Musician, composer, writer, lecturer — John Cage is all these things. This exclusive archive interview, from the March 1988 issue of EM, reveals the humility, inquisitiveness, and humor behind the man who has literally changed the face of 20th century music.
By John Diliberto
I have never spoken with a less presumptuous and more humble icon than John Cage. There's nothing in his presence that suggests a man who changed the course of 20th century music; he moves hesitantly, his tall gaunt frame slightly hunched over. His voice has a gentle quality, with a laugh that occasionally bursts his weathered face in a broad grin. While many think of Cage as the clown prince of new music, a frenzy of Dadaistic discontinuity, Cage lives in an atmosphere of elegant contemplation. His home, a loft space in the Chelsea section of New York City, is based on a Japanese garden.
There aren't many human beings who can claim to have altered the course of history, be it music, art or human history. John Cage could make that claim easily, but he'd be the last to do so.
Entering his 75th year, John Cage has the quiet aura of Zen humility. He relates familiar stories of his past with an almost embarrassing hesitancy, as if the telling will elevate the stories to legend far beyond his own ego. After all, the only thing Cage did was bring chance into music, popularize the prepared piano, be in the vanguard of tape music, predict the rise of electronic instruments 50 years ago, and establish the concept of noise as music. if Cage had done nothing except publish his 1961 collection of essays, Silence (1961), his influence would've been of Einsteinian proportions.
Silence is cited by composer John Adams as the turning point of his career. Steve Reich and Philip Glass cite it as a work that gave them permission to do anything, including the right to be repetitive and tonal. Brian Eno once called Cage "the most influential theorist ... a completely liberating factor. " Eno's Oblique Strategy cards were his own adaptation of Cage's I Ching chance operations.
Like the Bible, Silence supports many interpretations. It's this kind of multiplicity that Cage thrives on. For instance, he predicted the rise of electronic instruments and sampling devices in 1937 when he said, "I believe the use of noise to make music will increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard."
Yet, Cage has actually recorded few electronic works. After making that statement, he went on to create his tape works like Fontana Mix and Williams Mix, recording sounds from the real world (often with Bebe and Louis Barron, the creators of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack), and reconstructing them on the editing block. Variations and the Imaginary Landscapes were live performances using radio receivers to create surrealistic juxtapositions and environments. His Cartridge Music was an audiophile's nightmare, as Cage and David Tudor jammed and scraped objects into phono cartridges and microphones. HPSCHD was a computer work realized with computer music pioneer Lejaren Hiller in 1969. The Nonesuch recording of HPSCHD (H 71224) included a program called Knobs, with personalized mixing instructions for the listener, who could adjust volume, treble, bass, and balance controls on one's receiver.
The bulk of his music consists of the early percussion and prepared piano works like the oft recorded Sonatas and interludes for Prepared Piano, sound text pieces like Indeterminacy (with an electronic accompaniment by Tudor) and Song Books, and collaborative works with dancer Merce Cunningham. For the last several years he's been working with mesostics, which are like acrostics only the letters occur in the middle of words. He's gone through James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake five times, using different formulas to dismember the work into new arrangements.
Cage's use of the I Ching and other chance operations to compose his music are legendary. One series of pieces that includes Atlas Eclipticalis, Atlas Australis and Etude Borealis uses star charts placed on a musical staff. The placement of stars on the staff determines the notes. Like most of Cage's work since the 1950s, he tries to remove his ego from the music, to make his music seem as natural as events in life.
As I set up for the interview, the sounds of jackhammers, horns, and air conditioning permeate the atmosphere. I mention that I usually try to eliminate all these extraneous sounds from my interviews but I thought in this case, it wouldn't be appropriate.
"Right," Cage replied.
JD: This is a very noisy environment in which you live.
JC: Oh, yes.
Do you enjoy that?
I do. For me it's a great pleasure to hear all the sounds.
And I know that noise and the environment have been very important to your work, but when you're trying to concentrate or trying to focus in on something, don't you find it distracting?
No, I don't. I find it just plain musical, because the sounds are happening constantly and unpredictably. The only thing that really annoys me in an environment is when there is some organized sound, in other words, music, in a more conventional sense. I think the regular beat of music and the sequences and repetitions of patterns is what bothers me the most.
So how do you feel then when you go back and listen to some of your earlier works, especially the percussion pieces that have very repetitive patterns in them?
I think of them as coming from the past, which they do. Though in the new piece called Music Four, one of the elements is a single repeated tone, preceded and followed by silence so it's actually a sound which is one part of three, the other two parts being silence on the part of that musician. But it's not a repeated pattern.
You were one of the people who predicted the emergence of electronic music making devices. You were involved in the various phases of it early on, yet it appears that you've almost abandoned that whole area of your work.
I think you would consider a work with computer to be in that family. Well, one of my most recent pieces is called Essay and that's done with the computer at Brooklyn. And I also used a derivative piece from that Essay for a recent dance of Merce Cunningham, which is called Voiceless Essay. Thirty six tapes are involved in that Essay, and they will be used, all 36, in an installation in West Germany this summer. That will last for a hundred days and the music won't repeat itself.
Twenty four hours a day for a hundred days?
Not 24 hours but the hours of the exhibition. And it'll be in a church.
These will be prerecorded tapes of computer generated sound?
Yes. They'll be played on auto reverse cassettes, and since the machines are not synchronized there'll never be a real repetition. It'll change all the time.
Essay is short for a longer title which is Writings Through the Essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. And I made a mesostics through that essay on the title of Eric Satie's Mass de Pauvre, because I thought of them as a present from Thoreau to Satie. Satie was known as Monsieur le Pauvre and Thoreau said that the best thing a man can do when he is rich is to carry out the projects he had when he was poor. So I made the 18 writings through, and the first ones are long, something like 22 minutes to read, while some are very short... like 30 seconds. But with the computer facility it was possible to compress the long ones to a chance determined length of 16 minutes and 47 seconds and to stretch out the short ones to the same length, never losing the pitch of my voice.
Sort of a harmonizer process?
The computer analyzes both consonants and vowels of what I read, then re synthesizes them at a programmed time length.
So unlike HPSCHD, this wasn't a piece where the I Ching come in as part of the random process?
I Ching determined the length of the 18 tapes, 16:47, and also determined the next 18 which are 14 minutes and some seconds. The first group are called unstratified because they stay at the same pitch, whereas those on the 14 minute length are stratified because through the I Ching they were broadcast within a two-octave range: an octave higher than my voice and an octave lower. And that gives a much more choral effect than the unstratified one.
It is a similar effect to Songbooks and Empty Words, the one that come out on the Wergo label?
I haven't heard the record but it's related to the Songbooks because there again, Thoreau and Satie were connected. But that present from Thoreau to Satie is part of a longer text which is now accessible electronically through [the telecommunications network] The Well in San Francisco. I decided to make it available without publishing it as a book.
So people can access that and generate it themselves?
Right. I told a young man recently who visited here that he could do that and gave him the information and he wrote a letter saying he now has it at home. He's able to get it.
Have you gotten involved in any self generated computer processing on your own?
No. I have two young people doing programming for me: Andrew Culver and Jim Rosenberg. Andrew Culver is also a composer and Jim Rosenberg is a poet, and Rosenberg has made for me, I guess what you'd call a mesostic intelligent word processor. So I'll be able to do quite elaborate poems and change their nature in the course of a single work.
That means you could take the mesostic formula, apply it to a text and the program will figure out the mesostic for you.
[The computer picks] the central words and then I would add the wing words, but the spine words would be made with the facility of the computer. And it's possible then to make either a poem that goes linearly through a source or, I don't know if this is the right term, or globally, that is to say go from one part of a source to any other, say, chance determined part of a source.
Why does it seem that your most enduring works are the Sonatas and Interludes and other pieces you did for prepared piano, Music for Changes?
Some pieces are difficult for people to use. For instance it's easier to use a piece for one piano than it is to use a piece for two pianos because if you work with a piece for two pianos you have to rehearse with a second musician. Also my two pieces for two pianos: A Book of Music for Two Pianos and The Three Dances are also not easy to play. I used to be able myself—and I was never a virtuoso—to play the Sonatas and Interludes, and if I do say so, to play them quite well. In other words that work is quite accessible in terms of being played and then it turns out that it can also be, people tell me, enjoyed just being heard.
One nice thing about it that another composer might not agree with is that each time the Sonatas and Interludes are being played they sound differently, or each time they're recorded, they sound differently. For one thing, the hardware that I used to put into a piano no longer exists. That was classical hardware and there were sizes of screws that don't exist anymore, and I think also the metals that used to be used to make screws are not used anymore. Also each piano is different from another. I became very sensitive to that. So instead of being annoyed by all those changes I accepted them; it's a part of the experience of moving from control to acceptance of what happens, and that also means the acceptance of chance operations -- the whole thing of moving from composition as the making of choices to composition as the asking of questions.
You want your music to be more like life, like nature; yet what would that evolve into?
We can't go about everything like that because we want to cross the street, for instance, without being killed. I think it's very useful to remember the four divisions of activity characteristic of Indian law. The first is ar-tah, that is to say moving to a goal, having a goal and moving toward it; orkanna, having an idea of what is pleasing and giving or receiving pleasure; dharma, which involves distinguishing between good and evil; and mooksha having to do with not following any of those restrictions—which is what I do with the music.
A lot of people who are not familiar with your music or are only familiar with it on a superficial level would think that the performance of it is a random factor, t at precision in your music is not necessary. I suspect that's not actually true for many, if not most of the works.
The performances of my work, I think, just as the performances say of any other composer's work, the good ones, are few and far between. Most musicians are satisfied by reading through music and if the notes are correct they have the feeling that the music has been played. But that's far from the truth. There's a great deal of music to be heard that is not worth hearing.
I had an experience about three years ago when I was invited to Banff at the School of Arts in Canada. They had a kind of festival of my work and among the pieces played -- or rather scheduled to be played -- was the Etude Borealis for Cello Solo. I've written also for piano and cello, and the piano can join together or each can be played separately. It was such a difficult piece to write that the Kirsteins, for whom I wrote it, never played it. And actually, Jean Kirstein, who made that beautiful Columbia record of some of my piano pieces, found it too difficult and then apart from that died before she was even able to attempt it. When I got to Banff, the cellist who had been scheduled to play it told me he found it very, very difficult and that he couldn't play all four pieces, but he could play one. When he played the one it was absolutely magnificent. He had paid attention to every single detail in the piece and he came out with an exciting, lively performance.
Recently I was invited to Detroit and they also wanted to play the Etude Borealis, and a recording exists now of Michael Pugliese and Frances Marie Uitti, who never played the piece together but they played it independently and then combined the parts in the studio. And in this case Frances wasn't free to come to Detroit and I remembered the Canadian cellist. I thought that since three years had passed that he had perhaps learned the other three etudes. He had not only learned to play all four etudes, but he had gained his Master's degree in music by writing about my work. And then when Michael heard him play, Michael was amazed. He said he is a great cellist. He teaches cello now at a school in Edmonton.
Are performance flows something anyone notices or only John Cage notices?
No, I think anyone who pays close attention. But we're spoiled and we're spoiled by poor performances. For instance, all of our orchestral work is played poorly.
Ours in general or yours In particular?
I mean ours as the human race goes. I don't think any orchestra plays... they don't have time to play well.
Which is why a lot of people are going to computers and synthesizers.
And also to records, where they're forced to play well since they know that someone could check up on whether it was right or wrong.
You've talked about removing your own ego from the work, but do you want people to project in their own ego, or as a listener, should they be removing their ego too?
Well, you know the old adage. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink, and I think we're involved in that situation. I try to make a music in which people can listen each in his own way, and I give the example of what my way is, suggesting naturally that if I were listening that's how I would do it. But I don't think you can force people to do what you do.
When you say you were listening, how would you do it?
I'd listen just as I'm listening now to the noises around us.
And are you accepting them as just noises or are you putting meanings to them or organizing them in your mind?
No, they're music for me. They are, in fact, my silent piece.
There's a group of so called minimalist musicians, and you probably know most of them -- Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams -- and they all cite you as one of the most significant influences on their careers even though their music is like nothing you have done.
It may be because I've written so many books. I also did some music that was very minimalist in the'40s. I don't know if you know a piece called Four Walls. It's been played a good deal by Margaret Leng Teng and it uses only the white keys of the piano and there are long passages repeated many times. It's really not unlike the music you just mentioned.
When I've spoken with Glass and Adams, I think the thing they got from you that Influenced them the most was the Idea that anything was possible.
But that already comes from Debussy. He said that we live now in the situation where any sound can follow any other sound.
But I don't think Debussy put it Into practice the way John Cage did.
Well, nor the way someone else will (laughter).
I think those composers felt they were growing up under the shadow of serialism and Schoenberg and 12 tone music, and your music went in a completely opposite direction of giving more possibilities.
I think something has certainly happened. I'm not sure that I brought it about, or I am sure if I had not brought it about that it would have come about anyway, namely, the opening of doors and the refusal to keep things in the strict sense that they formerly were. When I was young there were only two ways to write new music and one was to follow Schoenberg and the other was to follow Stravinsky. We didn't even take Bartok seriously. And I think now the situation is very different. Schoenberg actually said that his discovery of the composing by means of the 12 tones insured the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years. And it's not true.
Regarding the prepared piano pieces, I know how that came about for Syvilla Fort and how it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. (Ed. note: Apparently Cage was intending to use a percussion ensemble, and had only a piano available. Undaunted, he "prepared" the piano by muting strings and such to turn the piano into a percussion instrument) How did you determine the sounds that you wanted in the preparation?
I did it very much as trial and error -- the way one looks for shells on the beach. You pick up the ones that catch your eye. In contrast to that I always tried to include some sounds that were not especially interesting. I thought that in a collection of sounds, not all of them should be catchy. Some of them should be not too interesting.
And was that work influenced by Balinese gamelan music, Indonesian music? Had you heard that music then?
It derives quite clearly in my work from the work of Henry Cowell, who had put his hands inside the piano and who had also let me learn a great deal about Oriental music through his classes at the New School for Social Research. I used to sit at the keyboard of the piano holding the pedal down with my right foot while Cowell would go to the rear of the piano and play his Banshee.
You've talked about how electronics have made it easier for the anarchist to be anarchistic. I would think it's quite the opposite.
it's a little difficult for me to take something like that, so to speak, out of the context that I'm in now and respond to it. Electronics, of course, is very much a part of our music physically and of our lives generally and it is what [media analyst Marshall] McLuhan said, an extension of the central nervous system rather than an extension of our ability to walk. It's not like the wheel. Electronics brings about a situation in which our lives are concentrated on the interconnectedness of everything.
I remember, for instance, giving an electronic concert with David Tudor in which one of the machines that I had to play with was not turned on, yet sounds came from it and I said, "Isn't that strange David. It is producing sounds without being turned on." And he said, "Well, it would be strange if it didn't," because it was in a situation that was so turned on. Maybe that's what's meant by totally wired (laughter)—that we're even wired when we aren't wired.
In your own music, outside of the seriously electronic ones, like some of the Variations and Landscapes, there's a real pastoral quality to your music. Thoreau has been an influence on your work, and I think that turns up a lot. It seems almost contradictory to the environment that we're in.
We live in a world which has, as is said in Buddhism, sentient beings like ourselves. We perceive the world of relativity with our senses and then it has plants and stones and so forth, which we don't think of as having senses. Sometimes people think of plants as having senses, although I think it gets harder for them to think of rocks as having senses. But all of those things are together so that I can live in New York on what would seem to be an urban technological situation, yet have the pleasures that I had when I lived in the country.
What were the pieces that you worked on with the Barrons -- was William's Mix one of those pieces? This was the piece where you catalogued the sounds.
Yes that was the Williams Mix, and I used the same catalog in making the Fontana Mix.
One of the things they talked about is that you would take the sounds, cut them up into tiny, tiny pieces like buckshot and then lay them into editing tape.
That was for Morton Feldman's Intersection Three. He would put a number on graph paper and then he'd give the amount of time and he'd want three different sounds, he didn't care which sounds, in that amount of time. We came to one section where he had about half an inch and the number was 1,047, and we did it.
In the last few years your works have Involved language quite a bit. Why did you move into that area?
I moved into it first in the '30s when all of my work excited people to ask questions, so that has involved me in talking and also in writing. My writing, as I say in the introduction to Silence, is often not as instructive as it is exemplary. I try to make the writing in the same way that I make the music. And this has brought about in my writing, more and more as time goes on, various forms of writing that are not about ideas but which come from ideas and I think produce ideas, but they're unintentional in the same way that my music is unintentional.
Are you familiar with Laurie Anderson's work?
Yes. Not terribly familiar but I enjoy it.
Because most of what she's involved with is the use of language. Yours seems less intentional then hers.
I guess so. She's a very interesting performance artist and what makes her work especially interesting are its magical characteristics, that is to say, brilliant things happen that you can't explain any more than you could if some pigeons flew out of her hat. (laughter).
In the early days, electronic music seemed unlimited, with infinite possibilities. And I think you were one of the people who felt that way. Do you still feel that way?
Well, I think that life is characterized by not having limits ... that the moment we come to a point where we seem to feel confined, we open a door. I think it will always be that way. Gradually, more and more people believe that this is not the only inhabited planet, that there are many, many places in the universe where intelligent beings live. When you see that that's the case, then the advent of a real connection between one inhabited planet and another will bring about unpredicted and unknowable interconnections of mind. We might think we know everything there is to know but at that point, when that happens, that meeting, we'll know that we know nothing (laughter).
Your collaborations with Merce Cunningham, as I understand them, are not collaborations in the strict sense since you're not composing the music for his dancing and he's not choreographing his dancing to coordinate with your music. Is that accurate?
Right. I mean to say they're not fitted together. They take place at the same time in the same performance space and we've worked together for so long that we have confidence that the work goes together very well.
And are his dances choreographed with the types of techniques that you use to put your music together?
They're different because he's a different person and dancing is different from music. His work is dependent not only on his composition but upon the excellent performance by his company whereas I don't have a group of performers. There are some composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich who have their own groups of performers and they resemble Merce; I'm an old fashioned composer who still writes music. I think Philip and Steve also write music but they take care to train performers. I don't do that.
You've said, "Whenever I'm fond of what I'm doing, if even one person is pleased with it, I redouble my effort to go on to the next. . .
Don't you ever want to spend time with a process, spend time with something that you did and develop it further?
I do that enough but I prefer getting another departure.
Can you tell me how Cartridge Music came about?
Oh, it came about through a suggestion from David Tudor to think of ways to use microphones and amplification other than just for making something louder. One of the things you do in Cartridge Music is to go and change the amplifier, and you don't know, nor does the person who's playing an instrument know, whether you're affecting him or not. The same with the tone controls and so on.
In a piece like HPSCHD you have the program Knobs, which I thought, was ...
That was Jerry [Lejaren] Hiller's idea and I think it was a good idea to let the listener perform his own hearing of the record.
How did you come across the I Ching and what made it click in your mind that this could be used to compose music?
Well, I've written a text about that. I haven't published it but it's being published in a magazine in France called Hexagram. My first encounter with the I Ching was in San Francisco in the 30s, about 1937, when Lou Harrison introduced me to it in the San Francisco public library and I saw the chart of the 64 hexagrams. It stayed in my mind but I didn't use it. Then later, maybe around 1951, Christian Wolff gave me the copy of the I Ching which his father had just published. And then when I looked at the chart for the second time I immediately saw in it the possibility of a composing means. I think it's because I had just
before that been working some years with the magic square in which I made moves on the square, not from numbers to numbers as they would be if it was a magic square, but from sounds to sounds.
Would you please explain what a magic square is?
Benjamin Franklin made the biggest one. It's a square which contains numbers, and all the rows and files and diagonals add up to the same number. That's why it's called magic. So I made squares in which I put sounds and then I made moves on those squares, and I could change moves getting different kinds of continuities. That's how the 16 Dances was written, and also the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra.
Atlas Eclipticalis was performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1962 and there was some controversy about that.
It was perfectly awful. It wasn't a controversy; it was vandalism on the part of the orchestra. Each day I provided each instrument with a contact microphone and I had a large mixer that had been made at Bell Labs, and each day after the performance the musicians, not all of them but many of them, took the microphones off their instruments and stepped on them and destroyed them. And each day I had to repurchase new microphones and have the wiring done. Each day I did that for five performances. Finally on the Sunday when I went off the stage having received the applause and boos of the audience and of the orchestra, as they went by they were unashamed and they said "Come back in ten years. We'll treat you better." But that's not true. They will never treat me better. There are some good people in it, but the orchestra as a whole is equivalent to a gang bent on destruction.
I suspect this isn't in your personality, but have you ever thought about revenge?
No. I just go on writing. The two most professional orchestras that I have come into contact with in the United States are the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. I think it was last summer, I was in Hungary and they made a recording with the orchestra there under the direction of Utverst Pater and at one point the rehearsal time came to a conclusion and Utverst said "Shall we continue? Or shall we stop?" And the orchestra with one voice said "Let's go on." And though it was a communist orchestra and they were being paid and so forth, unlike any orchestra in the United States, they wanted to continue working.
After the New York Philharmonic type of experience and similar situations at other places, do you feel like saying, "Forget it. I'm not going to compose for orchestra."?
No. I continue anyway. I did cancel one performance in Holland where they thought my music was so easy that they didn't rehearse at all. And so the first time when I found that out, I rehearsed the orchestra myself in front of the audience of 3,000 people, and the next day I rehearsed through the second movement—this was the piece Cheap Imitation—and they then were ashamed. The Dutch people were ashamed and they invited me to come to the Holland festival and they promised to rehearse. And when I got to Amsterdam they had changed the orchestra, and again, they hadn't rehearsed. So they were no more prepared the second time than they had been the first. I gave them a lecture and told them to cancel the performance; they then said over the radio that I had insisted on their canceling the performance because they were "insufficiently Zen." Can you believe it?
Given the problems of working with an orchestra of human beings, have you ever thought of just programming your work into something like a Synclavier? You know, just put the instrument on stage and let it go.
John Diliberto is the producer of Totally Wired: Artists in Electronic Sound, a weekly program on electronic music produced for Pennsylvania Public Radio Associates and broadcast on public radio stations across the United States.