I came across the following interview with Cage in the collection Audio Arts edited by William Furlong, (Audio Arts, 6 Briarwood Rd, London SW4 9PX). I have changed English spellings to American.
In 1983 Audio Arts visited New York in order to participate in 'British Artists' Soundworks, an exhibition/presentation at Franklin Furnace. While in New York, a series of interviews and recordings were made. Here John Cage speaks about his appreciation of sounds, his approach to collaborations, the artists he admires and his views on contemporary painters such as Julian Schnabel.
William Furlong: John, you composed a piece that was performed the other evening as part of the Ear benefit concert at St Bartholomew's Church.
John Cage: I called it "EarforEar", thinking of the omission in the Bible of 'ear for ear'. They say 'tooth for tooth' and 'an eye for an eye', but they didn't say anything about an ear.
WF: Well, it's been said now ...
JC: I didn't really mean to cut off an ear, I meant rather that this piece was based on the letters E-A-R and that it was composed and intended to be performed so that it could be heard rather than seen, except the--what would you call it--the announcer or the instigator would say 'Ear', and those responding would be invisible. There's an instrument that is mysterious in the same way that it gives you illusions about space, the Japanese temple gong. Do you know that? When it's played as one plays the glass in a cafe (you know, by dampening your finger and then going around the edge) in the temple gong, if you take a heavy leather-covered wooden beater and rub it very slowly around the edge of the gong, even very large ones, the sound that's generated comes from one doesn't know exactly where.
WF: Just carrying on talking about sound, you've explored sound in a very broad sense, in many senses, in a total sense, from sound produced by man-made instruments to sound that naturally occurs in the environment. As with the Russian Futurists who used the sounds of industrial equipment and factory whistles and sirens and so on, do you believe that an interest in using natural sounds stems from the idea that perhaps our Western musical conventions in themselves can't adequately express and reflect ideas about the moment we live in, in the contemporary world?
JC: Well, one could have those ideas, but what I was doing primarily was ignoring the difference between noises and musical tones and trying to make a larger group which could be called sounds and that would include both of those. Just as the word 'humanity' includes the rich and the poor, so my notion of sounds is all of them, not just noises and not just musical tones but all of them. After hearing a group of sounds, we say the name of the composer, like Beethoven. I would rather remember the sounds. This stems from a Buddhist idea that all beings, whether sentient, like human beings, or non-sentient, like sounds or stones, our beings are the Buddha, so that we are living in a interpenetration of centers rather than moving towards one center. Sometimes people get the idea, or get the experience, and it changes their way of living, and sometimes they don't. I remember a lady who years and years ago--it was in the thirties when I was just beginning in Seattle and I had a percussion orchestra and I was working just with noises--and she had been in the hospital and she came. She's a fairly well known person, Nancy Wilson Ross. She's an authority on oriental Buddhist thought and so forth. Anyway, she came to the concert of percussion music and she was supposed to go back to the hospital but she decided not to, she simply went home, and other people have told me that after hearing a concert in which noises are honored as well as musical sounds, that they listen to the sounds around them with more attention than they had previously. This is also for me the effect of modern painting on my eyes, so when I go around the city I look, I look at the walls . . . and I look at the pavement and so forth as though I'm in a museum or in a gallery. In other words, I don't turn my aesthetic faculties off when I'm outside a museum or gallery.
WF: You've mentioned visual arts, and of course you are very well known in a visual arts context and you've worked with a lot of artists like Rauschenberg and Johns and so on. Is there something, do you think, that is specifically to do with being a composer, an avant-garde composer in America during the period that you have worked...
JC: That it has to do also with the visual arts?
WF: Well, yes, that you've worked very much in conjunction with artists, perhaps, rather than with other musicians.
JC: I think it must be because, you see, musicians at the beginning would not accept my work as music. They told me quite frankly in the thirties that what I was doing was wrong. Whereas dancers accepted what I was doing. So I was accepted almost immediately into the world of theater and the world of theater includes the visual arts, includes poetry, includes singing. Theater is what we're really living in. So that later when we had that group of David Tudor, Christian Wolf, Morton Feldman and Earl Brown and myself, I think that the thing that distinguished my work from the others, if I may say so, I don't know whether they would agree or not, but I think that what distinguished it was that it was more theatrical. My experience is theatrical. I like the other arts. I don't like to close my eyes when I'm listening to music.
WF: I was wondering if you felt there was an intrinsic difference between working as an independent individual composer or working in collaboration with others?
JC: You see, I found a way to collaborate with Merce Cunningham so that we really don't have to collaborate, we simply do our work separately after the most commonsense agreement, say twenty-five minutes, whether it's a humorous piece or whether it's going to be a serious piece. Then we simply work separately and we put it together in the theater.
WF: Do you work with any visual artists at the moment, painters, sculptors?
JC: I have a very good and close friend William Anastasi, whose work I enjoy, and we play chess a great deal together, but we haven't collaborated on any actual work though we might. And his friend Bradshaw, I like her work. I remain devoted to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and I loved the work of Mark Tobey and Maurice Graves, though I rarely see Maurice. Did you know there's going to be a large retrospective of his work? I think it opens, in fact, tonight in Washington DC at the Phillips Gallery and it will come to the Whitney Museum here. I think it will be a blessing to see his work at the present time in the century. I mean a blessing in relation to, say, the exhibition of Schnabel and other such things, which suggest the negation of art. I don't like it, I don't accept it. I suppose Wittgenstein would say I should take a clicker out of my pocket and click it, in order to transform it into the beautiful, but I think that it's full of intention on the part of Schnabel, and I think the intentions are wrong intentions. I think it's intentional work and I do not like it, and I don't even think the intentions are good, and I don't even think the promotion of his work by the galleries is good either. I have no further confidence in Leo Castelli or Mary Boone. I work, as you know, using chance operations, and all of my work since the fifties can be said to be non-intentional. I have tried to get--as Thoreau tried a hundred years ago--to get myself out of the way of the sounds, and that's exactly what Tobey did with his white writing, and that is not apolitical it's anarchic. It turns out, politically speaking, to be stronger than any statements such as Schnabel's. I would say, for instance, that the work of Thoreau, which is anarchic and which changed India which changed Martin Luther King, which helped the Danes in their resistance to Hitler--I would say that these ideas are very strong socially even though they are non-intentional.