern Art. And she said, "Well, in that case I will cancel the concert at Art of This Century", and furthermore she would cancel what she had promised, which was to pay for the transportation of the instruments from Chicago to New York. Well, when she said she would cancel all of that I was very unhappy and I left the table, and literally burst into tears. And I went to the back of the apartment, and I happened to go into the room where Marcel was sitting in a rocking chair smoking a cigar. And something about his presence made me stop crying. I more or less told him why I was crying. He didn't say a word. Nothing. Shortly I felt perfectly content. (laughs) I told this story to someone later to whom the same thing had happened, the same influence he had of bringing a person back to an equilibrium. Just beautiful. Marvelous man.
JC: It's endless. There would be say a hundred students in the summer, less during the winter. But I think you'd find they're all active as artists. What I think was so important at Black Mountain was that we all ate our meals together. For instance, I was teaching music composition, but no one was studying with me. I had no students. But I would sit at a table three times a day (laughs) and there would be conversations. And those meals were the classes. And Ideas would come out, what McLuhan called the "brushing of information." Just conversation. That event that we gave one afternoon at Black Mountain was thought of in the morning, and I quickly plotted the whole thing giving different people periods of time during which they were free to act. Charles Olson and M. C. Richards climbing ladders to read poetry. Merce dancing through the space. And the audience arranged so that it was in four triangles facing themselves rather then facing something to look at. (laughs) So the action was around the audience and in it. Through it. I was up on another ladder behind one of the triangles. Mrs. Jalowetz, who was the widow of the deceased head of the Music Department arrived very early. And I told her she was very early. And she said," Well, I want the best seat." (laughs) And each seat had a cup on it. And, I said they're all equally good. And I pointed out to her that she'd have to look where she wanted to look rather then what seemed to be the front. (laughs) And people then smoked, so they used the cups as ashtrays, but the whole event ended by girls coming from the kitchen with big pitchers of coffee and filling all the cups with coffee. Some of them were disgusting. (laughs)
JH: We haven't touched upon your theories, but I did want to bring up your innovation of introducing chance, of indeterminacy, into the artworld.
JC: Actually it was Duchamp who did that the year I was born.
JH: He seems to predate everything.
JC: Everything. In about 1958, or '59, in Italy, at Peggy Guggenheim's house in Venice-we had made up by this time- I smiled and said to Marcel, who I hadn't seen for a long time, "Isn't it strange that you were doing the year I was born what I'm doing now." And he smiled and said, "I must have been fifty years ahead of my time." (laughs) Actually, his mathematics were not correct it was more like forty years.
I think a great deal of his work as being musical, which isn't yet thought of as musical. Have you seen the Etants donns at the Philadelphia Museum? Did you know there's a big book this thick that he wrote telling how to take it down and put it up? I don't know why it's not been made more public. Anyway, those are directions, which if they're followed, as though you were following a notation of music, they would produce sounds taking it down and putting it up. Yes? So that is also a piece of music.
You are are familiar with him taking pieces of paper
out of a hat? Of the train? The train has freight cars. And instead
of putting coal where it belongs, you put musical notes into each one
of the freight cars. As it passes by -they fall by chance, of course-
and the result is you get different octaves instead of cars, with different
notes in them. So it makes a new body of sounds with which one can compose.
(He) gave a beautiful concert in Japan, in which just before the intermission,
this train was brought out and then during the intermission the musicians
figured out the scales, and when the audience came back, they got to
hear a reading of the music. Isn't that beautiful
It's one of his notes on a little scrap of paper. And
it's the idea that
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