Some John Cage anecdotes

The avant-garde composer John Cage is, of course, best known for his “silent piece”, 4’33”. This involves collecting together some musicians and an audience, and requiring them to sit in “silence”, hearing nothing but ambient sounds, for four time periods (“movements”) totalling four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

A performance at the Barbican, part of which I saw on TV, made it clear that this is more than just some kind of stunt. The audience was large; one does not usually have the experience of being with such a  large number of people in such focused silence for so long. The silence was intense, even experienced second hand through the broadcast. And it’s more than twice as long, for example, as the two minute silence we observe on Remembrance Day.

I’m not concerned about whether 4’33” is music or not: the important thing is the experience, not what label we give it. Maybe really it’s theatre. Maybe it’s something else.

It seems everyone has heard of  4’33’.

But maybe less people are aware of John Cage’s writings. Like his music, they too are idiosyncratic. They include a Lecture on Nothing which is really a kind of meditation leading into periods of extended silence. The one I want to give a sample of here, though, is called Indeterminacy. In it, he took up a friend’s suggestion of giving a lecture consisting entirely of stories. He gave the lecture at least twice: a 30 minute version and (with different stories) a 60 minute version.

The catch was that in delivery, each story had to last exactly one minute. But they were of quite wiidely varying lengths, so he had to speak very slowly in telling some of them, and very quickly for others.

But—and here’s the point—many of the stories are very entertaining and well told. And having written ninety anecdotes for the two versions of the lecture, John Cage didn’t stop there. He continued writing them as he thought of them. In his collection of writings Silence, stories that aren’t included in the printed version of the lecture are as he says “scattered through the book, playing the same function that odd bits of information play at the end of columns in a small-town newspaper”, so every so often you’ll find an anecdote instead of blank section of a page.

Here are several of my favourites. The first concerns Xenia, who was his wife for about ten years:

Xenia never wanted a party to end. Once, in Seattle, when the party we were at was folding, she invited those who were still awake, some of whom we’d only met that evening, to come over to our house. Thus it was that about 3:00 A.M. an Irish tenor was singing loudly in our living room. Morris Graves, who had a suite down the hall, entered ours without knocking, wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt and carrying an elaborately made wooden birdcage, the bottom of which had been removed. Making straight for the tenor, Graves placed the birdcage over his head, said nothing, and left the room. The effect was that of snuffing out a candle. Shortly, Xenia and I were alone.

An unintended consequence of his interest in wild fungi:

When Vera Williams first noticed that I was interested in wild mushrooms, she told her children not to touch any of them because they were all deadly poisonous. A few days later she bought a steak at Martino’s and decided to serve it smothered with mushrooms. When she started to cook the mushrooms, the children all stopped whatever they were doing and watched her attentively. When she served dinner, they all burst into tears.

Hearing a lecture without absorbing it:

I went to hear Krishnamurti speak. He was lecturing on how to hear a lecture. He said, “You must pay full attention to what is being said and you can’t do that if you take notes.” The lady on my right was taking notes. The man on her right nudged her and said, “Don’t you hear what he’s saying? You’re not supposed to take notes.” She then read what she had written and said, “That’s right. I have it written down right here in my notes.”

These can be found on pages 271, 95 and 269 respectively of John Cage, Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978 (reprinted several times since).

Addendum

In this clip you can hear part of Indeterminacy, as delivered by John Cage. Many thanks to Nanette Nielsen for the link. (Note that this features a different set of anecdotes from the ones above—and they’re every bit as worth hearing.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s