Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham Composer John Cage was Merce Cunningham's life partner and longtime collaborator. Cage, who died in 1992, was a pioneer of electronic music and compositions involving chance and randomness.
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Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham

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Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham

Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today we're saluting the life and work of Merce Cunningham, the influential dancer and choreographer. Many of Cunningham's most celebrated and innovative collaborations were with composer John Cage, who also was Cunningham's life partner. So we thought it, would be interesting to listen back to Terry's conversation with John Cage from 1982.

John Cage began serious music studies in the 1930s, and quickly gravitated to the avant-garde and the idea of composing music at least partly through chance. He saw chance-generated music as a way to release his music from the limits of his own taste, memory and emotion. His radical ideas about composition led to equally radical experiments with instruments. By 1937, Cage created what he called the prepared piano, which is a method of altering the piano's tonal and percussive qualities by placing wood, metal or rubber objects on the piano strings. He later became one of first composers to use synthesizers and computers. Sometimes Cage didn't use instruments at all but used recorded voices and even radio static to help build his chance compositions.

Here's a excerpt from his 1959 work "Indeterminacy," in which Cage tells 90 stories in 90 minutes taking about one minute each for each story. The piano and electronic music score was composed and realized by David Tudor. The collision of dialogue and music, like the collision of ideas, is purely intentional.

Mr. JOHN CAGE (Composer): This summer I'm going to going to...

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research. Actually, it's five field trips not really a class at all. However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted by with the idea, she said, I'll have to let you know later whether or not we'll give it. So she spoke to the president who couldn't see why there should be a class in mushrooms...

(Soundbite of cymbals)

Mr. CAGE: ...at the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor who lives in Piermont. She said, what do you think about our having a mushroom class at the New School? He said, fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: This remark was relayed...

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...both to the president and to me. It served to get the class into the catalogue and to verbalize for me my present attitude towards music: it isn't useful, music isn't, unless it develops our powers of audition. But most musicians can't hear a single sound. They listen only to the relationship between two or more sounds. Music for them has nothing to do with their powers of audition, but only to do with their powers of observing relationships. In order to do this, they have to ignore all the crying babies...

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: ...fire engines, telephone bells, coughs, that happen to occur during their auditions. Actually, if you run into people who are really interested in hearing sounds, you're apt...

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: ...to find them fascinated by the quiet ones. Did you hear that, they will say.

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: In 1954, when I went to Europe, I no sooner arrived in Paris then I noticed that the city was covered with posters publicizing a mushroom exhibition that was being held in the Botanical Gardens. That was all I needed.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: Off I went. When I arrived, I found myself in a large room filled with many tables upon which were displayed many species of fungi. On the hour from a large centrally-placed loudspeaker a recorded lecture on the deadly, poisonous…

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...amanitas was delivered. During this lecture, nobody in the hall moved or spoke. Each person's attention was...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: ...so to speak, riveted to the information being given. A week later, I was in Cologne...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: ...in Germany attending a concert of electronic…

(Soundbite of breath)

Mr. CAGE: ...music. There was also an audience and a large loudspeaker. However, many in the audience were dozing off, and some were talking to their neighbors.

(Soundbite of vocal rhythms)

Mr. CAGE: I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall.

(Soundbite of rumbling)

Mr. CAGE: The composer whose works were being performed had provided program notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the world.

(Soundbite of record scratch)

Mr. CAGE: After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was telling me how...

(Soundbite of record)

Mr. CAGE: ...the performances had not been quite up to snuff.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: So I said, Well, I...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: ...enjoyed the music, but I don't agree with that program note...

(Soundbite of scratching)

Mr. CAGE: ...about there being too much pain in the world. He said, what? Don't you think there's enough?

(Soundbite of record)

Mr. CAGE: I said...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. CAGE: I think there's just...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. CAGE: ...the right amount.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to John Cage in 1982 when he was 70 years old. He died a decade later in 1992. His life partner, Merce Cunningham died Sunday at age 90 which is why we're listening back today to both Cunningham and Cage. In 1982, John Cage explained to Terry that he really wasn't drawn to music the way most composers where.

Mr. CAGE: My father was an inventor and I've never thought that, as many people do, that music should be in my head and that I should learn how to write down what I already hear. I really can't hold a tune and I don't know solfege at all - so that I found ways of writing music to produce sounds that I haven't heard, and that other people haven't heard. If I'd study solfege, if I had a feeling for harmony, which I don't, I think I would simply write what people have already heard or what I would've thought - thought I heard. The result is I have a curious feeling every time I write a new piece, particularly one for an orchestra that involves so many people and so much trouble you know to bring into existence. I think up until the last minute that maybe it's just going to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: ...a great mistake or that we won't discover anything with it.

GROSS: So you have to listen to your pieces as they're being done in probably...

Mr. CAGE: I hear...

GROSS: ...in a different way than most composers listen to their work.

Mr. CAGE: I hear them for the first time. And I hear them with interest rather than critically. I try to hear what there is to hear.

GROSS: So you won't walk away thinking that was a real success or that was a terrible failure. I won't do that again.

Mr. CAGE: No. No. Not that.

GROSS: I think when you were studying with Schoenberg, and this is an indirect quote…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He says something like you don't have an ear for harmonies and that will always be for you like walking against, like knocking into a wall. And you said in that case I'll bang my head against that wall...

Mr. CAGE: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...for the rest of my career.

Mr. CAGE: Right.

GROSS: And a lot of your work hasn't been about that relationship with sounds to other sounds but of sounds in and of themselves, individual sound, a sound for itself. Is that too, do you think, from not wanting to work with harmony?

Mr. CAGE: I had an interest in each single sound from the beginning. At first I began putting the sounds together into - as I'd been taught - into motives and repeating them and varying them. But gradually, and through a study of oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations, I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind. So that instead of expressing myself, as so many artists think their responsibility is, I could alter myself so that I would flow with my experience.

GROSS: So...

Mr. CAGE: This is my - that's been my project.

GROSS: What's your attitude towards random sounds in your home? I'm thinking now about...

Mr. CAGE: I just love them.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Like apartments in Manhattan, which is probably the noisiest city in the world.

Mr. CAGE: I live on - and 6th Avenue is very, very noisy. And sometimes there's burglar alarms...

GROSS: Oh yeah.

Mr. CAGE: ...and they may last three of four hours. It's quite, that's quite a problem. I think that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they're curiously slightly varying.

GROSS: What if you're paying attention to something else at the same time?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it's more effective than sitting crosslegged. I mean to say crosslegged in relation to...

GROSS: In meditation.

Mr. CAGE: Yes. It opens the - I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn't you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we're able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that's my faith.

BIANCULLI: John Cage speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1982 interview with John Cage, who died in 1992. Like his life partner and frequent collaborator, choreographer Merce Cunningham who died Sunday, Cage loved to inject the element of chance into his work.

GROSS: You've rejected taste and memory in your chance processes work. What's restricting about taste and memory for you?

Mr. CAGE: There's a beautiful remark of Marcel Duchamp: To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory imprint. And I think the trouble with memory, both from a poetic point of view, is made clear too by the remark of René Char, the French poet, that each act is virgin even the repeated one, to see things as being new rather than things that we already know before we're experiencing them. I think this is one of the things that leads to trouble between two people when someone says of another person, I knew what she would say or I knew what he would say. I would hope that we don't get into that frame of mind with respect to one another, hmm?

GROSS: You know it's interesting to me because you have such a really rich and detailed memory and use it so beautifully in your storytelling and in your writings, which become your pieces also.

Mr. CAGE: Mm.

GROSS: I know that that memory does come into play.

Mr. CAGE: There's another remark I've come across in the last year or so that I like and it's by the composer Erik Satie and it's related to that remark that I just quoted from Char - he checked his version. Satie says experience is a form of paralysis. Do you see the relation? If we think we know what the other person is going to say hmm, and if we don't approach things as virgin hmm, then our minds and our attitudes turn out - become paralyzed and that's why we want to have each thing new, hmm?

To have, to realize that two Coca Cola bottles are not identical and what makes them not identical is that they're not at the same point. They can't be at the same point in space. Since they're not at the same point in space they automatically receive - each one receives light differently than the other, so that it can be as fascinating as going to a museum to look carefully, attentively at two Coca Cola bottles, hmm? And something of that is implicit in a great deal of 20th century art.

GROSS: That kind of perception I think sometimes, like, when you walk into a museum or a concert hall, it's like your senses get turned on because you're going...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...you're going to be - you're paying money, you're walking in - you're going here especially...

Mr. CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...to experience something sensual. Whereas, when you go to work in the morning or when you're going to take the subway or something, you kind of turn down a lot of those senses. You're not expecting a sensual experience and you're maybe expecting things that you're not going to want to see or hear. It's your job.

Mr. CAGE: It's not as though when we're surprised by coincidences of light or sound in our presence - that's one of the beautiful things about hunting mushrooms is that they're, they grow up and they're fresh at just a particular moment and our lives are actually characterized by moments, hmm?

GROSS: I like to think of you and Marcel Duchamp playing chess together because here...

Mr. CAGE: Well we actually didn't play much.

GROSS: You didn't play?

Mr. CAGE: No. No.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

Mr. CAGE: I played with Teeny Duchamp, his wife and he would criticize our game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: And he said to me once, he said, don't you ever want to win?

GROSS: Did you play to win when you played chess?

Mr. CAGE: I didn't then. I played chess in order to be with him. I wanted to be with him as much as possible. Now that he's dead, my game has improved.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you talk much during those chess games with Teeny, talk with Duchamp?

Mr. CAGE: No, I had a kind of confidence that if I was just near Duchamp that that would be enough, that I didn't have to ask him questions or converse. Once I remember he said let's sit down and have a conversation. We sat down. I don't remember what we talked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was that…

Mr. CAGE: I just liked being with him.

GROSS: Was that so, that being with him and not talking got for you some of what you wanted to be around him for?

Mr. CAGE: Yes, I think his presence, his being, was both question and answer, hmm?

GROSS: Can I quote you again…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You said, "Where there's a history of organization, introduce disorder, where there's a history of disorganization, introduce order."

Mr. CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you think of times when you've introduced order into your art where there's been a history of disorganization? Has there ever been a situation like that?

Mr. CAGE: What I was thinking of when I made the remark was that in the world of art where there's been established relationships, that there we need freedom given by irrationality, whereas in the treatment of the relation between society and the world on which we live, there has been a kind of idiotic mishandling of natural resources. And I think that Mr. Fuller has a very clear and useful way to bring about an equation, a proper relationship, a proper organization between nature and society, human beings. And we need that very much. We don't need to have rivers that could burst into flame, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think your life is like this great dialectic between things like -between computers and the I Ching, or between having to know what mushroom to pick so that you don't kill yourself and friends by doing a poisonous one and…

Mr. CAGE: Right, right.

GROSS: …then using chance processes for your music and poetry. Do you consciously decide which each of those will be or do you just kind of naturally have those interests in (unintelligible)?

Mr. CAGE: I think we can tell rather clearly when we're in what the Indians call an artha circumstance, which is a circumstance where you have a goal and you don't want to kill yourself or you want to win, as in a game, or you want to cross the street without getting killed, or you want to hunt wild mushrooms and not kill yourself and so on. That's one way of living. Another way of living is having and giving pleasure, kama. And another way is following the good rather than the evil. I think that would - that which is dharma in Indian philosophy is very close to what in Christianity is faith, hope and charity, such things.

And then in Buddhism, there is moksha, which is liberation from all those three concerns. And normally if we went to school, we would think, well, we start in artha, we go to kama, we go to dharma and we graduate and get into moksha. But I think the truth of the matter is that we're in all four all of the time, and that we live a life characterized by inconsistency. And that's the marvelous thing. You can then write a poem, as the Japanese monk did, on having reached enlightenment. You can say, now that I'm enlightened, I'm just as miserable as ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I like to think…

Mr. CAGE: And that characterizes - you know, the way we feel, don't you think?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Well…

Mr. CAGE: And say you get exhausted toward the end of the day - and don't you have the experience of finding life not quite so bad the next morning when you wake up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: Full of new energy.

BIANCULLI: Composer John Cage, speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. He died in 1992. His life partner and frequent collaborator, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, died Sunday. He was 90 years old. Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers looks at women in movies. This is FRESH AIR.

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