A Preliminary Thinking
Mary Emma Harris

The occasion of the 2011 ReVIEWING BMC 3 conference sponsored by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center and the University of North Carolina at Asheville was an opportunity for a first-thinking specifically about John Cage and Black Mountain College. This initial effort is to bring together basic information: when was he there, what did he accomplish while there, and the nature of his influence on the college and vice versa.

The extensive Black Mountain collections of  the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, North Carolina State Archives, Western Regional Branch at Oteen, North Carolina are referenced as NCSA and the title of the individual collection. 

At Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948, there was a rare coming together of kindred spirits in an environment receptive to interaction, experimentation, and a lively, imaginative exchange of ideas. The associations formed that summer were to be the catalyst for an expanding community of artists whose lives were inextricably interwoven through personal relationships, shared ideals and interests, and collaborations. The summer was to alter not only the artists’ lives but also the course of the arts in the United States in the Twentieth Century and beyond. This community of artists was not so much a circle as it was a magnetic field of forces within which there were many interlocking centers of energy. There were interactions, conflicts, connections, disconnections, attractions and repulsions.

Josef Albers critiquing student work. Left to right: Frances Kuntz,
Hope Stephens (Foote), Lisa Jalowetz (Aronson), Bela Martin, Elizabeth Brett (Hamlin).
Courtesy NCSA, Black Mountain College Papers.

To understand the dynamics of the Black Mountain community in the summer of 1948, one must look back to the college’s founding ideals and the evolution of the community over time. The college founders knew from the beginning that the arts would be at the center of college life and the curriculum. They could not, however, have imagined when they brought Josef and Anni Albers from Germany in November 1933 that this single action would alter the history and influence of the college. A dynamic fusion of American Progressivism, as represented by the founders, and European Modernism, as represented by the refugee artists, was to be the catalyst for the evolution of a unique community. From American Progressivism, there was a sense of pioneering and naiveté, respect for manual work, and the integration of living and learning through community; from European Modernism, experimentation in the arts and a dynamic relationship to the past as it informs the present. In addition, the Alberses, along with the other refugee teachers, reinforced the founders’ idea that the practice of the arts should be central to the learning process. They brought an acceptance of the arts as an integral and necessary part of a culture, a respect for disciplined study, and a high professional standard. Their presence was a corrective to the emphasis on self-expression as an end in itself which so often characterized the Progressive Education movement.

The Black Mountain community as it evolved integrated studies with work on the farm and grounds maintenance, concerts and drama performances, parties, hikes in the mountains and other activities. The college was owned and administered by the faculty, and students and faculty served on the many committees that ran the college. Energies that might otherwise have been dispersed had the college been close to a major cultural center were concentrated and focused inward. Through the special summer sessions in the arts, the first of which was held in 1944, the college became known as a community-based learning environment receptive to exploration of new ideas and art forms.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham first visited Black Mountain in the spring of 1948. At the time there were eighty-six students. The G.I.s, who were older and more mature, were less willing to submit to authority than the younger students and eager to get on with their education. Their presence had re-energized the college. Josef Albers had returned reluctantly to teach and organize the summer session after a year-and- a-half’s sabbatical during which he had been able to concentrate on his painting. Ilya Bolotowsky, who had taught when Albers was away, remained for the 1948 spring term. Music was taught by two European refugees, Charlotte Schlesinger, composer and pianist, and Erwin Bodky, harpsichordist and clavichordist. Arthur Penn was student-teacher in drama. M.C. Richards taught reading and writing. There were workshops in printing, woodworking, weaving and bookbinding as well as classes in history, Latin, German, French, Russian, economics, business, social sciences, mathematics, chemistry, physics and farming.

In 1948, John Cage was experiencing a period of critical acceptance, if not one of financial success. On the West Coast he had been able to make a living composing music for dance using both conventional instruments and ones of his own devising. In the spring of 1942, he moved to New York. There his immersion into Eastern music and philosophies had led him to texts such as those of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and the lectures of Dr. D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University. In Virgil Thomson he had found a sympathetic critic for performances of his music. His composition The Seasons, commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein and performed at the Ziegfield Theatre in New York on May 23, 1947, had been well-received as had a 1946 performance by Maro Ajemian of sections of his incomplete Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Cage’s marriage had ended, and he and Merce Cunningham had formed their life-long partnership. In 1946 he had moved into an apartment at 326 Monroe Street which was to house other colleagues including members of the expanding Black Mountain community.

In the spring of 1948, Cunningham’s situation was more tenuous than that of Cage. After six years as a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company, he had left to focus on his own choreography and independent dance. He had worked with different dancers including Katherine Litz and Jean Erdman and had begun to explore unconventional concepts. A review of the April 1948 visit noted that Cunningham and Cage worked together yet separately, having determined that dance and the rhythm of accompanying music are not interdependent.[i] 

Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham and John Cage at a community reception, April 1948. Felix Krowinski, photographer. © Black Mountain College Project.

In April 1948, Black Mountain College was the first stop on a two-person tour. Cunningham danced and gave classes; Cage gave the first complete performance of his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. As he prepared the piano in the dining hall, students and faculty stopped to watch the process and discuss what he was doing.  After the performance, everyone gathered in the community house for coffee and questions with the artists.  The review concluded: “The current of creative energy since their visit has illuminated the college both in creation and response.”[ii]

In lieu of an honorarium which the college could not afford, faculty and students, enchanted by their performances and by their persona, filled their car with gifts of food and art work. From Chicago Cage wrote to Josef and Anni Albers:

“You were so friendly and Black Mountain was so good to be at, and the last minute gestures and gifts brought us a kind of ecstasy (the heads among the eggs were discovered near the summit of the Smokies where the mists made everything gently awe-inspiring. – you were as generous as they)….

“[F]or the most part this trip seems tending always toward what is beautiful and meaningful, and I can only say that we feel we were profoundly lucky to spend some days with you…. Being in New York without leaving it for so long had made me believe that only within each one of us singly can what we require come about, but now at Black Mountain and again with the Trappists I see that people can work still together. We have only ‘to imitate nature in her manner of operation’….

“We love the gifts you gave us, but especially loved being with you….’”[iii]

Cage and Cunningham were invited back for the summer session.

The now-legendary 1948 summer session organized by Josef Albers was the result of both careful planning and fortuitous circumstance. Cage and Cunningham arrived as planned. Their friend Richard Lippold, not wanting to be left out, volunteered to live with his family in their hearse, if only he could be there. The college found housing and offered an appointment as sculptor-in-residence. Peter Grippe was the official sculpture teacher. Mark Tobey, possibly recommended to Albers by Cage, cancelled at the last minute as did architect Bertrand Goldberg. Willem de Kooning, discouraged by his first one-person show at Egan Gallery at which nothing sold, agreed to replace Tobey. Goldberg recommended Buckminster Fuller. Other summer faculty and lecturers included Beatrice Pitney Lamb, Isaac Rosenfeld, Beaumont Newhall, Winslow Ames, and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Students included Hazel Larsen Archer, Ruth Asawa, Lili Blumenau, Etta Mandelbaum (Deikman), Gustave Falk, James Leo Herlihy, Warren Jennerjahn, Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn, Ray Johnson, Albert Lanier, Lore Kadden (Lindenfeld), Harry Noland, Kenneth Noland, Mary Phelan Outten, Warren Outten, Pat Passlof, Arthur Penn, Oli Sihvonen, Sewell Sillman, Kenneth Snelson, Paul Williams, and Vera Baker Williams.

Elaine de Kooning recalled Willem de Kooning’s first reaction on entering the rustic unkempt grounds: “‘I feel like turning around and going home’.” Reassured by Albers’ warm welcome: “Ach so, the de Koonings,” they remained. “The school activities engulfed us like a warm breeze.” [iv] Guest faculty were not told what or how to teach. For some the freedom was disconcerting; others saw it as an opportunity to undertake projects which in a different setting would have required scrutiny by sponsors, advance publicity and extensive funding. They taught their current passion, projects on which they were working at that time. Thus, the students had the benefit of the excitement and uncertainty that comes with new learning.

Buckminster Fuller and students.
Supine Dome with model in foreground. Summer 1948.
Beaumont Newhall, photographer. 
Courtesy Scheinbaum & Russek Ltd.

Buckminster Fuller, described by Kenneth Snelson as “a summer substitute for a legitimate architect,”[v] arrived a couple of weeks after the session started with his trailer of intriguing models. He captivated and confounded the audience with his first very long lecture. Snelson recalled that he was “absolutely hypnotized and electrified”,[vi] and Lippold that it was “like meeting Zoroaster speaking Islamic.”[vii] Fuller’s project for the summer was to construct his first geodesic dome of Venetian blind strips, christened in good humor the “Supine Dome” when it failed to rise.

John Cage playing for the Satie Festival. Clemens Kalischer, photographer. Courtesy Kalischer.

Erik Satie’s Ruse of Medusa (Le piège de Mĕduse) with Buckminster Fuller as the Baron Meduse, William Shrauger as Astolfo, Elaine de Kooning as Frisette and Merce Cunningham as Jonas, a costly Mechanical Monkey. Clemens Kalischer, photographer. Courtesy Kalischer.

Cage conducted an Amateur Festival of the Music of Erik Satie. He gave twenty-five half-hour after-dinner concerts performed at times on the grand piano in the dining hall and at times on the upright in his house while the audience sat outside in the grass. The culmination was a performance of Satie’s Ruse of Medusa (Le piège de Mĕduse).

The Satie concerts might have been experienced simply as a delightful after-dinner entertainment had Cage not stated in his lecture “Defense of Satie” “immediately and unequivocally [that] Beethoven was in error [in his definition of harmony as the basic structural element of music composition], and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.”[viii] He offered as remedy Webern and Satie’s perception of time lengths as the basic structural component. Erwin Bodky, who was concurrent with the Satie Festival sponsoring a series of concerts of the music of Beethoven, took exception, and soon the entire community was lined up on one side or the other. The crisis was finally resolved by a duel with one side armed with Wiener schnitzel and the other with crêpe suzette (certainly only semblances thereof).

Cage played the piano for a dance concert by Merce Cunningham, Louise Lippold and Sara Hamill on August 20. Three of the pieces by Cage were composed that summer: In a Landscape, choreographed and danced by Louise Lippold; Suite for Toy Piano with a dance A Diversion choreographed and danced by Cunningham, Sara Hamill and Louise Lippold; and Orestes with choreography by Merce Cunningham. Dream, composed in New York, was choreographed and performed by Cunningham. Also included in the concert were Totem Ancestor (1942) and Root of an Unfocus (1944).[ix]

For Cage the friendships forged in the summer of 1948 were to be the fulcrum of a community of artists who were to be critical to his career. Between Fuller and Cage, both “inventors of genius,”[x] an immediate bond was forged, one that was not dependent on physical presence or collaboration. It was enough for each to know that the other was out there somewhere. Ray Johnson and Richard Lippold fell in love, and both moved into the Monroe Street building.

David Tudor and M.C. Richards at Black Mountain College.
Mary Ann Fretz Giusti, photographer.

Although it has been suggested that the three-year interval between 1948 and Cage’s return to the college in the summer of 1952 was a consequence of lingering hostility over the Beethoven-Satie controversy, there was, in fact, a close relationship between Cage and Black Mountain during this period. At the end of the summer, Albers wrote to Cage, “How can we thank you appropriately for all you did for us this summer? Therefore I say only, God Bless you.”[xi] Bodky resigned at the end of the 1949 summer session. In 1950 Cage dedicated his Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard to Josef and Anni Albers. On August 12, 1950 Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts received its first performance by the Summer Session String Quartet led by Vollmer Hetherington, who replaced Bodky on the faculty. On August 18, 1951, David Tudor performed Cage’s Music of Changes, Part 1.

On the recommendation of Cunningham, Katherine Litz taught dance, and Cage recommended the composer Lou Harrison. After M.C. Richards left in 1951 to live with David Tudor in New York, she returned for summer sessions and retained close contact with both the college and Charles Olson, the commanding personality there after his return in the summer of 1951.

Cage’s three-year absence from Black Mountain was undoubtedly a consequence of other obligations and activities. His Sonatas and Interludes had its New York premiere in 1949. It resulted in a Guggenheim Fellowship for Cage and a trip to Europe where he completed his collection of Satie scores. In New York he had formed a friendship with Morton Feldman and had discovered the I Ching which led to his use of chance operations as a method of composition. Whereas in 1948 Cage was enjoying a period of critical acceptance, by 1952 when he returned to Black Mountain for a second summer, he was receiving scathing reviews and had been abandoned by many of his peers.

After the 1948 summer there were essentially two parallel Black Mountains, the North Carolina community whose members often spent their long winter break in New York and those who lived in New York and who were at the college for shorter teaching assignments or as visitors. Many had never been at Black Mountain at the same time. They met at parties, events such as concerts and exhibition openings, at The Club, and in passing on the street. Between 1948 and Cage’s return in 1952, his Black Mountain community had expanded to include other Black Mountain students: lighting director Nick Cernovich, psychologist and artist Irwin Kremin, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil, who had enrolled at Black Mountain in the fall of 1948. Although it often is assumed that Rauschenberg and Cage met at Black Mountain, it was probably on the 1948-49 winter break in New York that they first met.

Cage returned to Black Mountain for the 1952 summer session. Guest faculty included Franz Kline and Jack Tworkov in art, Cunningham in dance, and, of course, Cage in music. Sewell ‘Si’ Sillman, a former Albers student, returned to teach color. Drawing was taught by Charles Oscar, Katherine Litz’s husband. Karen Karnes and David Weinrib taught ceramics.  Lou Harrison, who had received a Guggenheim fellowship to work on his opera Rapunzel, was resident composer, and Stefan Wolpe, who was to replace Harrison in the fall, taught music. David Tudor gave concerts.

Cage’s proposed curriculum was to have students work on his Williams Mix, a composition of electronic music for which former Black Mountain student Paul Williams had provided funding. The composition required the tedious cutting and splicing of tape according to a score created by Cage from chance operations. The students were not interested, and Cage subsequently recalled that the most significant teaching at Black Mountain took place in the animated and extended conversations in the dining hall.

College dining hall and auditorium.
NCSA, Black Mountain College Papers.

Despite his lack of students, for Cage the summer was significant. Robert Rauschenberg had returned in the summer of 1951 with Cy Twombly and remained through the 1952 summer.  His all-white paintings which Cage first viewed that summer were inspiration for his reputation-breaking silent piece 4’33” which is dedicated to Black Mountain student Irwin Kremin and which was first performed by David Tudor on August 29, 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock. New York. In addition, one of Cage’s Haiku was published by Lou Harrison’s Black Mountain College Music Press on September 1, 1952.[xii]

On August 9, David Tudor performed Cage’s Music of Changes, and on August 12, his Two Pastorales and Water Music (August 12, 1952). A small program printed on tissue paper and glued to a program for the August 9 performance announces a second Black Mountain performance of the Sonatas and Interludes.


In August Cage staged Theater Piece #1 (Black Mountain Piece), which subsequently came to be known as the first “happening.” Undoubtedly the Light Sound Movement Workshop taught by Warren ‘Pete’ Jennerjahn from 1949-51, theater performances directed by Wesley Huss, and Charles Olson’s interest in ritual as an alternative to conventional theater had created an environment receptive to Cage’s ideas. Another influence was Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double (Grove Press, 1958) which M.C. Richards was translating in New York and reading to the community as she worked. Cage recalled that it was from Artaud that he determined that action and text need not be interdependent. The seats were placed in four triangles with wide aisles between. Cage noted that, unlike the theater-in-the-round where action takes place only in the center, in the “happening” action occurred in the center, the aisles and around the audience.[xiii] The “script” for the performance assigned time slots determined by chance operations to different participants including Cage, Cunningham, M.C. Richards, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, and David Tudor. As has been noted in numerous sources, memories vary according to just who did what and where it occurred. This disparity in accounts is a reflection both of the fact that each person had a different view of the event and of an assumed-insignificance of the performance at that time.

Cunningham taught both at Black Mountain and at the Burnsville School of Fine Arts, a project of The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in nearby Burnsville, North Carolina. Among his Black Mountain students that summer were Viola Farber, who was to become a principal dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; Timothy LaFarge, who danced briefly with the company; and Harvey Lichtenstein. As executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1967-99, Lichtenstein invited emerging and experimental artists including Cage and Cunningham for performances. At Burnsville, Cunningham choreographed a performance of Brigadoon and performed the role of Harry Beaton. The musical was performed at The Parkway Playhouse on August 15-16,18-19. Cage was listed as faculty in publications, but it is not clear whether or what he taught. On July 28 he performed his Sonatas and Interludes there.

The 1953 summer was the last big summer program at Black Mountain.  Cage visited although he did not teach. The focus for the summer was on ceramics with Peter Voulkos, Warren Mackenzie and Daniel Rhodes as teachers. Painting was taught by Esteban Vicente. Stefan Wolpe organized a series of concerts with Irma Wolpe, Josef Marx, Seymour Barab, Rudolph Benetsky, and Abraham Miskind. Merce Cunningham returned for a third summer with a group of dancers with whom he had been working in New York. He designates that summer of intense choreography, rehearsal and performance as the founding of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Tudor performed Cages’s Music for Piano 4-19 (May 1953) in July at the “Waterfront Auditorium.”

In the fall, faced with a diminishing faculty, student body and income, the college abandoned the lower campus including the Studies Building, the dining hall, and the dormitories and moved into faculty cottages. In New York the Monroe Street “Bozza Mansion” which had provided Cage and friends and collaborators with cheap rent in the company of friends and peers was being demolished.  He along with other Black Mountain students and faculty needed inexpensive housing and craved the sense of community they had experienced both at Black Mountain and in the Monroe Street building.  Paul Williams, who had received an inheritance from his father, and his wife Vera Baker Williams suggested they form a Black-Mountain-like community within commuting distance of New York City in a natural environment similar to that of the college. The Gatehill Cooperative Community — “The Land” — was formed in 1954 with John Cage, David Tudor, M.C. Richards, David Weinrib, Karen Karnes, Vera Baker Wiliams and Paul Williams as founding members. Musician Patsy Lynch Wood, who was married to LaNoue Davenport, and Betsy Weinrib Williams, Paul Williams second wife and David Weinrib’s sister, were part of the community. Stanley VanDerBeek had a dome studio there.

Stan Vanderbeek studio at The Land.
Mary Emma Harris, photographer.

Cage’s influence on Black Mountain was significant. It was his recommendation of Lou Harrison in 1952 that assured a role for the most vanguard music at the college. On his visits David Tudor performed music by Arnold Schoenberg, Morton Feldman, Stefan Wolpe, Anton Webern, Henry Cowell, Pierre Boulez, Christian Wolff, Lou Harrison, and, of course, John Cage. Although Cage had few students, his comment that the most important teaching took place in the dining hall captures the essential Black Mountain. One can only imagine the lively and challenging exchange of ideas and the undocumented impact of these conversations on the work of the participants.

The influence of Black Mountain College on John Cage was profound. At the college he came into contact with individuals who were to be his physical, intellectual and spiritual community for the remainder of his life.  Some were to be close friends and collaborators; with others he was to have more peripheral associations. The Land, where he lived from 1954 until he moved back into New York City, provided him with an extended family celebrating holidays, birthdays and other occasions. At a point in his career when he became increasing alienated from his peers, this community of kindred spirits was a critical support. Black Mountain College was for Cage and others a touchstone, a shared bond, and an instant act of recognition and inclusion.


[i] Black Mountain College Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 4 (May 1948).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] John Cage to Josef and Anni Albers, Spring 1948. Courtesy of the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut and the John Cage Trust. Cage and Cunningham visited a Trappist monastery, probably The Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardston, Kentucky, after leaving Black Mountain.

[iv] Elaine de Kooning, “De Kooning Memories: Starting Out in the 1940s, a Personal Account,” Vogue, No. 3921 (December 1983):352,394.

[v] Snelson interview by Mary Emma Harris, 25 May 1972, NCSA, Black Mountain College Research Project Papers.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Richard Lippold interview by Mary Emma Harris, NCSA, Black Mountain College Research Project Papers.

[viii] John Cage, “Defense of Satie,” in John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Praeger, 1970):81.

[ix] The website www.johncageinfo.com (which no longer is online (2013)) noted that the score for Experiences II has a mention of Black Mountain. There is no known record of its having been performed there.

[x] “Inventor of genius” was the phrase used by Arnold Schoenberg to describe Cage’s musical gifts.

[xi] Josef Albers to John Cage, 7 September 1948, NCSA, Black Mountain College Papers.

[xii] The text for the Haiku reads “Autography by the composer. Editor, Lou Harrison. Designer and / printer, Carroll Williams. Printed with Bauer Futura types / and a zink [sic] line cut on Omi-V for the envelopes and Kochi / for the mnsic [sic] at the Black Mountain College Music Press,  Black / Mountain College, Black Mountain, North Carolina, in the / first edition of three-hundred on the first of September, 1952.”

[xiii] Interview with John Cage by Mary Emma Harris, 1974.