John Cage: Looking Back
Cage at Home: Collage by Christie Devereaux
by Charles Hayes
Several years have passed since the cold December 23rd 1984 when Reagan had recently been elected president, I had begun grad school at the University of New Mexico, and I was spending graduate loan money to get around the country interviewing artists, musicians, and writers on topics related to the term “obstacles” in creativity. John Cage would be the first of many artists to be visited over the next five years.
It all started during the summer of ’84. I sat with friends on a roof in the barrio of Albuquerque drinking Tequila and the idea hit: “Interviews with artists regarding their angst/obstacles?”
I whipped up a list of top figures in various arts and sent the first letter to what I thought was the wildest chance taking mind, that of John Cage. A few weeks later, I got the “mail gram” (see illustration) from Cage…
From there, I connected with other major figures, Carol Wincenc (flutist), Edward Albee (playwright), Erskine Caldwell (author of Tobacco Road), Carlos Montoya (flamenco guitar virtuoso), Maria Benitez (flamenco dancer, turned choreographer-composer), Louise Bourgeois (sculptor), Elaine Dekooning (painter)… and, today, in the project’s 31’st year, Daisy Jopling (rising star of fusion composer/violinist).
For the first interview, I flew from New Mexico to New York before Christmas to be with my family and to go into NYC to talk with Cage about his obstacles (such as early poverty), current challenges, as well as existential topics such as the after-life.
As I climbed the stairs to his loft on that December day, I looked up and saw a man with a full swath of gray hair, slim body and angular face chatting quietly with a small, older woman in a dark coat. I recognized Cage and said, “Hi John, I’m Charles Hayes, I’m here to interview you at 2 p.m.” “Oh, Yes! of course! Why don’t you go up there (he points to the open door to his loft), go in and make yourself at home?”
Five or six more steps and I was in the outer circumference of the 20th century’s most experimental artist’s headspace. I gazed at walls covered with amazing, original art works, not the least of which were a few Jasper Johns prints, while below and to my right were white computers waiting for someone to trigger them so that their programs could write Cage’s indeterminate music, based on chance operations of the I-Ching. Of his method, Kay Larson writes in Where The Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (p. 175):
As 1950 ends, he will learn to release the tight fist of ego by devising a radically new way of composing. Chance operations allow Cage to dissociate his music from his inner turmoil. He will generate random numbers and use them to find sounds. How can he (or anyone) judge a sound that has arisen of its own accord? It rises and falls, appears and disappears, and has no ego content whatsoever.
A single sound is like a thought: here one minute, gone the next.
Each sound is free to be itself. Nothing can cling to it; no interpretation, no ideas; no anger…no ‘masterpiece’ judgment, no ‘not-masterpiece’ judgment.’
His resting number-generating computers faced a kitchen at the center of which stood a rectangular counter stacked with greens waiting for John’s cook to prepare a vegetarian dinner.
I sat and waited.
I got up and I waited.
I sat down and I waited.
“Did he forget me?” I wondered.
I could have taken a bath. I could have cooked the vegetables and eaten them and he probably would not have lifted an eyelash. I could have had a nap. Maybe moved in…
I don’t know how many minutes passed, it was a lot, and I realized he probably had too much Zen that morning and the great Zero or Nothingness took him deep into timelessness. Eventually, he came and took me into what I wrote in my notes while on the return trip up the Hudson: “Cage’s jungle.” Plants and trees filled half the loft. We passed a chess set to our left as he led me to another table, where we sat facing one another, Cage waiting patiently as I made sure my tape recorders were operational. They were:
In 2013, I began to edit that interview with Cage for Ragazine.CC, and during that time, the thought dawned on me that composer of avant-garde, unrhymed verse (Walt Whitman) and the wild-minded composer of contemporary avant-garde music (Cage) had certain things in common. Both men thought that once they die, their works would not be remembered.
Cage indicated during our talk that his music would not be respected, though he thought he would be remembered — more as philosopher.
Now, more than two decades after his death in ‘92, I look over my shoulder at myself at age 34 in the conversation with Cage, to see that he, like Whitman, was dead set wrong.
The music world has not forgotten John Cage, composer, though Whitman has had much longer in proving that the poet’s poet was also wrong about his afterlife footprint.
* * *
John Cage: I forgot now what subject you wanted to talk about?
Charles Hayes: I want to get into obstacles and what they have to do with your art, what failure and success and all these [related] issues that may be relevant to you as someone who has made an effort to make music that is detached and not done by one’s ego and one’s control…
CH: When you started composing…was there an intention of “getting there”….?
JC: I think there was. I began my work… performing in a home situation for just-invited guests. I moved from L.A. with Xenia (his wife of ten years at the time, Xenia Andreyevna Kashevayoff) and… organized a group of performers…. I gave concerts …and collected percussion instruments, I did everything … to perform the work and interest people, and I wrote to people…inviting them to write for this percussion group. Now… there are many percussion orchestras…. I could see … if I stayed in Seattle…it would not go much further…. I began thinking it would be better if I established a center for experimental music… this was in the ’30s and we …had the notion through the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America that there were …possibilities; they didn’t speak of magnetic tape… they spoke of magnetic wire. And… film phonographs and they thought in both ways you could record sound and …use those records as instruments. So, I began to think in those directions… to establish a center and I spent two years writing to corporations and universities, and no one had money…. Since I could not find the money, I went with Xenia to the School of Design in Chicago…because it was the farthest east and … nearest New York, and I think it was a right [move] … The fact that I was ambitious, I wanted to have the work accepted and used…. I wasn’t ambitious for myself; I was ambitious for the work…. I was trying to make music hospitable to noise. The people often say my work is ‘destructive’ but I don‘t think it is… Beethoven is getting along as well as he was when I was starting.
My work with noise has added SPACE and DIMENSION to Western Music and Beethoven hasn’t suffered!
CH: Would you say that the ambition you had was really not that different from what is now…ambition for your work, to make music hospitable to noise?
JC: Um, I’m less ambitious now. I don’t have to be ambitious, everything I do is published, and my energy is spent not moving from Seattle to New York. I’m in New York and I think that one is justified if he wishes [to be] in Seattle, I think its different now to be in Seattle than when I was there. Don’t you think that if you visit any city…you get a feeling of presence of modern music and art?
CH: Any city? Modern music in terms of environment being noise and relating to that in your terms?
JC: That, too, and the fact that the televisions and radios are open to all this.
CH: How about ambition, having the world understand you?
JC: Ha! Ha!
CH: I got that sense in “For the Birds,” you know.
JC: Well, you can’t force people to understand you, you know ha ha!
CH: That’s right! But isn’t the concern there, though?
JC: It would be nice! It would be nice but you see no matter what you do, they don’t.
CH: What’s the result.
JC: We don’t know what the result is… I was talking with a taxi driver this morning and we were in complete agreement, and I think if we talked with other people we would be in agreement. We have no deep regard for government any more. We have no confidence in our president, or in anybody else’s president. Ah, I’m not so unhappy about the assassination of Indira Gandhi . I think she made some very serious mistakes and I think it was unfortunate she was killed, but I think it was more unfortunate that John Lennon was killed. But then why should we compare …none of them should be killed, but the fact that she was killed was partly because she placed herself in a position of such importance and she had done things that were offensive to a large number of people that were theoretically beneath her, and they are not beneath her – their rights are just as great as hers.
JOHNCAGE V10N2 March-April 2014
JC: Or she felt the things she was doing were of such importance, that she could ignore everything else.
CH: Well that happens to a lot of artists!
CH: How did you avoid that? …
JC: There are many people (chuckling) who would think I haven’t avoided anything (ha ha ha)!
CH: Okay, it’s just coming out in a different form?
JC: I don’t know. What do you think is being avoided?
CH: Corruption. Ego that comes with high recognition.
JC: No, but you see very much the truth of what Emily Dickinson said: Success is dust. You see very quickly if you keep your eyes open either because it fades more quickly than a flower or its opposite appears with a greater vigor.
CH: Did you realize that at an early time?
JC: All the time!
Ah, I could see very soon that the reactions of people to what I was doing had to receive no serious attention on my part. The teaching is of course entirely different, it is that you should have something to say and say it – for the people you know, and this is ah, ah at the heart of what you might call a political use of the arts in which the arts are for the people. I don’t take that attitude. I take an attitude that I think is closer to Thoreau. I think he paid or got his family to pay for the publicity of his books.
CH: There were 800 copies that he was the sole owner of or something like that.
JC: Right! And the publisher couldn’t sell them and so he wrote to Thoreau and said: ‘What should we do with the books?’ Thoreau said ‘Send them back to me,’ you know this whole story. The day he received the books he explained that he built a coffin for them, put them in the coffin, and then he said that “it makes me feel good to KNOW THAT NO ONE IS INTERESTED IN WHAT I AM DOING. It allows me to conduct my work in precisely the way I must, without any thought for reactions to it.” And he has turned out, I would say, at least of all Americans, to have lived the most useful life, not only for himself, but for all of us. He has been an example not only to me but to countless others, and he continues to be an example for all those who wish to change society for the better, which is to say the more OPENED. The more willing to accept a diversity of actions and ideas. I have in one of my compositions of music the one called “Song Books”; I have at the basis of it a five-word text which comes out of one of my diaries, it says: ‘We connect Satie with Thoreau.’ And ah, just as Thoreau was the sort to speak independently, and was almost alarmingly independent from other people, I mean alarming to those people who comfort themselves through their connections with one another; they don’t do anything themselves, but they want to feel connected… he didn’t even like to walk with anyone in the woods, did you know that?
CH: No, I didn’t.
JC: He would say: ‘If I take anyone with me in the woods, the walk is ruined!’
CH: That’s right, and, also, when he used to talk he used to like to have great space between.
JC: Yeah!! ha ha ha!
CH: Didn’t Ives start out with that kind of music in which he was playing at two different poles, as you were?
JC: Yeah yeah! So, Satie said the same things and they’re really remarkably similar those two. Satie said: ‘I wouldn’t think of touching the thought of someone else.” You know, he would want to leave it, just as you wouldn’t think of pulling that flower apart. Unless, say, you were asking the question: She loves me? She loves me not? You might do it then, with the daisy if you had lots of them, but if you only had one you wouldn’t destroy it, and he was thinking of the thought of someone else as being so special to that person … That as something suitable to be observed and appreciated, rather than argued or destroyed… Maybe it will turn out – there are many indications – maybe it will turn out there are, oh, what you might call varieties of, ah, mind, ah? And that Thoreau and Satie had a particular type of mind that becomes … appealing to those people that are displeased, as I am, with government.
CH: With organization in general?
CH: Don’t you also find friction with someone like myself calling you and saying, “What time can I come tomorrow?”
JC: No, because I don’t have any schedule. I need what time I can have to work, but I’m afraid, maybe I’m mistaken, I have, but I think of myself as having a responsibility to talk to the people who want to talk to me. For instance, I don’t have my name listed in the phone book, but one way or another people can find it. And I don’t have an answering service. I’m so unhappy when I call someone and I get an answering service. McCluhan called it the “extension of the central nervous system.” And we should be open to contact. I’ve just met a very intelligent Hungarian musicologist who has made a study of my work.
CH: What is his name.
JC: András Wilhelm. He’s been here for several months from Budapest. And he, uh, I asked him what his phone number was and he said he is opposed to telephones, he has no telephone. And at home in Hungary he has no telephone. And it seems to me to be – if you really are opposed to telephones you are living in a time of the extension of the central nervous system to tell András that I think he must get a telephone! Ha…and not have an answering service. It’s much better to get no answer than to get an answering service, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you be happier with any answer than with leaving a message?
CH: Yeah, I am a little wary about leaving messages for the very practical reason that they don’t get through to the person…
JC: Or, imagine having an answering service and coming home, say, and you have been away for two weeks; think of the list of numbers. Ha! … to drive you crazy.
CH: To change the subject a moment. During the time you sold tickets during the Depression, and you sold tickets to middle-class housewives to come to lectures for things you really didn’t know about, but you’d study up on, or something the night before…
JC: Yeah, Ha ha ha…
CH: The “Prepared Piano,” when you did the work with Syvilla Fort …
Is she still alive?
JC: No, she died of cancer.
I wrote a nice, ah, well I thought I wrote a nice enough to publish piece … one of my mesostics, it’s written – I got to get some glue — here it is on page 10:
“Had there been two composers
You might have asked the other one to write your music
I’m glad I was the only one around.”
CH: How about the limiting situations? And I’m wondering if you could talk a little more about ….these limiting circumstances – a lot of situations that I think that a lot of people would have gone to seed with.
JC: Well, I’ll tell you the situation I’m now in: its fairly well agreed now in the musical society that, ah, my ideas are interesting, and that my music is not so interesting. Or, if my music is interesting, my early music is more interesting than my late music (ha ha ha)! Now, say I accept all that, ah, nevertheless the fact remains that, in recent years, and only in response to commissions, I have written a great deal of orchestral music…for orchestras, commissions from orchestras. I wrote the 30 pieces for orchestra, commissions from Loraine; it was played both in Metz and Venice. It hasn’t been touched anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Ha ha! Then after that I wrote “Dance for Orchestras”, which was played very well in California, poor in Paris, and recently well in Toronto. Before that commission, I wrote “Atlas Equipticalis”. And, I guess out of a kind of necessity, but finally commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation I wrote the “Cheap Imitation for Orchestra”, and then I’m trying to think of other things; I just finished a new piece for an orchestra in Yugoslavia, but the fact remains that there are lots of orchestras and most of them would not consider or take seriously the notion of playing my work. If they did they would rehearse it improperly. …
There are quite a number of pieces and if I do say so, they are all quite interesting. I think the attitude I take and that keeps me from being glum or miserable in this situation is that eventually they ‘all have to change their minds; now, whether they change their minds before I die or after I die, perhaps makes some difference to me, but little difference in the long run. All of the work exists; it will eventually have a use, I think. When they are tired of playing all the things they do play? And that fatigue will enter at some point, they will have to search around and I think they’ll automatically think of trying my pieces out. Ha!
CH: Ironically, isn’t there a bit of Beethoven in you?
JC: Ha, what! What do you mean?
CH: In the sense that once some man said to him “What is this stuff?” and Beethoven said to him: “Sir, this isn’t for you … its for the future.”
JC: Yeah, ha ha!
CH: You know and I think he would have had the same kind of reaction, you know, contemporaneously.
CH: Wouldn’t you be more accepted in that kind of time when people have a certain kind of mind-set that would go more along with your music?
JC: I don’t know what what’s going to happen in the future. I would hope that some kind of peaceful anarchic social situation would take place. Christian Wolff speaks of Social Democracy, but I would like some term for the state of society that would involve the term ‘anarchy – and anarchy seen as something good rather than dangerous. But, in such a situation don’t you think a great and facilitated exchange between individuals of mum ideas and works – connections – ah, you would quickly be able to transfer things that now go through large institutions to get to the other person, and in having that high degree of … individual communication, there will be less need … I’m just imagining this, for large social situations.
CH: What do you see as obstructions NOW?
JC: Well, the only thing that, the thing that those large social institutions are good for is something akin to – well, one of the things they’re good for is celebration. Festival? But can’t you imagine a different kind of celebration, or Festival than the one we now have? I love those… In Little Italy, up and down the streets people have food and things could take place where you have a – not all the time but ah – sometimes during the year you would have large festivals…. The more frequent and more basic use of the arts will be from individual to individual.
CH: You’re enabling it.
JC: Do you, have you any contact with this modem business?
CH: No, but I work with a computer….
JC: Well, you know you can get one connection of your computer with other computers so that the technology is moving … so that right into your home a very large number of other minds [come]?
CH: True Global Village!
JC: Right. Some of the things that have happened in that present situation don’t strike us as being welcomed or good.
CH: Because its new?
JC: We are in the period when the evils of the present form of society are still dominant; so that it hasn’t been known how to build up a good use of the extended central nervous system. One of the things that should happen very, almost basically, to the social use of the computer, telephone and so on, is the alteration of the economic structure. Everyone should at birth be given a credit card. Besides being given a name, yes? And they should have all the basic necessities of life …. money now is not real money, all it is is credit, so we need simply to extend the notion of credit to everyone.
JC: And, you know, a painting or a drawing right – Jasper Johns – I’m fortunate to have – those prints (pointing to the series of Johns’ prints on the wall in his loft)… Prices are absolutely outlandish! If he [Johns] just touches paper, it becomes inordinately valuable…
CH:So what can artists do to wrestle creativity away from the talons of the value system?
JC: Right now in this dramatic situation where the old surround us and we have a vision of the new, and these two things are quite different from one another…
CH: So, how do you foresee the process of the dialectic clash happening?
JC: Say, I become pessimistic?
CH: I was wondering what stops you from being pessimistic! Is it Zen?
JC: Well, no it’s now not only me stopping me, but it’s other people begging me to not become pessimistic.
And they point out to me that things are really changing. A few days ago someone was, I was saying to someone ‘this is bad, that’s bad….” and it didn’t seem to be that anything I’ve had in mind was coming about, you know. But he said: ‘But look at this and this and that!’ And the changes are really remarkable.
CH: So this person did persuade you that good things were happening?
JC: Yes! – So I went back to my old ways, ha! My old optimistic ways!
CH: I’m wondering, it seems like back in the ‘60s, did you feel more optimistic than you do?
JC: Yes, yeah!
CH: I think a lot of people did. You know that one of the people that are going to be in my project is Edward Albee. Everyone called him the playwright of the ‘60s, and I think he had a hope there of educating his audiences and so forth to their foolishness, their fantasies they got lost in, and lack of communication – conventions and things. But, his more recent works don’t reflect that same thing. It seems like the ‘80s, it seems like everybody feels – from the ‘60s I’m saying, because I was growing up and was 20 and taking things in, there was a betrayal and it didn’t go (Cage interrupts)
JC: No, not! Its true!
CH: So, I wonder how you see that? How you are dealing with these ‘80s, which show people just retreating to conventions, to American symbols, wealth, getting as much as they can and so forth? Is this a force that is causing your pessimism?
JC: I think it’s very depressing to have a presidential election such as we just gone through (election of Ronald Reagan). I think the only thing that saves me from being miserable is, is my increasing feeling that the government is of no real consequence. When I say that I realize they could quickly destroy the … whole planet so that, but right up to the moment of the destruction, I can proceed optimistically… And my foolishness comes from the continued presence of energy …
CH: And how do you renew this energy?
JC: You do it in the simplest possible way Ha Ha ha… going to sleep!
Ha ha ha… and waking up the next day. Ha ha ha…
CH: I was expecting you to say 15 hours of meditation a day, something like that.
JC: I think you get it from going to sleep don’t you think?
CH: Sure. How about periods, though, when you’re really worn down, when you are worn from a lot of travel and work.
JC: You find me in such a moment right now.
I’m now at a point where I have both on paper and in my mind a list of things I should be doing, and I’m not sure yet whether I can do them or not in the time allotted, and so on. At the same time that my situation more so than ever before is facilitated by the computer business. So that I don’t really know my own capabilities. I’m not familiar with what I can do, and it would not be any good for me to be familiar because what I’ll be able to do a month from now may vary greatly from what I can do right now. It’s because I have two people doing programming for me so that I may suddenly be able to do all kinds of things that I, that are not in my mind at all. Its quite marvelous!
And that’s what we’re living in right now. So that even though I’m almost overwhelmed, I’m also almost opening doors that I haven’t opened before.
CH: Other times: what were your harder times, say back in the ‘30s, you know, before the electronic thing.
JC: Trying to start that Center for Experimental Music.
CH: The electronic music and the (pause) have you had this always with you, this kind of resiliency?
JC: Yes. And always until the middle ‘50s or (pause) even when I was just as poor as a church mouse. Yes, it wasn’t until the late ‘50s that I had any extra money at all. When I wrote the Concerto For Piano and Orchestra, I wrote that out in the country, I was living in Stony Point. And, I didn’t have any money. And my music was not published. And one of my books. And I came in with … I got a ride into town and I went to a cocktail party, and Elaine Dekooning was there, she said … she said: “I have always wanted to commission a piece from you! And I said “Oh, that’s marvelous!” — no, FIRST she said: “Oh, how are you?” I said, “I’m perfectly alright. BUT, I’m poor as a Church mouse!’”
Ha ha ha! And so she said, “Well I’ve always wanted to commission a piece,” and so she gave me a hundred dollars and it came in the mail. It was a great deal of money then. So, I dedicated the “Concert For Piano and Orchestra” to her. And she wrote back and said: “It was so beautiful, I didn’t mean a big piece, I just meant a little piece!” Ha ha ha!
CH: That was already when you were breaking into Oriental thought. You had studied with Suzuki, right, in the ‘40s or so?
JC: No, 15 years before…. So even during the time of the poverty…
CH: Would you say that there’s always been a creative life that has always been independent of ego, in your life, that always had to, that always wanted to go forward, explore, always kept you going? Mozart felt this about his life.
JC: In the beginning your first question had to do with ambition… and I was very ambitious but then I think after the studies with Suzuki, I think it (ambition) became something else.
CH: Not even ambition for the work?
JC: No, that no doubt. No, I think by that time I had confidence in the work. It just becomes simple things like energy and optimism. Or continuing.
To think that the help is got to come from the outside; the help has got to come from the inside. I think. At one point I got a Guggenheim, and I got a grant from the National Academy of arts and Letters at the same time.
I didn’t take the attitude that some have take that I won’t do anything unless they give a grant; I did all my work all the time on my own. And I had the example in front of me of another composer who never wrote a single piece unless he got a grant; he lived his whole life supported first by one foundation and then by another. I think he is still living, and still [being] supported . But I am delighted to be able to know through the body of my work both in music and writing to support myself. I’m not dependent upon any one else. And I’m able to support as I do, with any income I don’t need – I divert it to support the Cunningham Dance Company
I’ve made a will that would umm benefit the Cunningham Dance Company if it’s still in existence, then if it isn’t, then the Foundation for Contemporary Performance…
CH: Talking about death a second here, and the hard times, death in relation to hard times, I don’t know what your beliefs are in relation to death and afterlife and so forth, but if you know, if you were to die in 10 minutes and all of a sudden you were to be faced with ah (Cage interrupts with deep laughter) …
JC: HA ha ha ha ha!
CH: A mandate to be reborn, would you? And say you couldn’t use the I-Ching or something like that, in determining …
JC: I would have a choice?
CH: You would.
CH: To come back again!
JC: What would I choose? Well, you know the story where I say I’d be a botanist? And …
CH: Oh, the mushrooms!
JC: And Alexander Smith, says “Why would you want to be a botanist?” And, I say: “To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts!” And he says to me: “Oh that shows how little you know about botany!” Ha ha … So I don’t think it makes much difference what you – it’s like what I sad about the I-Ching in the beginning. Any profession will answer the needs of any human being… Don’t you think? And you could – well, if Jesus was willing to be a carpenter, and I was willing to be a composer, and Smith was wiling to be a mycologist, I think anybody could be just anything, don’t you think?
CH: What would you eliminate say from your prior life to the next one?
JC: Well, it won’t do me any good anyways. But your question is a very iffy one. But it makes me think of ah – a very beautiful interview with Marcel Duchamp with Pierre Caban. Near the beginning he’s asked if he has any regrets. It’s more or less the question you’re asking and he says: “No!” he doesn’t have any. “When you look back over your life, oh first he says, “What is your first motive of satisfaction?” and Marcel says, “In the first place to have had luck, to have been lucky, because, “Basically I have never worked for a living. I consider working for a living is foolish. From an economic point of view, I hope a day will come when no one is obliged to work.” And that’s what we are in the presence of, in the Central Nervous System.
CH: Thoreau realized through technology?
JC: Isn’t it true? And Thoreau didn’t work.
CH: Yes, of course not.
JC: Thanks to my good luck, I’ve been able to get through all this business without any trouble. I’ve understood at a certain moment that it was not necessary to overload life with too much weight, too many things to do, with what people call “a wife, children, a house in the country, an automobile”! And I’ve understood happily and soon enough, hmm? That permitted me to live a long time as a bachelor much more easily than if I had – if it had been necessary for me to face all the normal difficulties of life, hmm? Basically, this is the principal thing – I consider myself therefore very happy, or very lucky … I have never had any great unhappiness, sadness or neurasthenia. I have never known moreover, the effect of producing (reads the French text of the DuChamp interview). He’s never known moreover the effect of producing things. And painting not having been for me a diversion, or an imperious need to express myself… This is what I’m free of.
(Cage continues reading the French text and provides the following translation): “I’ve never had the need to design the morning or the evening, to make sketches.” He didn’t feel compelled to work. “I can’t tell you anything more about it. I have no regrets!”
Now, I can’t honesty say that I have no regrets. I have in me… a lot, not only of my father who was very much like Marcel, who I think would have said “I have no regrets,” but I have in me, also my mother who would have said that things “could have been MUCH better than they were!” Every time we took a drive out of town on Sundays, we’d no sooner, we wouldn’t, we’d just be approaching the city limits and she would say: “Oh we should have taken so and so with us!” And she almost would get us to drive back to pick up somebody. She never thought that the situation we were in was a good one. She always thought it could be improved. And that’s what Marcel is saying right there. Is that he felt everything is fine. Wouldn’t you say?
John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Lynn Rosenthal, courtesy of The John Cage Trust.
JC: And, you talked about death and he talked beautifully about death. First, they ask him if he believes in God. He says: “No, not at all. Don’t even mention It! Ha ha ha ha! The question doesn’t even exist. It’s an invention of man. Why speak of such a utopia, when man invents a stupid imbecility to have created a notion of God? I do not wish to say that I am or am not an ‘atheist,’ or a ‘believer.’ I just don’t want to have anything to say about it!” Isn’t that beautiful? Imagine, that’s true anarchy isn’t it?
Yeah, “I won’t talk to you – “I won’t talk about the life of ants (you know ‘ants’) on Sunday, would I?”, he said. “It’s the same question!” Ha ha! And they said, “What do you think about death?” Marcel says, “As little as possible.” Physiologically one is obliged to think about it, from time to time at my age when you have a headache or when you break your leg, death then appears… I do not hope for any other life than this one or for any metampsychosis – it’s very troubling. In spite of myself, one is impressed that one is going to disappear completely. Isn’t that marvelous?
Then they say, “In an interview you have said that questions of journalists that they give you and that there’s one that nobody ever asks you and would like to have asked and you have said that the question is: “How are you?” And, so he answers, he says: “I am well!” Ah, I don’t have bad health at all, I’ve had one or two operations. I think they are normal operations when you consider my age, like the prostate, for example. I have submitted to the boredoms that surround all people…all people who are 79 years old. He says: “Look out, I am very happy,” and he ends the book and begins it with the same… Isn’t that beautiful!
I think it was a great pleasure for me to have spent a lot of time with him until the end of his life, and when I received the telegram from Teeny saying he had died, I put the telegram down on a low table like this one, but it wasn’t covered with books, and I was living in a place in the University of Illinois, which was even longer than this is, and it was like a bird cage and it was up in the trees and you could look at the trees out the window, and I had no furniture, and I just avoided the table and I went about my work and thought about, and thought, I was very foolish, I thought I could bring him back to life by ignoring the letter. It was so – and for years Teeny spoke, I don’t notice so much any more, but she always used the pronoun ‘we’ – we do that, we do this, he was such a marvelous man. Just love ‘em.
And all the time he was fooling us, you know. He had us all feeling that he wasn’t doing any work. And there he was busy on a great masterpiece. And he would even tease us – he must have laughed inside, because he would bring up in conversation all kinds of things that pointed to the existence of this work without ever mentioning it, so that he almost gave away the fact that he was working. But he didn’t. We were all surprised that he had been busy all the time we thought he wasn’t. And we turned him into an art, turned the fact that he was not working into a great work of art, really – at least I had. I thought: ‘Oh the fact that he’s doing nothing is the greatest thing he can do!’ and he was (ha ha!) all the time just as busy as a bird …
And another things he would say is that, “An artist must go underground!” Because he was underground working! He was working secretly and you know he would go to great lengths to do that, he had two studios. And if you went to visit him in his studio he took you into the one where he was not working; he collected dust in it. It was photographed and it was proof that Duchamp was no longer working.
CH: There’s one other question that I had, it has to do with Zen … I wonder how this relates to your work … part of the Zen teaching, I believe, is that philosophies and so forth have a kind of regression downward from thought to words to sound and sound has its counterpart, maybe its roots, in feeling and one of the teachings is as I understand it, certain mantras are death mantras. We have to understand the sound and not use it in … I don’t want to use the word “careless’ but I guess a random way …we have to be careful about sound first of all and they have to come from a master who understands what feelings are going to be stimulated by the sounds that you are using, otherwise a destructive effect can come about. I’m wondering how this aspect of the teaching relates to chance music? You know it seems like [with] chance music, you can wander into this area of …
JC: … do one thing or another?
CH: Yeah! create a negative feeling state. Have you ever confronted that thought?
JC: No, I don’t believe that it is true. I think that those notions of some thing being potentially destructive, that is outside of us or potentially beneficial that is outside us, is not true. I think that all the power is within each one… rather than outside of us.
The foregoing interview was edited for style and length.
To read Hayes’ Dorothea Rockburne interview, click here:
John Cage at MoMA:
There Will Never Be Silence:
Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”
October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014
Read more about this exhibition, INSIDE/OUT.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.