Cage (and Me)
Lili Corbus, Independent Art Historian

A slightly revised version of this paper was originally presented at “ReVIEWING BMC 3: John Cage’s Circle of Influence,” held at UNC Asheville in October, 2011.

This is unlike any article I have ever written. I usually hide myself, showing images by others, contextualizing and rationalizing, researching and analyzing. But today I am remembering and sharing personal experiences. Bear with me if I’m awkward, this is new territory.

I’ve interviewed about 35 artists and writers but experienced just three small brushes with Black Mountain College: interviewing John Cage and Aaron Siskind in 1989 (significant portions of my conversation with Siskind were published in History of Photography in 1992), and later in 1997, I met Jonathan Williams, for whom I curated a small photography exhibition. Here, however, I’ll focus on my encounter with Cage; there simply isn’t room to do justice to my time with them all.

Notice of the conference, “ReVIEWING BMC 3: John Cage’s Circle Of Influence” (2011) inspired me to dredge up my 23 year old Cage files, an ironic search for proof of meeting a man known for embracing chance, ephemera, nonsense. I ransacked two attics, countless boxes, files, and now-obsolete hard-drives. I was heartsick to have lost something so cherished, yet found it wonderfully appropriate that Cage would have to remain in my heart and memory, without substance or form. Then, I found them: a tattered copy of the transcript, the cassette tape, two snapshots I had taken of him, his letter to me – all just one week before the due date for proposals. I was ecstatic.

As a graduate student in American Studies and art history, I developed an enduring intellectual crush on Cage and a fascination with Black Mountain College. I decided to pursue post-war 20th-century photography as my dissertation topic and launched my research by writing to anyone and everyone I could find who had been active in the arts during the 1940s and 1950s in New York City. I wrote very earnest letters to about 70 people, mostly photographers, but only about ten responded offering to meet me. Helen Frankenthaler declined but her secretary sent a 50-page exhibition history. Helen Levitt wrote a funny postcard saying she’d be no help, no one really influenced her. Most didn’t even bother to reply to me, a no-name student from Texas.

Except for the one whose name meant more to me than all the others. In a letter of May 1989 that I still cherish, he simply wrote, “I’ll be able to see you after June 11. Please call me…, cordially, John Cage.” I was elated. Once in the City, I called him, we talked, he seemed thrilled, or pretended to be, and indeed provided his Chelsea address. I found it easily, in an industrial area (Chelsea wasn’t as grand as it is now) and rang the bell. A buzzer rang, I opened the door and entered the small elevator, rode it up to his floor, and there he was, much smaller than I imagined, now 76 years old, just three years before a stroke ended his life. He scuffled slowly as he walked and welcomed me in.

The apartment was amazing. Comfortable, modern, very habitable. Composing sheets were everywhere. What captured my eye were the paintings all over the walls. At that time, I hadn’t really seen Robert Rauschenberg’s white and black paintings, from his Black Mountain days, up-close and in person. And they photograph wretchedly so reproductions are practically useless. But I looked, trying not to look too hard, jaw on floor – the textures, reflections, their sculptural quality, the tease of newsprint all so energetic, so elegant. Their reflective quality brought me face-to-face with myself. We sat at a small table under rows of large sunny windows. A beautiful garden, at least five feet square I think, was the backdrop behind Cage as we spoke. Eventually, armed with my copious questions, I turned on the cassette recorder and our interview began. It didn’t help my nerves when I saw Merce Cunningham in the distance, going about in the kitchen. This is how little I knew; I didn’t understand that they still lived together. Why didn’t I write him too? That still bothers me, but there it is.

In preparation for this talk, I replayed the cassette with trepidation, worried the fragile tape would snap. But it worked, and it was wonderful to hear Cage’s voice again, his laugh, his intonations. He could comfortably pause in thoughtful silence for what felt like excruciating periods of time to me. I must admit, it is humbling to hear the tape, over two decades later. I was young and inexperienced, scared, trying hard to impress. My voice quavers, I alternately falter, babble, and fawn. The pervasive ambient noises didn’t help. Jackhammers, horns, trucks, traffic, sirens, you name it – the noises from outside city life were sometimes nearly deafening, making parts of the tape very difficult if not impossible to transcribe later. But it appropriately also sounds like one of Cage’s most urban compositions.

Nothing he said to me was particularly ground-breaking. Cage had been interviewed countless times already; I could tell there were some pat replies to my most predictable questions. But there were moments I hope you find pleasing, which I will try to describe. Mind you, I was not then, nor am I now, schooled or sophisticated in areas of music history, theory, or Eastern philosophies; I held then, as I do now, a photohistorian’s broad interest in his general ideas that influenced so many in the visual arts.

My focus at the time was on the fertile post-war avant-garde art scene in New York City. Cage remembered being active at the Artists’ Club on 8th street in the Village, where he spoke several times from 1949 through the early 1950s, on impermanence and sand painting, contemporary music, and the like. He remembered mostly painters as companions there, and only a handful of musicians including Edgar Varese, Stefan Volpe, and Morton Feldman. He also remembered the Cedar Tavern where he and artists like kindred spirit Rauschenberg hung out.

Cage told me Rauschenberg’s spirit was “generous,” adding he didn’t think of himself. “We didn’t even have to talk… We understood one another.” But, Cage continued, “The person who thinks of himself as an artist … ruled [at the time]…” DeKooning, he said, “it was he who was the artist. I mean artist in the historical sense of having something to say, and saying it very well. I don’t think of the rest of us as doing that.” Rauschenberg and Cage, in distinction, resisted Abstract Expressionist drama, its tortured self-aggrandizement, what Jasper Johns would call “the stink of the artist’s ego” (6). “We,” Cage added of himself and Rauschenberg, [we] didn’t think art was “something that couldn’t be done by somebody else.”

Cage similarly remembered Marcel Duchamp as another artist he got along with “beautifully. We had no trouble.” Because, as he said laughing, “We never talked about our work!” It was overall, Cage added, “a lively period” happening right “here in the United States.” “The important thing … in painting was the removal of such things as the center of interest, and balance, and perspective, a thousand and one things that they had been bothered by…” I asked, was there a sense of pride about this achievement? “Oh yes,” he said adamantly.

Was he bothered by McCarthyism and the repressive cold war climate, I asked – “were you all irate and talk about it or was McCarthy just a silly man from the Midwest? to you?” Cage replied, quoting me, “A silly man from the Midwest, I think. Like the other silly things….you know, the second coming of the Lord, and so forth, or the end of the world.”

Cage famously attended Japanese author D.T. Suzuki’s lectures on Buddhism at Columbia University in the early 1950s, so I asked him about his motivation to do so. He said, in his slow, deliberate and thoughtful style, “I was disturbed, both in my life as a composer and in my private life … I needed help. And I tried psychiatry. But a psychiatrist said he could fix me so I’d write more music, but I was already writing too much. I didn’t take that seriously. And then,” he added, “an Indian musician came.” He was referencing of course, Gita Sarabhai, whom he met when sculptor Isamu Noguchi brought her to Cage’s loft in 1946 (Silverman 66). Sarabhai (who died in 2011) sought instruction. “She was disturbed about the effect Western music was having on Indian music and she … studied with me a survey on contemporary music and counterpoint.” Cage offered to tutor her if she, in return, would teach him about Indian music and philosophy. She also, as he emphasized to me twice, gave himThe Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the 1000-plus-page book of metaphysical mysticism by the 19th century Hindu religious leader that had been recently translated and published. The book helped, as Cage said, to “sober and quiet” his mind, “rendering it susceptible to divine influences” (Kostelanetz 43).

Cage’s mindset shifted radically throughout the 1940s as he consumed Eastern philosophies, including Ananda Coomaraswamy (introduced to him by Joseph Campbell) and Aldous Huxley (whose Perennial Philosophy was published in 1945): “through Huxley,” he said to me, “I found that I liked best the flavor of Zen Buddhism.” “What was it about Zen,” I asked, “that so suited you?” And he answered, “the flavor, which is intransigent and detached and humorous for the human… unsentimental… Suzuki would say one day life, and the next day death. And when he [was] asked why he exchanged them so easily, he said, well, there’s very little difference between the two. [He laughed]. And Zen… All activity… the things we take so seriously actually are written on water…”

At this point I asked what’s the appeal of Eastern philosophy to a musician specifically. And Cage said with great energy – “It’s a liberation from Beethoven!” I then add as a kind of in-joke (and not a good one), “Paul Goodman’s still angry.” The writer and sociologist Paul Goodman, Cage had said in other interviews, was so indignant about Cage’s anti-Beethoven denouncements that they never really spoke much again (Duberman 472). Cage asked me most earnestly if Goodman was still alive; I answered, I don’t know (afterward I learned Goodman died in 1972). We mumbled that we didn’t think so. The atmosphere got quiet and rather subdued. But then Cage added, “Well, maybe he’s studied a little Buddhism since.”

We discussed the summer of 1948, when Cage first went to Black Mountain, with Josef Albers at the helm. “The important thing about Black Mountain,” Cage said, “was not the classes but the meals, which were not good as food goes, but which were periods of conversation. I taught music composition for instance and no one studied with me, but everyone talked with me…” The College, he continued, could never be re-established, no matter how people try. “It’s because they think something was being taught, whereas nothing was being taught, but people were talking over their meals. And they all ate together.” “Everyday.”

Cage remembered that summer at Black Mountain as the time he studied the music of Erik Satie, the modern French antithesis of the bombastic Beethoven. Satie, he reminisced, composed “without that sense of climax or German development. He’s had a strong influence on all that is called repetitive music or on time-structured music, or minimalism…I gave 25 lectures on Satie… and we gave a performance.” That performance, of course, was of Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa, written in 1913. This production of 1948, directed by Arthur Penn, featured Buckminster Fuller as Baron Medusa, Elaine de Kooning as his daughter, Merce Cunningham as the mechanical monkey, with sets by Willem de Kooning, music by Cage, etc.

But Cage’s pro-Satie and anti-Beethoven comments not only irritated Paul Goodman, they infuriated music scholar Erwin Bodky who happened to be teaching a course on Beethoven that summer. According to Duberman, Cage said it wasn’t his intention to disparage anybody, he was merely explaining why he was inspired by Satie and Bach rather than Beethoven. In an effort to add levity to the situation, philosopher William Levi said the matter would be solved by a duel – Beethovenites armed with Wiener schnitzel and Satie supporters with crêpe suzettes. The ensuing food fight helped de-escalate the argument but a few remained irritated by Cage’s musical desecration, including Goodman (Duberman 288-289).

I asked Cage about alienating people in his life, like Goodman, and even his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, with his alternative ideas: “Did it hurt?” He answered: “It does and it doesn’t. What can you say?” He then recounted the well-documented words Schoenberg purportedly said of him — that Cage wasn’t a composer, but an “inventor — of genius.” Cage told me, “I think he [Schoenberg], might even agree with my musical ideas [now], if he were still alive. Because he liked his students and he liked himself to have a grasp of the field in which he was working. And that’s elementary to working with chance operations. In fact, it makes no sense to submit things to chance unless you understand all the possibilities. I mean, that would be idiotic!”

I asked him about the bohemian life, and he mused, “people think it’s fun to be an artist.” Was it fun, I asked? “NO! It’s never fun. It’s very hard work, it’s hard work because you don’t know all the details of what it is you’re doing. You don’t know it in respect to yourself, and don’t know it with respect to other people. All you know about other people is that they don’t give a damn whether you do it or not. They really don’t care. In other words, it’s self-employment. And when it’s responsible, which it mostly is, then it’s not fun. It’s work.” Me: “Did you ever…” – and he cut in, “And it’s very tiring.” Me: “Did you ever think…” – and he cut back in, “And it’s not paid for.” He noted how little money and how few grants existed back then; the only grant available was a Guggenheim and, he added “I applied I think for 25 years before I got one” (he received one in 1949). “Now,” he continued (laughing at the end of his story), “I hear people complaining if they apply for something once and they don’t get it… Varese applied every year [for a Guggenheim], and finally they wrote to him and said this year we would give it to you, but you’re too old!”

Other topics surfaced, such as his performing prepared piano compositions in Ohio as Merce Cunningham danced on a stage so small his head disappeared each time he jumped. “And afterward there was a party for us, which we went to, and all they did was tell us that our work was terrible.” “We had the impression it was a complete failure.” But twenty years later a man told Cage he had been there at their performance in Columbus, and it “had changed his life.”  It was just as Gita Sarabhai had told Cage: with audiences, “one is enough” (Cage 121).

Other memories and issues surfaced as well during our talk: Nam June Paik’s infamous performance wherein he cut off Cage’s tie, playing chess with the “marvelous” Marcel Duchamp’s wife Tina, the scourge of over-population, newly inaugurated President George Bush and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran (who had just died about two weeks before we met and earlier that year issued the fatwa for the assassination of Salman Rushdie), poets Jackson MacLow and Charles Olson, the Tiananmen Square protests that had just ended before we met with the declaration of martial law in Beijing and the death of hundreds of protesters. We also touched upon, sadly, the promise of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. As we discussed China, Cage added, “I think the important thing to do is to get rid of the government altogether.” I asked, “Do you feel any sense of hope?” And he replied: “I don’t see anything happening that you can depend on in the field of political life. I think you could, if intelligence were put into play, and if ideas were more fully implemented…”

The conversation rambles toward the end, we are clearly tired and talked out. I sneak in a question about Richard Kostelanetz’s interview wherein he asked Cage if he was still an anarchist. “Are you?” I ask. Cage nodded seriously, adding a quiet “yeah.” I added, “just checking.” Then Cage concluded: “What else should one be?”

I never published my interview of Cage. It’s hard to describe, but the experience seemed too personal, too intimate to describe in academic prose. I didn’t know how to express the emotional aftermath. Our meeting was, for me, transcendent and indescribable. But the most extraordinary moment occurred at the end of our meeting. As we chatted, a very large butterfly, a Monarch I believe, landed on Cage’s shoulder. In the middle of Manhattan. In an apartment with closed windows. It stayed there blinking its glorious wings for about 30 seconds, he paid it no mind, I said nothing, and eventually, it flew away.


Works Cited

Cage, John. I-VI. Hanover NH: UP of New England and Wesleyan UP, 1997.

Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. NY: EP Dutton, 1972.

Johns, Jasper, “Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).” Artforum 7: 3 (Nov. 1968): 6.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. NY and London: Routledge, 2003.

Silverman, Kenneth. Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.