Revista has left this interview in the present tense in honor of one of the most innovative, ever relevant, imaginative and spirited composers this country has ever produced. May John Cage be here always, like the silence he so gently revealed to us.
This conversation took place in 1991 from Cage's studio in New York, one year before his death.
After nearly 60 years of composing experimental music and poetry, John Cage, 78, is a living legend. Cage's biography reads like a 20th century history of the avant garde in America. Born in California and a longtime resident of Manhattan, Cage became curious about experimental writing and music early on.
In 1928, long before the rest of America, he was reading the Cubist work of Gertrude Stein, By 1934, he was studying counterpoint music theory with Arnold Schoenberg, one of the masters of 12 tone theory. He has been the musical adviser to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company since 1943, and has written some of his best-known pieces for this modern dance troupe.
Throughout the years, Cage has been elected to nearly every academy of arts in existence, including the Institute of the American Academy, the Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. He's received several honorary doctorate degrees including one from the prestigious California Institute of Arts in 1986. Most recently, Cage was made the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University for 1988/89.
In short, though Cage's aesthetic takes effort to fully appreciate, his work is not likely to vanish. Chance operation, a phrase that Cage coined years ago, is the basis of his work. It involves a random process of choice-making in terms of what note to play or what instrument to be used in a musical composition.
Chance operation is based on an elaborate and articulate view of the universe as being in a state of flux or ordered chaos. It lends itself to an almost infinite variety of choices to make in terms of available sounds and the arrangement of sounds and silence. Cage discovered the possiblity of silence in music. In his book, Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), Cage discusses at length his observations of silence.
"When we think we hear silence, we are actually hearing many sounds. For instance, the traffic sounds outside the window. Or if we are in a chamber, we hear ourselves our blood flowing and our nervous system."
Just as this awareness of silence plays an important part in Cage's musical compositions, the presence of white space is instrumental in his prints and watercolors.
"The white paper equals silence," he explained. "The marks themselves are like the occurrence of sound in music." "The first time it happened for me (the experience of silence as equivalent to white space) was not with respect to my own work, but to that of Robert Rauschenberg," he said. "He loaned four of his White Paintings to me and I had them in my place in the '40s." Cage laughs,
"That was nearly 50 years ago now. Those white canvases were very much like listening to the silence, because as you look at those, you see grains of dust, or shadows, in the texture of the canvas. So, l spoke in my books of those paintings as being 'airports for particles,' or a way of making emptiness visible.
In his artwork contours of rocks are placed within the white space of the paper according to a process of chance operations. "What I am doing is not using choice, but asking questions," he said. The questions he asks have to do with the selection of rocks, the choice of paper, and the materials used to make the imprints.
The rocks to be used are taken from Cage's collection of 15 rocks, based on the Zen garden, Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan.
"I've been using those particular 15 rocks for many years. The rocks come from different parts of the world, and there's nothing special about them, other than they are the same 15 rocks and that's related to the number of stones in the Ryoanji Garden in Kyoto," he said.
Cage consults the I Ching about which rock to use, arriving at one of the 64 hexagrams. Based on the I Ching's answer, Cage chooses a rock and places it on a grid of 64 lines. He then poses questions relating to the materials to be used, and in this way the composition is decided.
In keeping with this aesthetic, Cage has kept these elements out of his art work as well. He does this by placing emphasis on the action of the process.
"The action involves the placing of the stone and the choice of the brushes, which is also related to a chance operation, so that I know which brush to place in my' hand," he explained.
By leaving such choices up to chance operation, the elements of personality are left out. The result is a series of prints as quiet and empty as his music. Calligraphic loops and circles appear like dream images here and there on the print, interacting always with the white paper.
New River Stones 1983
Watercolor on rag paper
24 x 54.25 "
To add to the process, Cage has begun making smoked imprints on the paper before making the print itself.
"To make the smoke prints, we rolled up newspaper and built a fire right on the press," he said. "Then we placed dampened paper over the fire, which of course put out the fire and produced smoke. Then we rolled the paper through the press, leaving the imprint of the smoke on the paper."
This is consistent with Cage's aesthetic given that no two pieces of his music are ever played exactly the same, either. Most recently Cage has been doing watercolors. He travels to the Miles Horton Studio in Virginia where he is assisted by Ray Kass and his students from the Virginia Polytechnique Institute, who help smoke the paper he will use for the watercolors. Nothing is easy or taken for granted when discussing the work of this avant garde master. Like the prints and drawings, the watercolors are of rock contours.
New River Watercolor, Series I, #5 1988
Watercolor on rag parchment
18 x 36 "
"Some of those rocks are very big and the students are able to move them, thank goodness," Cage said. "1'm getting on in years and it's not easy for me to move them. But they can pick them up and we know where they are to go through chance operation. So they help me place them on the paper."
Then a particular brush and pigment is chosen through the chance operation process and Cage circumscribes the rock onto the paper. This stage involves the element of gesture that could be construed to include personality, presenting a problem for Cage.
"Gesture is so close to one's signature, I've thought about it a lot," Cage said. "But with the involvement of the rock, the line is not so much me as it is the rock. However, I've learned that a slight turning of the brush on my part makes a big difference in the line. So, it's hard to explain, but I'm moving toward a freedom of gesture while at the same time using gesture. The same thing is happening to me now in my music in terms of harmony."
Branches is one of Cage's most popular musical works involving the use of cacti and other plant materials. Talking cacti, if you will. Or as Cage said with a charming laugh, "Let's call it Southwestern music."