Charming, gregarious and playful, John Cage seemed to never work. The ringleader of a glittering group of artists, writers and culturati, he was the aesthetic ground upon which the Cunningham Company was founded. In the modest apartment he shared with Merce, he would make lunch, play chess against three opponents simultaneously, drink wine, and laugh his soaring joyful laugh. While we slaved away in the studio, working ourselves to the bone, John would be out picking mushrooms or meeting with Bucky Fuller. He was always having fun.
The day of a show on tour, he would walk around the venue collecting anything that made sound—sticks, tin cans, old paper bags. He would throw the I Ching, then amplify and play these “found instruments”. I brought him bits of dead cactus that I found in the desert surrounding Arcosanti in Arizona. He played the thorns with small watercolor brushes, which made a resonant bell-like sound.
His music didn’t “add up” in any traditional way. There was no emotional climax, no story. It refused definition. Music was about the performer and audience in relation to NOW. It was about being ALIVE. And because everything was music, it seemed as if everyone felt free to join our performances. Two crows mysteriously appeared in the auditorium during a show in Kansas City. Women screamed and fled. Stray dogs wandered onto the stage at an outdoor amphitheater in Israel. The awkward stagehands chased the whining dogs back and forth across the stage creating a bizarre slapstick. During a lecture demonstration at Beverly Hills High School, Cage worked behind the audience who were seated on bleachers. He would slowly lift a very heavy athletic bench onto its end, then let it fall at a precise moment according to his stop watch. The sound was like a cannon shot and the whole audience would jump out of their seats. After two or three of these the principal of the school called the police who arrived and tried to arrest Cage. The principal had no idea that Cage was part of the show—how would he? John was going through his all denim phase. He looked like a mad custodian. Our redoubtable manager, Jean Rigg, stepped in and a noisy argument ensued. As voices were raised the performance continued. All the while Cage was trying to explain the principles of the I Ching to the two officers. It was always like this . . . always off balance, always astonishing.
Driven to madness by the irritating crunches, beeps and unintelligible noise of his non-music some audience members would angrily stomp out of every show. Others would come to the lip of the stage and yell at us. A few of these Cage haters would stay for the duration, red faced and splenetic, to angrily jump up and vilify him at the post show Q and A. “This wasn’t music and dance – it was nonsense – it was insulting – it was boring” – and on and on they would sputter and fume.
Confronting Cage in this way was a big mistake. He was, above all else, a brilliant speaker, so quick and clever that he could win any argument. I felt sorry for the poor souls who took the bait and went to battle for their ideas of balance, harmony and resolution. Cage’s brilliant ripostes would have the audience rolling in laughter, leaving his attackers to slink off in ignominy.
John Cage was curious about everything. He took my questions seriously, asked me about my opinions and made suggestions for my reading. It was a long list including Meister Eckhart, DT Suzuki, Wittgenstein, Fuller and many others. He taught me chess and we played often. In things musical he was ultra-modern but in chess, he was a romantic. We analyzed the games of Morphy and Capablanca who had perfected the art of the dramatic and unexpected sacrifice. He would play me without 2 of his major pieces and beat me easily. Then he’d play me again with only pawns and beat me again. If I hung around long enough and stretched things out just right he would serve his delicious mushroom loaf.
During the summers when the company was on unemployment, I would glue myself to him. He didn’t have a driver’s license so I chauffeured him around town. He loved Art Brown’s, a stationary store on 45th street where he would get his favorite pens. As we drove uptown, we played chess on a portable board. He looked out the car window and kept up a running commentary, pointing out people, their clothes, buildings, trees, dogs, museums, automobiles—anything and everything. John Cage was completely and totally in love with the world.
I have never been any good at chess and playing with John—an exploration of chance procedures—did little to improve my game. It didn’t make any difference. When I left his apartment it felt like I was flying. John Cage made me feel that anything was possible. Music was all around us. It was everything. The whole world was music—all we had to do was listen.
When I joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1973, it was the center of an extraordinary community of composers, visual artists and performers all of whom seemed open, friendly and willing to talk to a teenager.
Two weeks after joining the company we performed a series of studio shows called ‘Events’. Consulting his innumerable stenographer’s notebooks, Merce would take his individual works apart on the day of the show and re-order them. Solos, duets and trios would be scrambled and re-arranged to create one of a kind performances. Each Event was accompanied by the work of a different composer who one after the other took it on as a personal challenge to be as obstreperous and transgressive as possible. Charlemagne Palestine used his appearance to manifest a traumatic psychodrama with his personal collection of dolls. He screamed. He implored. He broke down in tears. Robert Ashley interviewed an ex- girlfriend, while drinking a pitcher of martinis. As the evening progressed he got enormously drunk, slurred his words and fell out of his chair.
There was a sense about these performances that at any moment something could go terribly wrong … that we were always on the edge of disaster and anything was possible. It was the most thrilling experience imaginable.
The excitement of working with Merce quickly gave way to the realization that his dances were relentlessly difficult. What had seemed from a distance to have been accomplished with such ease required discipline and tenacity that I neither understood nor was prepared for. I launched myself into a Spartan life – dedicating myself to the elongation of my thighs and arms, the rotation of my legs and the curve and twist of my spine. The limits of the body in space and time were all that had interest to me. It was how I spoke and what I listened to. I subjugated myself to shape, the moment and the suffering of time passing. Around me young men and women in class and rehearsals shared this conspiracy of sensation – all pulling together to articulate the most complex angles and relationships of the body in space. Each dancer in their own manner surrendered themselves to the agility and organization of their physical experience – tilting off balance, contorting into extreme positions, leaning into and beyond their present into a more perfect future…… Every day I worked until I could no longer stand.
Merce’s dances didn’t ‘add up’ in any traditional way. There were no indications or sign posts to direct the audience to a ‘meaning’. That wasn’t the point. Each individual was intended to take from the experience whatever they wished. Dancing in his work you were not a character or a representation – you were yourself. Not knowing who I was at the time put me in some considerable difficulty and I under went a series of violent transformations. For purely practical purposes I learned to appear as a single person, existing in one body in a specific time and place…but I was more accurately a churning of humors and personae, a collection of paroxysms, visitations, visions, epiphanies, black outs, sweats, delusions, manias, irrational beliefs, sudden blinding understandings, great orchestral crashes. I had no idea how to think about or organize my inner life but Merce’s work promised a perfect solution. He had created an austere and elegant world without need or sadness. Inside of his dances or moving across the floor in the beautiful phrases he taught, the world blurred, edges fell away and my fragmentary being came into focus. (more…)