Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Composition About John Cage (1977)

See the notes at the end of this post for background information and specifics of this version. See Wikipedia for information on Cage, his art(s), his influence.

(The following is a text composition that utilizes some of the principles and techniques of composition as developed by John Cage. To adapt some of the instructions from several of Cage's own scores, "This is a composition indeterminate of its performance. The performer is free to read any elements of his choice, wholly or in part and in any sequence.")

13. On mushrooms:
They have almost no nutrition value but "they taste so good they make you happy. And make your stomach happy."

"That's the nice thing about mushroom hunting: you don't have to find any."

When asked how to tell the good from the bad, he replied, "You have to know each one -- like people."

19. Several people expressed surprise and astonishment that the publicity for reading included the work "mellow" in reference to Cage. After all the times over the last nine years that I've been at performances or readings by Cage, that is probably the word I've used most because it is the most accurate. The audiences have not always been as mellow, however, as they become uncomfortable with the spirit of freedom he lives and espouses.

17. John Cage. Is 65 years young. Studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Tells stores. Invented instruments. Played chess with Marcel Duchamp as part of a performance. Hunts mushrooms. Has quit smoking. Is music director for Merce Cunningham and Dance Company. Will have a piece played by the Chicago Sydmphony Orchestra this season. Uses the I Ching and its methods for composing. Worked as a graphic designer. Often laughs his marvelous laugh. Is on a very strict macrobiotic diet for his arthritis. Has written three books and edited another. Studied Zen with Dr. D.T. Suzuki. Is a social critic. Taught at the School of Design in Chicago for a year. Wears blue jeans. Lives in New York City. Is fun and interesting.

1. Composition is the union of elements into a whole. There is no right way or no wrong way -- just different ways. Composition happens whenever elements are combine to create a new thing. Cage was on of the first to closely study the process of composition and apply its procedures to many activities. Text pieces like Mureau, based on Thoreau's journals, are composed in a manner reminiscent of his early tape collage pieces, such as Williams Mix.

6. It was a beautiful autumn Monday -- clear blue sky, moderate temperatures, slight breeze, brillian hues of the changing and falling leaves. On the way to Glen Ellyn, we pulled over to lower the top of Philip's battered VW; John hopped out and over to a nearby tree to examine mushrooms.

8. He explained his method of writing the Wake pieces as a "Duchampian technique of finding something." Some of what he found was marvelous, pearls of beauty that he spun out in his deep, sonorous voice.

25. While driving through Elburn, John spotted a stump in a yard surrounded by mushrooms. We came back to it later and found several varieties in pretty good condition. I asked how he saw them from the road. He pointed to his eyes; no words, just a smile.

20. I went down to the School of the Art Institute to catch Cage's morning talk but I was late because the Ravenswood el line was screwed up and the place was jammed. Only current students and faculty were being admitted, anyway, so I ended up going to lunch with Bob Snyder of the Sound Department and talking about synthesizers and concerts.

18. Fueled by a day in the woods, good food, and wine, our conversation was gaily serious as it ranged over food and diet, art, friends, living in Chicago, puns and jokes. By then, Jim Grigsby had joined us for dinner. It was a good thing several of us were sitting on the floor because that's where we would have ended up anyway after the continuing barrage of subtle and dry wit from all quarters, and especially from John.

21. One of Cage's most famous and controversial pieces is 4'33" even though very few people know it by name or have ever seen the score(s). Often referred to as "Cage's silent piece", it is one extension of his belief that music and life should be integrated more fully. Just as not hearing something spoken does not mean there is nothing to listen to, a performer not making sounds encourages us to listen to what other sounds there are. Cage is not the only one who has written a silent piece; Philip Corner has written several and many others have also contributed to the repertoire.

14. "We're in a concert hall constantly."

"Something to tell your grandchildren, that you heard Finnegans Wake in less than an hour."

11. He began his introduction by reading from an Arthur Treacher's handout. The audience loved the way he talked about the various orders of battered shrimp.

12. The reading ended with the bizarre theater of a persistent and not too coherent man rambling his way through word strings that were, I think, intended both as questions and diatribes. Throughout it all, Cage's Zen-like calm was only mildly perturbed. He offered to read the Arthur Treacher excerpt again for the late-comer but then realized -- mercifully -- that time had run out.

9. Upon encountering one of Cage's indeterminate pieces (in which the performer makes a large number of the choices as to what happens, how and when), many people convert the permission to choose into a license to not choose. They abdicate their responsibility to act seriously -- to act with thought -- in favor of acting without thinking. Craftsmanship of performance disappears in the muck of ego and 'total freedom'; caring spontaneity becomes could-care-less-ness. There are many bad performances of these pieces. Cage himself, on the other hand, cares passionately for the life of his work. It shows all the way from the precise conceptions, the elegant calligraphy and graphics, the obvious practice and development of new techniques to the meticulous concern for performance situations -- proper lighting, good miking, effective movements. It is all of a whole and wholly professional.

23. Claes Oldenburg asked the first question after the reading. "John, are you going to continue to make reductions?" He replied that he was actually more interested in doing mixes like Mureau and that was what he planned to do.

4. Was it just chance that the name or syllable "John" recurred throughout the text he read? Given the structuring technique (Mesostics, his book M gives a complete description), I suppose so. But things like that make me take Jung's theory of synchronicity very seriously.

7. When we went mushroom hunting, John was hoping to find something know as the "Chicken of the Forest." He had found it before when he was living down at Champaign-Urbana and working on HPSCHD (a large multi-media piece). We didn't find any.

24. After the reading, Cage was talking to Chicago composer Raymond Wilding-White about doing a map piece on Chicago similar to the one he did for the New York issue of Rolling Stone last month. The Chicago piece might have waltzes and marches.

3. Six of us went stalking the wild mushroom. John Cage, Alene Valkanas and Philip Yenawine (from the MCA), Edward and Regina Mackiewicz (relatives of Alene's and mushroom hunters) and myself. We started out in the Mackiewicz's back yard which had many different kinds. Somebody suggested heading to the woods but John delayed, saying, "The best time to pick mushrooms is when you find them." A little later we headed for the forest preserves out near Geneva and Elburn. Coming into one, I mentioned the large wooden sign with lots of rules. John said, "When you see the rules you begin to think you must have been there before."

5. On computers:

"We should use the computer when we want lots of answers to one question." But not when we have lots of questions.

"When you give them anything interesting to do, they balk."

15. He read a recent text based on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake entitled "Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake." It was a systematic reduction of the book into 35 pages of poetry and sonic delight. "More and more my ideas seem to need some kind of copyright permission."

10. In front of the Museum of Contemporary Art on the night of Cage's reading was a sign that said, "John Cage Has Sold Out!" It was crowded just right.

2. The four of us from the city went back to Philip's place to cook up the spoils of the day. We had several varieties of mushrooms, dandelion greens, brown rice and some kind of artichoke. I never thought I would see the day I would be sitting at a table helping John Cage clean mushrooms, but that's just what Alene and I were doing. Philip was in the kitchen with the vegetables and the telephone.

22. He and his ideas have been jeered, ignored, praised, discussed, blamed, undersood, quoted, analyzed, published, accepted, performed, debated, documented, imitated, dismissed, misunderstood and enjoyed.

16. I asked the I Ching what it thought of my writing this piece about Cage. It answered with hexagram no. 15, Modesty, changing to no. 32, Duration.

Some excerpts:
no. 15

Modesty creates success.
The superior man carries things through.
Modesty that comes to expression
Perseverance brings good fortune.

no. 32

Duration. Success. No blame.
Perseverance furthers.
Thunder and wind: the image of Duration.
Thus the superior man stands firm
And does not change his direction.

Thus reinforced, I decided to continue the piece in the style I had begun regardless of the possible problems of publication.

26. While tramping through the woods, we were often silent, intently searching. (Three of us were complete novices at this.) Sometimes, John would call our attention to the sounds of the birds in the trees overhead or to distant trains. "Do you hear the music?" "Look at this. Isn't it beautiful?" Leaves rustled underfoot and twigs and branches cracked. I kept track of people by listening for them unless they got too far. Then the forest mutes the little sounds.

Note 1: This piece was written on October 5, 1977, for possible publication in the Chicago Reader. The Cage reading took place October 4, 1977, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL. This piece was not accepted for publication. This blog publication is its first public appearance.

Note 2: The numbers were added for this publication and indicate the original order of the sections in the typescript. (This was done back in the days of typewriters so it really is a typescript.) In both the original version and this new one, the ordering of the sections was done by "selection without replacement", to use a statistical sampling term. The original method involved individual pieces of paper and a bag; for this version, daughter Kristin helped with a deck of cards to reshuffle the elements.

Note 3: Very minor formatting changes have been made to facilitate the translation from typewriting to the Web.

1 comment:

  1. great article glenn.
    its too bad the reader didnt publish this back in the day.
    thanks for sharing.


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