Introduction of John Cage for the Poetry Center Benefit, AIC

© 1992 by Peter Gena.

It is, needless to say, a great personal pleasure for me to welcome John Cage again to this very space for the second time in less than four years.  And it’s altogether fitting that the Chicago area should offer a week-long presentation of his work in celebration of his 80th year.  He was here ten years ago for a week when we honored him with a music festival for his 70th birthday, and he has visited us many times in between.  Some of you may even remember the year John spent in Chicago from 1941 to 1942, leaving for New York just before his 30th birthday.  Here he taught music at Moholy-Nagy’s School of Design, accompanied Catherine Manning’s modern dance classes at the University of Chicago, and gave a concert at the Arts Club.  I feel that I can say with certainty that we will see him again in Chicago during his 90th year, as well as many times in between.

The first time I saw John Cage was during the '60s, while I was a student at the University of Buffalo.  John, as well as most experimental figures of the avant-garde, was often a guest of the music department there.  I remember the first glance that I took from a half-open door during a rehearsal break.  He was sitting in a room filled with smoke (of which he was the major source). He sported his characteristic crew-cut, and was dressed, as usual, in a sport coat with a meticulous white shirt and a tightly-knotted, thin necktie.  I was too awestruck and intimidated to enter. And besides, to John, no doubt, I simply would have been just another composer with a four-letter name.

It was in the early '70s when I first spent a few days with John.  We had brought him to the California State University at Fresno where I was teaching.  He lectured on Duchamp, then read from Empty Words in between performances of the Etudes Australes.  I remember going with some colleagues to pick him up at Norman O. Brown’s home in Aptos.  As soon as we appeared on the patio, John leapt from a chess game that he was playing with Brown and greeted us like we were old friends.  I understood immediately what my friend and mentor Morton Feldman meant when he used to say that John Cage had given all of the artists of the '50s in New York permission to move ahead with their ideas.  I could feel that energy exuding from John’s presence.  I often wondered though, if he jumped up so eagerly from that chess board because perhaps he was badly losing the match to Norman O. Brown.

On the return trip across California to Fresno and during the ensuing few days, I could easily see that while my sense of intimidation from those appearances at Buffalo were totally unfounded, my initial feelings of awe, in fact, had been grossly understated.  In the 20 or so years since Fresno, and the many meetings since, that awe continues to grow much like his amazing output of wonderful music, prose, prints, watercolors, stories and ideas.  With such innovative work dedicated to both non-intention and life-long discipline, John has at once opened the door for creativity among artists while slamming it shut on opportunities for originality—it seems he’s thought of and done everything, and without being trendy, I might add! We can all thank him for that.  Now we younger artists can explore ideas without tying our nerves into knots worrying about being original.  For example, recently I wrote a computer synthesized piece that is generated from music that is indigenous to where it is performed.  Thus, the place where it is performed is part of the title of the work.  Now, as I was preparing my gallery essay for the exhibition of John Cage’s scores of the 1950s, I rediscovered that John had suggested a similar means for assigning a title forty years earlier in his Water Music.

Anyway, thanks John, now at least I don’t have to aggravate.  We, your fans and colleagues, are free to get on with the work at hand.  Please join me in welcoming John Cage to this reading; the first event in a week-long celebration of his overflowing creativity.

Re & Not Re Cage | Gena Web