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.