Thursday, 20 May 2010

Every Day is a Good Day

This is the title of a travelling exhibition of prints, watercolours and drawings by John Cage that will open at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead in mid-June, continuing on to locations in Cambridge, Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea over the course of the following eighteen months. Echoing Cage’s use of chance, the exhibition will be selected and installed using a computerised version of the I-Ching.

Peter Dickinson’s volume of interviews, CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage, remains essential reading. To celebrate the opening of Every Day, we offer the following short excerpt from Dickinson’s interview with Cage himself:

PD I’d like to try to see whether you feel the Zen involvement needs understanding by those who want to account—in a very Western, logical way—for what you’ve done since about 1950.

JC I’m not sure. I’m thinking, for instance, of a very close friend with whom I feel utter sympathy—Morton Feldman. I would say Morty has no closeness to Zen. His closeness is to Western psychology, don’t you think?

PD Yes, I do. But he wouldn’t go all the way with you in taking his own tastes and desires, as you call it, out of his music.

JC No, he wouldn’t at all. But he feels very close to my work. He also has, so to speak, as deep an understanding and experience of my work as anyone. And yet he has no experience of Zen.

PD The golden opportunity to get yourself out of your music was the discovery of the I Ching?

JC I was first introduced to the I Ching by Lou Harrison before I went to Seattle, and it made no impression on me, but I remembered it. And later, Christian Wolff brought me a copy that his father had just published— of the Bollingen edition, a translation from the German of Wilhelm by Cary Baynes. At that point, when I saw it—I’m speaking now of the chart with the hexagrams—I suddenly understood how to write the Music of Changes.

PD When Feldman called out, “You’ve hit it?”

JC Yes.

PD A kind of eureka?

JC [laughs] We were at a point with his work, my work, and Christian Wolff’s work with the charmed help of David Tudor—a very intoxicating point—where things were happening quickly and richly.

PD It must have been wonderful to come across a performer like David Tudor?

JC Yes. Another great moment that I enjoyed was the close association with Merce, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. The four of us were often together.

PD Would you account for 4’33”, which everybody knows and talks about in terms of Rauschenberg’s completely white and completely black canvases or of the Buddhas who, when asked to make a statement, said absolutely nothing?

JC All of that. Actually, I wrote a text, which has never been published, called “A Composer’s Confessions,” and in it I described the silent piece before I wrote it. But I didn’t give myself the right to write it until I saw the white paintings of Bob’s.

PD You’ve said quite often that 4’33” is the piece of yours that you like best.

JC Yes.

PD Why?

JC Well, I listen to it all the time! [extended laughs] I wish you’d ask me such questions all the time. [more laughs]

PD You listen to it all the time by your selection [Cage: Yes], but in a concert hall it’s given to a paying audience.

JC The pieces that are given [laughs], that aren’t that, are a terrible interruption! [extended laughs]

PD So all sound is an interruption of the silence?

JC I consider it my responsibility not to interrupt that, you see.

PD But you’ve also said there’s no such thing as silence?

JC True. But there are, in fact, things to be heard when you listen to nothing— to no music.

PD This is now fascinatingly logical in the Zen manner but illogical in the European manner. Was it something of this sort—your insistence on getting yourself out of your music—that caused difficulties with Boulez when you were quite close at one point?

JC I suppose so. We had a very interesting correspondence; I think ultimately it will be published.

PD Some of it was very technical?

JC Oh yes. Some of his letters to me were just absolutely marvellous in terms of information. His handwriting was so very small; mine was scrawly and large. He wrote on pale blue, transparent airmail paper—on both sides—so the writing on one side affects the reading of the writing on the other side. It was very difficult. We used to get microscopes—because it was in French besides. [laughs] We were struggling to understand it.

As we have had to omit Peter Dickinson’s footnotes from this post, we should point out that ‘A Composer’s Confessions’ and Cage’s correspondence with Boulez have since been published. It is also worth mentioning that Cage did not always choose 4’33” as his favourite piece. Nearly twenty years ago Dickinson was asked, by a leading music magazine, to review a ‘recording’ of the piece. The CD was fully packed, complete with booklet notes, but 4’33” was the only work on the disc. Dickinson offered to review it with the normal heading, then a blank space and his name at the end. Sadly the editor declined.

CageTalk is available from your favourite bookseller.

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