Composer  John  Cage
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


John Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912. He studied with Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, Adolph Weiss, and Arnold Schoenberg. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he presented a theatrical event considered by many to have been the first Happening. He was associated with Merce Cunningham from the early 1940's and was Musical Advisor for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company until his death in 1992. Cage and Cunningham were responsible for a number of radical innovations in musical and choreographic compositions, such as the use of chance operations and the independence of dance and music.

Cage was the recipient of many awards and honors, beginning in 1949 with a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for having extended the boundaries of music through his work with percussion orchestra and his invention in 1940 of the prepared piano. Cage was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and was inducted into the 50-member American Academy of Arts and Letters in May, 1989. He was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture in 1982, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the California Institute of the Arts in 1986. Cage was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University for the 1988-1989 academic year. He was laureate of the 1989 Kyoto Prize given by the Inamori Foundation.

In 1987, he wrote, designed and directed Euroceras 1 & 2, with the assistance of Andrew Culver, for the Frankfurt Opera. 101 (1989) was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University. Euroceras 3 & 4 was commissioned by the Almeida Music Festival and Modus Vivandi Foundation in 1990. The 1991 Zurich June Festival was devoted to the work of John Cage and James Joyce.

Cage is the author of Silence, A Year from Monday, M, Empty Words, and X (all published by the Wesleyan University Press). I-VI (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1988-89) was published by the Harvard University Press in the Spring of 1990. This book includes transcripts of the question and answer periods that followed each lecture, and an audiocassette of Cage reading one of the six lectures. Conversations with Cage, a book-length composition of excerpts from interviews by Richard Kostelantz, was published in 1988 by Limelight Editions. Cage's music is published by the Henmar Press of C. F. Peters Corporation and has been recorded on many labels.

Since 1958, many of Cage's scores have been exhibited in galleries and museums. A series of fifty-two watercolors, the New River Watercolors, executed by Cage at the Miles C. Horton Center at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was shown at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in April-May, 1990. In 1991, the Cunningham Dance Foundation produced Cage/Cunningham, a documentary film on the collaboration of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, partly funded by PBS, under the direction of Elliot Caplan. John Cage died in New York City on August 12, 1992.

When presenting these interviews on this website, I try not to talk much about myself, but in this case, I ask your indulgence while relating two specific instances that involve John Cage.

1.  While in undergraduate school from 1968-72, I not only accomplished the required studies for a degree in Music Education, I was also the recording engineer (and defacto stage manager) for the main recital hall.  During a symposium on contemporary music, a small group was needed to play a chance-piece by Cage.  I got out my bassoon and prevailed on three pals
— a violinist, a horn player and a clarinetist — and we gave it a go.  Small circles were scattered on an overhead projector.  We read this score and played the piece to the amazement and amusement of the audience.  After it was over, I pocketed one of the circles as a souvenir, and later wondered if further performances with that package were no longer authentic since it was short one item!

2.  After teaching instrumental music in the Evanston public schools for a couple years, in 1975 I began my quarter-century tenure with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  On two separate occasions in the 1990s, I performed 4'33" live on the air.  When I tell people that fact, they usually assume that I just allowed the station to broadcast dead air for the requisite amount of time.  This method, obviously, would completely miss the point of the piece.  It is the ambient sound of the hall to which Cage was directing attention, and so my performances allowed the radio audience to hear what was happening in the WNIB Control Room. 

I made the front announcement, telling people what the work was and giving a bit of background, and then I left the microphone open and went about my usual business for the duration of the performance.  Since there was no visual involved, I added one item
— a timer.  I brought with me the small, one-hour windup timer from my kitchen stove!  After finishing the front announcement, I wound it up and placed it next to the open microphone.  People could hear the skrrritttccchhhh of the wind-up, and then the gentle tick-tick-tick-tick-tick as the moments were counted down.  Then I did what I always would do during the playing of any piece — gathering the news from the wire service, walking about the room, answering the telephone and chatting with people who called in, leaning back in my chair (which made lovely squeaking noises), talking to the cats and dogs which lived in the studio, etc.  After the prescribed interval had elapsed, the timer went DING, and I gathered myself, cleared my throat and made the back announcement.  The performance was very well-received and listeners seemed to enjoy the novelty.  

Coming back to this particular interview, in June of 1987, to prepare for his upcoming 75th birthday, John Cage allowed me to call him at his home for a conversation.  Though leaving room for nuances, his answers were always direct and full of kindness and sincerity.  Several times he asked if I was following him, and after my reassuring response, he would continue further into the topic. 

Here is that encounter . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you very much for speaking with me today.  I had a nice interview a few months ago with David Tudor when he was here in Chicago.  [See my Interview with David Tudor.] 

cageJohn Cage:    He just left at noon today with the Cunningham Dance Company for Japan.  He had eaten something that didn’t agree with him and he wasn’t sure that he could go.

BD:    I hope he’s feeling better by the time he gets overseas.

JC:    I think so.  He will.

BD:    That’s good.  I’d like to talk with you about many things, so first, a very simple question
where is music going today?

JC:    It’s going in many, many directions, and I think that’s the result of different technologies and different attitudes toward music.  Take for instance David Tudor’s work, and that of some musicians who deal with not really electronics but with acoustic instruments, who no longer write music but make instruments with which they interact.

BD:    Are these good trends or just trends?

JC:    They’re important trends.  They’re things that are happening.  Another is perhaps better known, and that’s the making of music on records and re-dubbing and so forth.  That also doesn’t involve the writing of music.  Years ago, Busoni said that the one thing that stands between music and a musician is notation, so very many people in the field of music now are renouncing notation.

BD:    A number of composers have complained to me that the tape, then, becomes the score rather than a printed score. 

JC:    Well, there is no score.  What there is is sound, and the sound is produced; in the case of its being on tape, it’s produced by the tape.  But if it’s an instrument, there are David Tudor and two others I can think of
Gordon Monahan, a Canadian pianist who does extraordinary things with piano, and Andrew Culver, who makes tensegrities which follow the structural principles of Buckminster Fuller.  With David Tudor, the components, the circuitry is the music, and it comes alive when it is performed.

BD:    So when a tape is made, it’s not really the score but it is the performance?

JC:    The performance is the music.

BD:    Does that eliminate any chance of life in the performance?

JC:    No, no.  It increases it.  The music is live, and it is different each time it is heard.

BD:    What about the making of the tape as opposed to using live sound?

JC:    In the case of David Tudor and Gordon Monahan and Andrew Culver, there is no tape, and there is no score.

BD:    Then each performance is unique?

JC:    Right.

BD:    Would you have used the prepared piano and all of those techniques if the electronics that are available today had been available in the forties?

cageJC:    It’s very hard to answer that question because when I tried to get access to any new technologies in the early forties, I didn’t get it.  So it was because of that that I continued my use of the prepared piano so much.  I didn’t have access to what’s now called high-tech.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Did you not have access to a sound effects library from a radio station?

JC:    I had very little of that at the beginning.  I had some constant sounds and I had some sliding sounds that I used in the Imaginary Landscape.  It wasn’t until Roaratorio, which is much more recent, that I had access to a large number of recordings.

BD:    Do you feel that the modern electronics have given composers a new freedom that is a good thing for them to have?

JC:    We’re going in so many different directions that the freedom that one composer has is not desired by another, so that each direction needs its own material.

BD:    Are you pleased that music is going in so many different directions?

JC:    Oh, yes, yes, very much so!

BD:    At what point does it become too much for people to comprehend?

JC:    I don’t think that it’s a question of comprehension.  It’s a question of experience, and the experience is available more and more to more people.  That is to say, people’s ears are more flexible than they were, and it’s largely because of the great variety of musics.  Early in this century, it wasn’t easy for people to tell the difference between two pieces of, say, Chinese music, but now people are aware of all kinds of music.

BD:    So you feel that the public itself has made great strides?

JC:    It has a great richness through the recording industry and so forth.  Everyone in this society has access to a great wealth, a wealth of the present and the wealth of the past.  It’s amazing, in fact!  Some years ago it was contemplated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to have not one concert hall but something like six to eight, all having different kinds of music.  I don’t know how far they went with that project, but they were one of the important schools to have Oriental music.

BD:    You bring up a very important point and that’s the availability of recordings for the home consumer.  Is your expectation of the audience different when it comes to a concert hall as opposed to when it listens to a recording at home?

JC:    Yes.  I myself don’t use records.  I use them sometimes in my music
as instrumentsbut I don’t use them for the pleasure of hearing music.  I’m quite old fashioned; I like live music.  [Laughs]

BD:    That’s not old fashioned; that is, perhaps, correct.

JC:    What’s special about it is that the sounds come from where the instruments are, and there’s a plurality of instruments.  Whereas with a record, it can come from several speakers
often from twobut in a home it rarely comes from, say, twelve, as it can easily in a concert.

BD:    Would you feel that a concert in which people come to the auditorium and listen to music over a speaker or two speakers would be a waste of time?

JC:    One has the opportunity in hearing live music of hearing twelve sounds come from twelve different places.  I think we’re becoming more and more aware of the relation of the sound to space.  I have a piece called  The Collection of Rocks, in which I almost establish a single sound in a particular space with a group of musicians all having the same instrument, so that the sound can come from that space for a continuing length of time, and other sounds can come from other points in the auditorium.  The result is that you get a relation of space and sound that is very special.  I enjoy it very much and think it introduces us to the enjoyment, rather than the avoidance, of many of the constant sounds of our conveniences in twentieth century homes, which are characterized by being continuous sounds rather than changing sounds.

BD:    Do you feel that every sound in the world is music?

JC:    I do.  I’ve made a point of enjoying the sound of the environment.  I received a very beautiful post card the other day from the English artist Richard Hamilton, who said he’d been looking at the TV.  There had been a program about Celtic mythology, and the question was asked, “What is the sweetest music in the world?”  All the heroes answered, and the last one
that everyone thought in the best — was, “The sweetest music is the sound of what happens.”

BD:    How deeply perceptive, yet simple.

JC:    Yes, and it’s my experience.  I have a few percussion instruments, but I don’t have a piano, and as I told you I don’t listen to records.  I listen to the sound of the environment, whether it comes from the conveniences in the house or from the traffic outside.

BD:    Do you find new surprises in those sounds every day?

JC:    Constantly.  Yes.

BD:    Is that really what life is
the opportunity to hear all of these things?

JC:    I think life, when we have it, is the paying of attention.  Some people pay attention with their eyes and some pay attention with their ears.  I enjoy paying attention with both my eyes and my ears, and I think that as a result my work has a theatrical quality
or character is a better word — because theater is the use of both eyes and ears.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your work over the years?

cageJC:    I don’t think I’m any more pleased than anybody else is.  In the case of Mozart, for instance, we’re accustomed to hearing good performances and poor performances.  Those good ones are when the musician pays attention, and the poor ones are when the attention fails.

BD:    So, it has nothing to do with ability, then?

JC:    I think it has to do with paying attention because we have so many stories of people who had little ability but gave much attention.  For instance, Demosthenes decreased his ability to speak by putting stones in his mouth.  Then he was able to learn to speak very beautifully by overcoming that obstacle.

BD:    So if all the musicians would concentrate on what they are doing...

JC:    [Pouncing on this thought]  ...rather than just reading the notes!  But so many of them just read the notes because the rehearsals are too expensive.  The first thing is they have to get the notes together, but there’s no attention to what you might call the music.

BD:    Let me come back briefly to a point you’ve just made a moment ago about music being all around us.  If music is everywhere, and if every sound in the world is music, what differentiates a musical performance that we go to and separate out of our lives, from just the tasks and everyday living of the rest of our lives?

JC:    I guess the place would do that.  That is to say, instead of being on the street, you would be in the concert hall.  But Thoreau already had the experience of enjoying sound, whether he was at a concert hall or outside of one. 

BD:    Should we then try to make concert halls, or should we just try to transform our vision of the earth into one giant concert hall?

JC:    We can do both.  We can have sound outside the concert hall and we can have the whole literature of music inside, and all the music that is being made and is to be made.  We can have everything.  As we continue on the earth, the available experience becomes greater rather than less.

BD:    Does it ever become too much?

JC:    That has to be answered by each person.  Some people, as your question suggests, have thresholds beyond which they can’t go, but others welcome whatever experience there is to be had.  You could say I welcome whatever happens next.

BD:    Do you feel that you and your music and your teachings over the years have expanded and broadened these thresholds for many people in the world?

JC:    I would be happy if that were true.

BD:    Do you think it is true?

JC:    Again, in some cases.  Many people tell me that that is what as happened, but I’m not certain because I think each one of us knows his own experience better than he can communicate it to another.  So I don’t really know what people mean when they say ‘thank you.’  [Laughs]

BD:    You just know that they have accomplished something but you do not know what?

JC:    They have an experience, and many of them relate it, as you say, to my books and my music and so forth, but I don’t know what relation is they’re making, exactly.  I only mean experience.  This is what Thoreau said at the beginning of Walden.  He said, “I’m going to be using the personal pronoun a great deal because I know my own experience better than any other.”

BD:    Do you have any expectations at all of the audience that comes to hear your music?

JC:    No.

BD:    None whatsoever???

JC:    No.  I make a gift, so to speak.  I make something available, and whether someone can use it or not is his, well, you know.  It’s said so often in so many different ways that you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.  You can bring music to people and some will not hear it as music.  I was talking the other day about my very earliest work.  When I was very young and began to write music, I did so without a teacher and couldn’t perceive the music in what I had written, so I threw it away.  Now of course, I would love to see it, what it was that I did.  And then of course, I’d like to hear it.

cageBD:    Are there ever cases where performers find things in your music that you didn’t know were there?

JC:    Yes.  A good deal of my music is indeterminate and it was written because of the great qualities of David Tudor’s performing abilities.  He made music from what I had written that I had not imagined.

BD:    Then how much of that music is creative, and how much is collaborative?

JC:    He couldn’t have done it without my writing the music, so it’s hard to portion out.  No one else could play it the way he did, so it goes in both directions.  It’s completely my work and it’s completely his work.

BD:    Does that make the end product two hundred per cent?

JC:    The end product, if it’s on a record, is neither what I wrote nor what he played.  So it’s minus two hundred.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned indeterminacy.  Is there a different between chance and indeterminacy?

JC:    Yes.  I use the word ‘chance operation’ when I’m writing music and making use of the numbers that are derivative from the I Ching that I’ve used for so many years.  That can produce a piece of music, such as the Music of Changes that I wrote in the early fifties, which is determinate.  It’s fixed, and can be read in the same way that you can read a piece by another composer.  An indeterminate piece is written in such a way as a camera is made.  In other words, the camera enables you to take a picture but it doesn’t make precise in any way what picture you’re going to take.  So indeterminacy is like a camera, giving people the ability to take a variety of different pictures, but chance operations can produce a fixed picture or a fixed piece of music.  Chance operations could also be used in making something indeterminate, but they’re two different things.  In both cases, the common denominator is non-intention on the part of the person who is working.  Most people, when they work, work with something in mind.  I always work with nothing in mind.

BD:    But chance and indeterminacy are not mutually exclusive, are they?

JC:    No.  They’re different.  I use chance operations to single out one of many possibilities.  For instance, I’m writing today a piece for organ, and if I have a series of sounds and they’re to be spaces between them, I can find out what those spaces are through asking how long each one of the sounds is.  Since they’re going to be separate, the maximum length will be up to the next sound but not quite because there has to be a silence.  So I find out how far up.  Say the number of counts or the number of divisions on a graph is fourteen.  Then I go to my table for fourteen, which I have related through the computer, now, to sixty-four, which is the I Ching, and I get an immediate answer, such as seven or eleven or whatever.  I can do that with any number.  Through having a PC, I’m able to work much more quickly and efficiently than I did, say, thirty years ago or thirty-five years ago, when I first began working with chance operations.

BD:    So the computer doesn’t really do anything except speed up what you could do yourself?

JC:    Right.

BD:    The computer is not creative at all?

JC:    No.

BD:    You’re still the master.

JC:    Well, I’m the one who’s using the computer.  [Both laugh]  I don’t like the word
master, as you probably know.

BD:    You’re still the creator; you’re still in charge.

JC:    I am.  However, I’ve changed by responsibility from making choices to asking questions.

BD:    You say you start out a piece with nothing in mind.  How do you know when you are on the right track?

JC:    There are many tracks, and they are all right.  Take the I Ching itself.  I recommend it; it’s the oldest book on the earth.  It comes from something like 4000 BC, and consists of sixty-four hexagrams.  It is a book of wisdom.  You can ask a question and get an answer through the use of chance operations, which classically were the tossing of three coins six times to get a hexagram, or tossing yarrow sticks.  I didn’t do it that way; it took too long.  It takes about half an hour to toss the yarrow sticks.  Now you can do it with the computer very rapidly, and you can get an answer to your question.  It would be foolish to ask a question and get answers by means of chance operations if the question asked needed a particular answer.  It would be absurd.  So, implicit in the use of chance operations is that all of the answers answer all of the questions.  That’s very interesting.  Curiously enough, I learned that when I was studying with Schoenberg years ago, but I didn’t know that I learned it.  He sent us all to the blackboard with a problem in counterpoint, even though it was a class in harmony.  He said, “When you have the solution of the problem, turn around and let me see it.”  I turned around and he said, “That’s correct.  Now give me another solution of the same problem,” and I did.  I then turned around and he said, “That’s also correct, now another.”  It went that way until about eight or nine solutions.  Then when he asked for another, I said with some trepidation, “There are no more solutions,” and he said, “That’s also correct.”  Then he said, “What is the principle underlying all of the questions?”  I was flabbergasted.  I’d always worshipped the man, but at that point he ascended.  It took me almost thirty years to learn the answer to that question, and I think he would accept it.  That is, the principle underlying all of the solutions is the question you ask.  So there you are, and that goes along with all of the answers answer all of the questions.  That’s harder to take, and yet we reach that point where the I Ching was, because it certainly wasn’t any place else.  Now, many people think that my work and my ideas are foolish, and there are many who would think that a statement like that is foolish, but it isn’t.

BD:    I don’t see it as foolish.  I see it as something much bigger.

JC:    Good.  Grazie.

cageBD:    When you’re writing a piece, there comes a point where you stop putting notations on the paper.  How do you know when you’ve arrived at that point?

JC:    I said earlier that there was a relation between space and time.  I generally work as painters do, on a particular amount of paper or on a particular amount of time.

BD:    When you’ve used up either the paper or the time, then you’re finished?

JC:    Just as a painter has with a canvas.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise scores?

JC:    I have done some work like that with respect to my very early work from the thirties.

BD:    Are your revisions always better?

JC:    They’re attempts on my part to understand what I wrote earlier, but I only did it when the notation was hard to read and when I had to find out what was done.  I thought that I knew what I had done, but I’ve discovered more and more as I go on living that I don’t have a good memory.  I don’t cultivate it, so I forget very quickly how I did something in the past.  There’s a marvelous young musicologist named James Pritchett, and he’s doing a great deal of work on my music.

BD:    Making a study of your music?

JC:    Yes. 

BD:    Is this toward a book?

JC:    It will be.  I don’t know exactly what form it will take because I’ve done so much work, but he came and a Hungarian musicologist came at the same time several years ago.  I gave them access to all my manuscripts and so forth.  They had gotten what they could elsewhere, with my publisher, and the Hungarian impressed me more than the American.  Then more recently, the American sent me a text that he wrote.  He not only writes beautifully, but he thinks beautifully.  He discovered things about my work that I didn’t know or didn’t remember.  For instance, I thought that my first use of the I Ching in a composition was in the Music of Changes, which I finished in 1952.  He found that in a previous work, a concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra which has three movements, that I worked with the magic square in the first three movements, but that I included the I Ching in the third movement.  He discovered that simply by examining every scrap of paper, and found this particular piece of paper out at David Tudor’s in the country.  It didn’t say what I had done, but he tested the numbers that were on the paper with the I Ching and found that that was true, that it explained the music which didn’t have any other explanation.  Isn’t that marvelous?

BD:    You’d come to the I Ching unconsciously and used it?

JC:    Uh-huh.  I’m writing an organ piece now, and I thought that I was continuing a way of writing
with an addition of the pedalsthat I had used in a piano piece of a few years ago.  I looked at all the sketches for the piano piece, meaning to continue that way of composing, and I came to a point where I simply couldn’t remember what I had done.  I couldn’t understand my notations — little things like numbers with slashes through them, and so forth.  The result is that the new piece is different than the old one because it’s my present way of paying attention, which has changed from the previous way.  I’m trying to say that I think it’s a good thing to be free of memory — not completely, but partly.  That it makes my mind, so to speak, and my activity less a duplication of what I thought of the first time, so that I’m not paralyzed, as Satie said.  He said, “Experience is a form of paralysis.”  [Pauses for a moment]  You tell me if I go too far away from what interests you.

BD:    This is all very interesting.  I'm trying to probe the mind of John Cage
if even superficially.

JC:    I have a little tool that use to probe my plants.  I have over two hundred plants, and I divide my days between simple watering and big watering.  I use the probe every other day.  [Laughs]

BD:    Are you still into the mushrooms?

JC:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about your time in Chicago.  You spent a year at the School of Design here in 1941.

JC:    Yes.

cageBD:    Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JC:    It was when the School of Design was on the near north side.  There was an old bakery, as I recall, and there were partitions that went all the way to the ceiling.  I came with my percussion instruments, and someone came into my class one day and said, “Please confine your teaching on theory,” because we were making, naturally, noise that disturbed the rest of the school.  So I took the instruments away from the school to the University of Chicago, where I was also employed as a dance accompanist by Catherine Manning.  I did my rehearsing and any work that was found there, and I did continue giving classes at the School of Design in a theoretical way.

BD:    Sounds like a very schizophrenic kind of life.

JC:    When I was younger I could do that.  I still think my life is characterized by paying attention to more things, rather than to fewer things.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece of music, do you work on one piece of music alone, or do you work on several pieces at once?

JC:    Right now I’m working on the organ piece, but I’m also working on an opera, the first performance of which will be in November in Frankfurt.  It’s called Europera, which is a combination of Europe and opera into one word.  It’s Europeras I and II, and it has no libretto.  It’s a collage in every sense.  There will be arias from the public domain, from the literature, chosen by the singers.  The accompaniment is the collage of actual instrumental parts of about seventy different operas from the collection of the Metropolitan Opera here in New York.  So you’ll be hearing bits, not more than sixteen measures from any one point for any one instrument.  Each one of the instruments is like a soloist.  There is no conductor, so that the singers are singing, so to speak, a capella, at the same time that the instruments are playing.  The lighting, too, is independent of the action, so if the singer gets into a situation where it’s too dark, she will have a flashlight.  And the costumes are not related to the songs, except by coincidence, so that everything is in collage and is non-supportive of the rest of the theatrical elements.  The action itself comes from subjecting the Second Edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to chance operations.  I would study one page until I found something suggestive of theatrical action.  All together there are two operas; the first has ten singers and the second has nine.  The first is an hour and a half and the second is forty-five minutes.

BD:    Should they be performed on the same evening?

JC:    Right, with an intermission in between.  There’ll be twelve different programs, so that the story that you read in one program is different than the story you read in another, because it’s a collage, again, of the stories of the operas.

BD:    Is the first work of yours that is called an opera?

JC:    Right.  I wrote a piece called Theater Piece, but I’ve not written anything that is called an opera.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

JC:    Optimistic?  I am an optimist, yes.

BD:    About everything?

JC:    I tend in that direction.  Sometimes the news makes me think I should be a pessimist, but when I pointed this out to a group of students up in Boston some years ago, they said, “Oh, please continue being an optimist.”  I told them I didn’t have much experience as a pessimist.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I echo their sentiments.  Please continue being an optimist!

JC:    [Laughs]  Oh well, as they say, until everything collapses, there’s room for hope.

BD:    As you approach your seventy-fifth birthday, what is the most surprising development
— either in music or not in musicthat you have noted over the last fifty or sixty years?

JC:    Oh, there are so many answers to such a question.  I try to keep alive all the time, but I think all in all, one of the most surprising and marvelous things that ever happened to me were the connections that I had with Marcel Duchamp.  He was known during his life as someone who had no interest in music.  He complained about
an art that scraped on cat gut, as he put it.  [Both laugh]  But now that he’s gone, I was asked to write an article about music and art.  They were having an exhibition in Stuttgart of the relation between seeing and hearing, and I found such relations in the work of Eric Satie and a very little-known Italian, Alberto Savinio.  Did you know his name?

BD:    No, I don’t.

JC:    He was the brother of the famous artist, Giorgio de Chirico, but he didn’t use the same name.  He was born as Andrea de Chirico, but he changed it to Alberto Savinio.  After Satie and Savinio, both of whom I saw as having relations of painting and music, I added Duchamp because it became clear to me that Duchamp, though he had seemed not to love music, had written four very important musical works
important in the sense of being like seeds that will grow into new musical directions.  The first one is the one that he was doing the year I was born.  He was making music using chance operations.  Can you believe it?

BD:    Back in 1912?

JC:    Yes.  I said to him, “You were doing the year I was born what I am doing now,” and he said, “I must have been fifty years ahead of my time.”  He didn’t do the way I did it, but he did use chance operations.  He took a hat and put a single note on each slip of paper, and he put all these papers in the hat and then pulled one out and wrote a melody by putting the ones that he pulled out in a series.  He wrote three such melodies for his sisters and himself to sing.  Just a few weeks ago I heard for the first time in my life those songs, beautifully sung.  Isn’t that marvelous?  So that’s one.  The next one is the one I told you that I had — the piece I called A Collection of Rocks.  That comes from Marcel’s notion of a musical sculpture, which he described as ‘sounds lasting and leaving from different points and forming a musical sculpture that lasts.’  In other words, my work was really a realization of his work, and changing somewhat according to the circumstances I found myself in
the space and the numbers of people available.  He made a freight train and he thought of each car in the freight train as being an octave.  Then he let it pass underneath a funnel and instead of receiving coal, each car received notes.  Isn’t that lovely?  That makes a gamut of sound which changes from one octave to the next, rather than being the same.  Isn’t it amazing that a man could have such an original idea at this time in history?  The last one, the big work which is at Philadelphia, the Étant Donnés, he wrote a thick book telling how to take it apart and how to put it together.  And of course, you couldn’t do that without producing sound.  So I consider that the essential thing about the composition of music, which is giving, writing down directions for someone else to do something. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’ve asked if you were pleased with the performances.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

JC:    I don’t listen to them.

cageBD:    You must know how they sound, though?

JC:    No, I don’t.

BD:    You’ve never heard them???

JC:    I’ve noticed that when you play them on a poor machine, they sound worse than when you play them on a good machine.  [Both laugh]  And the funny thing, when you go to a studio and make a record, it sounds marvelous.  Then when you take it to another situation it can sometimes sound terrible.

BD:    Is this not a way of having some permanence in amongst your works, that these can be played at any time.

JC:    I’m not sure that is the kind of permanence that I myself could use; I know I couldn’t use it.

BD:    You as the creator could not use it, but perhaps we, as the public, could use it.

JC:    Yes, and undoubtedly that will be.  But I don’t think it’s what the music is.  I don’t agree that a recording is the music.

BD:    It’s a poor reproduction?

JC:    Yeah, it’s like a postcard.  How do you feel about these compact discs?

BD:    The ones I have heard are more accurate and they are quieter than LPs.

JC:    Quite astonishing, aren’t they?

BD:    Very much so.  This could be helpful for your music, because of the silences.

JC:    Uh-huh.  No, it’s quite amazing.  There’s no doubt about its being astonishing.

BD:    Perhaps you should write a piece for compact disc utilizing the dead silences.

JC:    Except they aren’t, because the room that you hear it in has sound.  You can’t get rid of the sound of the environment.

BD:    But you don’t want to get rid of that, do you?

JC:    No.  [Laughs]  God forbid!

BD:    I just want to take a moment to thank you for everything you have given the world.  You have shown us a tremendously new outlook and expanded our horizons.

JC:    Well, thank you very much, Mr. Duffie.

cage          cage

Left photo above: John Cage with Elliott Carter.
[See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]

Right photo above: John Cage with Lou Harrison.
[See my Interview with Lou Harrison.]

For another photo of John Cage, see my
Interview with Lexicographer Nicholas Slonimsky.

John Cage Biography

John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912 - August 12, 1992) was an experimental music composer and writer, possibly best known (some might say notorious) for his piece 4′ 33″, often described (somewhat erroneously) as "four and a half minutes of silence." He was an early writer of aleatoric music (music where some elements are left to chance), used instruments in non-standard ways and was an electronic music pioneer.

Cage was born in Los Angeles. His father was a somewhat eccentric inventor of largely useless devices who told him "that if someone says 'can't' that shows you what to do." Cage described his mother as a woman with "a sense of society" who was "never happy." It was not obvious from his early life that he would become a composer; he was born into a Episcopalian family, and his paternal grandfather regarded the violin as the "instrument of the devil". Cage himself planned to become a minister at an early age and later a writer.

Although music was not clearly to be his chosen path, he did say later that he had unfocused desire to create, and his subsequent anti-establishment stance may be seen to have its roots in an incident while he was attending Pomona College. Shocked to find a large number of students in the library reading the same set text, he rebelled and "went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly." He dropped out in his second year and sailed to Europe, where he stayed for eighteen months. It was there that he wrote his first pieces of music, but upon hearing them he found he didn't like them, and he left them behind on his return to America.

cageHe returned to California in 1931, his enthusiasm for America revived, he said, by reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. There he took lessons in composition from Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, Adolf Weiss, and, famously, Arnold Schoenberg whom he "literally worshipped." Schoenberg told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he "devoted his life to music." Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years when it became clear to him that he had "no feeling for harmony."

Cage began to experiment with percussion instruments and non-instruments and gradually came to replace harmony as the basis of his music with rhythm. More generally, he structured pieces according to the duration of sections. He saw a precedent in this in the music of Anton Webern to some extent, but especially in the music of Erik Satie, one of his favourite composers.

In the late 1930s, he went to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. There he found work as an accompanist for dancers. He was asked to write some music to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort called Bacchanale. He wanted to write a percussion piece, but there was no pit at the performance venue for a percussion ensemble and he had to write for a piano. While working on the piece, Cage experimented by placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the instrument. He liked the sound this produced, and this eventually led to his inventing the prepared piano, in which screws, bolts, strips of rubber and other objects are placed between the strings of the piano to change the character of the instrument. It is likely that he was influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell who also treated the piano in a non-standard way, asking performers to strum the strings with their fingers, for example. The Sonatas and Interludes of 1946-48 are widely seen as his greatest work for prepared piano. Pierre Boulez was amongst its admirers, and organised the European premiere of the work. The two composers struck up a correspondence, but this stopped when they came to a disagreement over Cage's use of chance in his music.

It was also at Cornish that Cage founded a percussion orchestra for which he wrote his First Construction (In Metal) in 1939, a piece which uses metal percussion instruments to make a loud and rhythmic music. He also wrote the Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in that year, which uses record players as instruments, one of the first, if not the first, examples of this. Cage wrote a number of other Imaginary Landscape pieces in later years.

While at the Cornish School, Cage became interested in many things which informed much of his later work. He learnt from Gira Sarabhai that "The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." This got him writing music again after a period of uncertainty about the value of trying to "express" anything through music. He became interested in Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, and met the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who became his life partner and creative collaborator.

After leaving the Cornish School, Cage joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Design. While there he was asked to write a sound effects-based musical accompaniment for Kenneth Patchen's radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat. Cage then moved to New York City, but found it very hard to get work there. However, he continued to write music, and establish new musical contacts. He toured America with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company several times, and also toured Europe with the experimental pianist (and later composer) David Tudor, who he worked with closely many other times.

Cage began to use the I Ching in the composition of his music in order to introduce an element of chance over which he would have no control. He used it, for example, in the Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951, to determine which notes should be used and when they should sound. He used chance in other ways as well; Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) is written for twelve radio receivers. Each radio has two players, one to control the frequency the radio is tuned to, the other to control the volume level. Cage wrote very precise instructions in the score about how the performers should set their radios and change them over time, but he could not control the actual sound coming out of them, which was dependent on whatever radio shows were playing at that particular place and time of performance.

In 1948, Cage joined the faculty of the Black Mountain College, where he regularly worked on collaborations with Merce Cunningham. Around this time, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he "heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet there was some. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most notorious piece, 4′ 33″.

Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and Black Mountain colleague Robert Rauschenberg had, while working at the college, produced a series of 'white' paintings. These were apparently 'blank' canvases that, in fact, changed according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were hung, the shadows of people in the room and so on. These paintings inspired Cage to use a similar idea, using the 'silence' of the piece as an 'aural blank canvas' to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance.

cageThe premiere of the three-movement 4′ 33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano, and lift the lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And after a period of time, he closed the lid once more and rose from the piano. The piece had passed without a note being played, in fact without Tudor or anyone else on stage having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. Richard Kostelanetz suggests that the very fact that Tudor, a man known for championing experimental music, was the performer, and that Cage, a man known for introducing unexpected non-musical noise into his work, was the composer, would have led the audience to expect unexpected sounds. Anybody listening intently would have heard them: while nobody produces sound deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as challenging the very definition of music.

4′ 33″ has been recorded on several occasions, one version being "performed" by Frank Zappa (part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute, on the Koch label, 1993). An 'orchestral' version of 4′ 33″ given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January 2004.

Cage went on to write such pieces as Aria (1958), HPSCHD (1967-69), Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979) and the various so called "numbers pieces" (from the 1980s). He also wrote several books, including Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1968), M (1973), Empty Words (1979) and X (1983). During his later years, Cage remained experimental, combining many of his musical and free-form concepts in public workshops.

Another of Cage's works, Organ² / ASLSP, is currently being performed near the German township of Halberstadt; in accordance with Cage's directions for the piece to be played "As SLow aS Possible", the performance, being done on a specially-constructed autonomous organ built into the old church of St. Burchardi, is scheduled to take a total of 639 years after having been started at midnight September 5, 2001.

John Cage died in New York City on August 12, 1992.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 21, 1987.  It was used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1992, and 1997.  An unedited audio copy was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and also in the Oral History American Music archive at Yale University.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.