A NEW VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT FOR DOCUMENTA 12 MAGAZINES
INTO-GAL: I was reading an interview with Lévi-Strauss by Georges Charbonnier from the late ’50s and Lévi-Strauss said that he had a feeling that music has always been much more ‘avant-garde’ than other forms of expression.
JOHN CAGE: Really?
INTO-GAL: He thought that music composed at the time of the Impressionist movement was much more adventurous musically than Impressionism was pictorially.
JOHN CAGE: Uh-huh. That’s very curious. I have the feeling that visual arts are more advanced than music.
INTO-GAL: He goes on to say that to us modern listeners music does not appear so dated. You suspect that visual art is more advanced?
JOHN CAGE: It seemed that way to me. It seemed to me that music follows visual art. For instance, I was born in 1912, and it was then that Duchamp was using chance operations. When I saw him in Venice many years later in the late ’50s I said, ‘Isn't it strange Marcel, I’m doing now what you did when I was born. And he smiled and he said, ‘I must’ve been fifty years ahead of my time.’
His mathematics weren’t perfect but the idea was there.
INTO-GAL: That's reminiscent of what Brion Gysin said about writing, that the novel was fifty years behind painting—painters could actually touch the medium, whilst writers couldn’t do that.
JOHN CAGE: Uh-huh. I think that people admire music and think that it is abstract, perhaps that’s what Lévi-Strauss was referring to. But I think if you’re involved with music, the ideas that are expressed in it are frequently quite, oh, unadventurous.
INTO-GAL: In what sense are they unadventurous?
JOHN CAGE: In the sense, for instance, that chance operations were used in painting before they were used in composition, and a work like the work of Malevich is perhaps just now conceivable in terms of music—that extraordinary simplicity. It’s conceivable that someone might do something like Malevich—or is doing—I think of La Monte Young.
INTO-GAL: What do you think of the work of Philip Glass?
JOHN CAGE: I think that his music is, as everyone agrees, very popular, and it’s because of its repetition, and I like some of it very much, but I don’t think it’s an advance, it’s not new in relation to—it’s not just discovered, it’s something that has been known for some time.
INTO-GAL: Do you watch much television?
JOHN CAGE: No.
INTO-GAL: What do you think of the technology of television? Is TV just something you ignore or you prefer not to dwell on it?
JOHN CAGE: The programs that we have, here at least, are so uninteresting.
INTO-GAL: Soap operas and things like that.
JOHN CAGE: Uh-huh.
INTO-GAL: How about news?
JOHN CAGE: I like the radio for the news. I like the radio for the weather too.
INTO-GAL: In 1958 in a piece entitled ‘Communication’ you said that European works, and that being Stockhausen, Boulez etc, ‘present a harmoniousness, a drama, or a poetry which, referring more to their composers than to their hearers, moves in directions not shared by the American ones,’ and you go on to say that American music ‘resembles daily experience’ and that its ‘inherent silence is equivalent to the denial of the will.’ This struck me as being an interesting observation in relation to today. Could you comment on these distinctions you made between Europe and America back then in relation to the music of the present time—do these observations still apply?
JOHN CAGE: For me not quite as much, at least they don’t strike me now as they did earlier. What strikes me is now is a correspondence between say the work of Walter Zimmermann, who is living in Cologne, and a recent composition of mine for two pianos which I wrote last summer. When I heard Zimmermann’s piece it gave me an experience similar to the one I had when I heard my own music, which was a kind of placelessness—I didn’t know where I was when I was listening to either his music or mine, and I had no sense of going anywhere, but I did have—naturally that’s characteristic of music—a sense of movement, but not knowing where it was going, and not thinking of it as you would in Philip Glass as a staying, but of moving but not knowing where it was going. I think there are at least two kinds—there are many kinds of course, of music—but there’s a great division between music which talks, which is somewhat suggested in that early quote from me about European music, and music which acts or does, which carries out a process and which isn’t talking but which is doing what it does. That’s still strikes me very much.
INTO-GAL: And is it something that you’re still, in regard to your own work—
JOHN CAGE: —that I’m concerned with? Yes.
INTO-GAL: So the European position is perhaps something that’s becoming more oriented towards America?
JOHN CAGE: I think the differences between what we could say are Europeans and what are Americans—the differences are less clear. Sometimes they’re very clear but sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they seem to be the same, so that in spots, as it were, we’re coming to one place and we don't know what that place is—something like that.
INTO-GAL: You once mentioned that a Dutch musician said to you, ‘It must be very hard for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition,’ to which you responded, ‘It must be very difficult for you to write music, for you are so close to the centers of tradition.’
JOHN CAGE: Uh-huh.
INTO-GAL: Thinking of that quote now, to many younger people you and your contemporaries appear to have shaped a tradition of post-war American modernism. How do you see yourself in relation to that tradition?
JOHN CAGE: I did go to two concerts last night—I went to the rehearsal of one of them and the actual performance of the other. I enjoyed them both very much, and they were both American. But it seems to me there could have been, for instance, music by Walter Zimmermann or certain European musicians, and I would have enjoyed them equally and almost in the same way—I might have. What I’m trying to say is the times are changing, and the distinctions between Europe and America are less immediately noticeable. And I hope that we get to be, all of us, in the same world, not that we all do the same thing, but that there’s not one place but rather many places where we can go to enjoy the art, just as we do the nature in all the places.
INTO-GAL: That’s very much akin to the vision of Buckminster Fuller. As you pointed out, that’s becoming more of a reality, but do you think there’s something problematic about being optimistic in technology?
JOHN CAGE: I’m not certain technology changes things that much. It changes them if we’re concerned with what the results are, but if we deal with the new technologies as closely as we dealt with old ones then we will come to appearances that aren’t superficial.
INTO-GAL: In the series of interviews you did with Daniel Charles you said, ‘Long live the technology to come!’
JOHN CAGE: Right. But what I hope won’t happen is that we are quickly satisfied with the technology itself. What is to be hoped for is an interaction of people with technology rather than a quick acceptance of what technology does—there's so much button pushing now, and the results are so spectacular, that there’s a temptation, which I hope is avoided, of just taking what the technology gives and not doing anything with it. You get it?
INTO-GAL: Yes. You see the social aspect of music as being very important.
JOHN CAGE: To me it’s very important, yes. For instance, when I finish the work it can be carried one way or another in different performances, and those performances can be carried in different ways by different listeners, so that the work which begins relatively simply goes into the world, so to speak, and becomes a very complicated, impossible to analyze, social situation.
INTO-GAL: William Burroughs said that you have carried the cut-up method much further than he had in writing. How do you see your work in music in relation to the literary experiments of Burroughs and Brion Gysin?
JOHN CAGE: In recent years I have had some correspondence and visits with William Burroughs, and I’ve known of his work for many years, but we were never very close. Now we're more in touch so to speak.
INTO-GAL: Are you still writing mesostics?
JOHN CAGE: Yes.
INTO-GAL: Do you see them as being poetry, or writing, or music—what do you see them as being?
JOHN CAGE: They’re a kind of poetry because they give me something to do when I write, rather than just writing without anything to do. In the sense when you write poetry, I think through the history of poetry there was this sense of doing something other than just writing, following some particular way of writing. In my case with the mesostics it’s the lettristic rule—that gives me the kind of experience one has when one solves a puzzle. So that in the solving of the puzzle the mind is brought into activity and looks for a solution with which it agrees, whereas if you wrote without that obligation you could say one thing or another off the top of your head.
INTO-GAL: Do your collected stories and anecdotes, like ‘Indeterminacy,’ relate to your process of composition?
JOHN CAGE: [pause] I think that it sounds silly, but I think the answer is yes and no.
INTO-GAL: You once said that you would like to have a magazine that you could eat. Did you ever find that paper you could print on and eat?
JOHN CAGE: I made some paper, yes. Unfortunately you can neither write on it nor can you eat it. [laughs] It’s made the way paper is made and it’s made of food that you could eat, but it comes in combinations that are not cooked, it’s all raw, and it's too thick.
INTO-GAL: What kind of food did you use?
JOHN CAGE: I used macrobiotic food—seaweed and vegetables.
INTO-GAL: You once went on a game show and your special subject was mushrooms...
JOHN CAGE: I was on tour with Merce Cunningham and he went from Denmark back to America and I went from Denmark to Milan, where I began making the Fontana Mix, and while I was making the Fontana Mix they proposed that I go on the answering question show, and I did that and I won. And then when I went back to the United States I bought a Volkswagen bus for the company and we used to tour in it.
INTO-GAL: Do you have an idea of evolution in terms of human existence? Is it a linear evolution?
JOHN CAGE: Something like that may be going on very, very slowly so that we don’t—so that I’m not noticing it. What strikes me are the differences between individuals, whereas evolution seems to be concerned with large groups.
INTO-GAL: Insofar as the individual is concerned, do you see a position of change involved there?
JOHN CAGE: The question of corespondences or differences between individuals is so complex that it’s hard to answer.
INTO-GAL: I was thinking perhaps in relation to a technologically-based culture, and in relation to nature, how technology as such is becoming nature, and we no longer have this duality between nature and culture.
JOHN CAGE: I think we do—we still have nature.
INTO-GAL: In what sense though?
JOHN CAGE: Well in the sense of a tree. Here where I am talking to you I have two hundred plants. I live in an old department store and I have a skylight and it’s twenty by twenty feet and it’s pyramidal, and have in front of me as we talk a mahogany tree. I’m just saying that it’s possible today to be aware of nature, and to live in its context, at the same time that one can have a computer in that situation. Nature brings about the possibilities that it does and the electronic technology brings about other possibilities. I think it’s all very marvelous, to have those differences.
INTO-GAL: We were talking about Buckminster Fuller, and you were associated with him and his thought, and you found him quite prophetic. Do you feel that Fuller’s vision is still relevant?
JOHN CAGE: I think it is relevant, I don’t know whether it will be followed or not, but I hope that it will be. I think that if we come to a sense of the world as a whole that his work and the work of Marshall McLuhan will be greatly relevant to the solution of the problems that we encounter in making such a world and in living in it.
INTO-GAL: In terms of the distinction between nature and culture, much of your work has developed through a disregard for the distinctions between art and life. Do you think there has been progress made since first formulating those ideas?
JOHN CAGE: I think this is one of the familiar aspects of art, that it opens our eyes to things in what we call nature or environment that had escaped our notice. In paying attention to art it changes your observation of nature. There's a strong action in both directions, between our experience of environment and our experience of making things, doing things.
INTO-GAL: In relation to that idea of art and life, and the way your work seemed to follow, the two in harmony, did you ever feel that your work was anachronistic?
JOHN CAGE: You mean unnecessary?
INTO-GAL: Not unnecessary, but something that wasn’t in harmony with life—that they were not together and—do you know what I mean?
JOHN CAGE: I think I do. It’s a curious and interesting question. I guess we get carried away and so does our work.
INTO-GAL: You mean carried away in the work?
JOHN CAGE: Right, carried away in paying attention to it.
INTO-GAL: So the concept becomes negligible in that sense—how does the concept itself relate to that continuance?
JOHN CAGE: Well that's what I mean. As you get involved in your work, in art so to speak, then things could be happening in nature around you [little laughs] which would escape your notice, because your attention is being placed on your work, so that the difference then is striking. At the same time the use of the work will be to carry you back so to speak to the absence of work and just to the environment. It’s very curious. It’s actually a question of the movement of attention, so that your attention is placed on the work that you are doing and once the work is done your attention will return, without any trouble, to not working, in other words environment.
INTO-GAL: Has your work process changed over the years?
JOHN CAGE: I have the impression that things that I was avoiding formerly, I now no longer avoid. I think the one thing that remains of greatest importance to me is non-intention.
INTO-GAL: And structure?
JOHN CAGE: It needn't be structure, it can just be process.
INTO-GAL: So the development of a process, how do you see that in relation to forming a structure?
JOHN CAGE: I think of a structure as something having parts, and I think of a process as something not having parts. You could now have something not having parts that nevertheless begins and ends. The thing that I think of as being something which I used to avoid is something like harmony. Now it seems to me that harmony happens no matter what we do. It’s almost like melody. If you make a number of sounds you automatically have a melody, and now if you have several sounds together they automatically produce harmony. Most of my life I thought that I had to find an alternative to harmony, but the harmony I was thinking of was the one which had been taught in school. Now I see that everything outside of school is also harmonious.
INTO-GAL: You’re talking about a wider definition of harmony?
JOHN CAGE: A changed definition, yes, one that doesn’t involve any rules or laws. You might call it an anarchic harmony. Just sounds being together.
[Jan. 20, 1990]
INTO-GAL / Melbourne
Published there 03/03/07
on corpus 23.9.2007