John Cage and the New York School: A Hyperlecture/Conversation

© 1993 by Peter Gena

Author’s note: This lecture/conversation consists of words taken from articles that I have written over the years on John Cage and the New York School, and recorded voice from various interviews that I conducted with John Cage and Morton Feldman. The actual order of the quotes chosen for this Hyperlecture was selected by the I CHING from material set up as data on individual Hypercard card-images. This hyperlecture could be generated and read live by computer for any given duration. What follows is but one realization, twenty-five minutes in length.

0:00 PG: "Remember, it’s always someone else who dies" reads Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph. I first heard these words nearly two decades ago in a conversation with John Cage after he delivered an insightful lecture on Duchamp.

0:13 MF: Yes, but don’t you know that story he tells about somebody he met who was an anarchist? And the guy was very upset because as the kids started to grow-up they started to kind of jump on the bed among other things. And he didn’t know what to do with the kids because he was an anarchist. So Cage himself tells this story. The dilemma of people jumping on his music and doing this and that, and yet he’s an anarchist.

0:34 PG: In the early eighties I gave a paper on "Interdisciplinary Aspects of Experimental Music Since 1950" at a national music theory conference, and I was very surprised that one of the then-editors of Perspectives of New Music came up afterwards to ask if I could write an article for the journal. I said to her, "Yes, but I haven’t honestly looked at Perspectives in years because I have never been interested in pitch matrices and all the rationale for how one chooses his or her pitches and parameters." But, I understood that in recent issues they were doing a lot of cute little linguistic aphorisms, almost as if they had read Silence twenty years too late. I think that academia is embracing a lot of what happened in Cage’s early career. And maybe, in essence, it is a Renaissance of those ideas. Perhaps history is starting there, and I could have been correct when I told my composition students that they ought to study the great masters — Cage, Feldman, Brown and Wolff.

1:27 JC: They can’t hear me? But they could come closer, there are many seats right here. I don’t want to become so amplified that it sounds important no matter what I say (laughter). Anyway, I can go back. I went to college, not with the idea of being a composer. I actually went to college with the idea of becoming a minister. And my grandfather had started the first Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver. Before that he preached against Mormonism in Utah, but nobody listened to him. So he moved on to Denver and started this church. But, he had been itinerant before that, and so my father was born in Los Angeles in 1886, and later I was born there in 1912. So that my father was an inventor, but my grandfather was a minister and I thought I would become a minister, but I took a class in religion at Pomona College and that got the idea of religion out of my head.

3:07 PG: The neo-dada movements, the writings of Eckhart and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and his study of Zen led Cage to question Western ideals as they pertained to linearity in choice, form, logic, and meaning. While neither Rauschenberg nor Cage wholly embraced the tenets of abstract expressionism, they did endorse the notion of a lack of concentration of material towards the center. The equal tension over the entire canvas of many of Rauschenberg’s paintings of the early 1950’s support Cage’s penchant for a lack of beginning, climax, and denouement in music. Similarly, since the inception of his own permanent dance company in 1953, Merce Cunningham has treated the entire stage as a dynamic region with no central focus when positioning the dancers.

3:54 PG: Rauschenberg sees a fundamental difference when approaching indeterminacy in space as opposed to time. He tried to explain to Cage that "you can’t use chance in painting without turning out an intellectual piece. You can use it in time, because then you can change time."1

4:09 JC: Performance is essential. That will lead you to other compositions. Who was it recently showed me a work for orchestra, and I asked, "Have you any chance of getting this performed?" There was no chance at all. And my advice is not to write things that don’t have a performance in view.

4:35 PG: With Music of Changes, Cage succeeded in consolidating intention (his charts) with non-intention (the I Ching selection process), accepting occurrences through self-discipline as a series of independent events rather than relationships. Thus, sounds enter a time-space continuum centered only on themselves with no history or influence exerted on previous or subsequent incidents.

5:00 MF: I think in a sense he’s not idealistic about performers. He was not idealistic about society. The man evidently, for some particular reason, thought that he was involved with an art form. You know, just like Jews are not allowed to win a war. Israel is not allowed to win a war. A writer could make art. A painter could make art. Maybe a composer is not allowed to make art, and maybe a composer never made art. Everybody thought they’re listening to Cage and it’s anti-art. They don’t know that the reason they’re annoyed is because it’s art. Really, I’m serious now. I’m not trying to be clever. If you give vent to the imagination and travel the path that he has taken, it becomes an art form. It’s not anti-art. Yes, the problem with Cage is that it’s too much art for music.

6:12 PG: In Music for Piano (1953), Cage went a step further by placing duration-free notes directly on points where he found imperfections in the paper used for the score — thus using it as its own stencil. It bears pointing out that many of these new experiments were also undertaken by Cage’s close colleagues. He credited Morton Feldman with writing the first pieces using graphic notation and free duration. In fact, one of Feldman’s first published graph pieces was copied in Cage’s hand.

6:42 MF: The only thing is that as soon as John Cage created a problem by showing that there is something other than either his old teacher (you know who that means) and Stravinsky, or the few jokers in the deck, you know like Bartók and Hindemith. There are only a few jokers. That’s all. You know how dismal. . . The whole state of music is pretty dismal. It’s absolutely pretty dismal.

7:22 PG: It was actually in New York that Cage and Rauschenberg first met at the latter’s show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the spring of 1951. Appropriately, they possessed similar backgrounds: each had studied with masters of the European avant-garde at the same point in their respective lives, each had already departed from established modernist practices, and each had no money. Cage had had lessons with Arnold Schoenberg from 1935 to 1937 in Los Angeles. Rauschenberg (13 years Cage’s junior) worked with Albers in 1948-49 at Black Mountain College. The relationships between pupils and teachers were comparable. Both instructors admired the inventiveness of their students, if not the finished work. In turn, each student adopted the sense of discipline that his teacher indoctrinated. This rigor was to endow the careers of the young artists, though their mentors’ rules to make discriminate order were eventually replaced by an energetic proclivity for accepting coincidence.

8:22 JC: Well, I think that what Satie said is that, "Experience is a form of paralysis." And when institutions get paralyzed then other institutions naturally come into existence that are not paralyzed, at least in the beginning. They have to wait. This is actually each person’s problem too; it's my problem. The fact that I had certain ideas automatically makes me think that those ideas are continuing with me. And the fact that they continue with me makes it difficult for me in my mind to have other ideas than the ones I already have. How to become free of one’s own experience is both an individual problem and an institutional problem.

9:20 JC: And the discomfiture of institutions and the critics, with a great deal of new music, is because they see that something radical has happened, and they can’t accept it. They could only accept it by altering their notion of what the inside is, and that they would have to do through acceptance, I think, either of some profound form of psychoanalysis, which I think is what happens with Morty, or some form of oriental philosophy, which happens with me. Or some other such thing.

10:00 PG: His growth as an artist showed an incessant drive to eliminate exclusivity of choice, thereby promoting an all-inclusive environment. He freed the elements of art not through gimmick, as many of his detractors have suggested, but by intense discipline and hard work. He never said anything goes, but advocated purposeful purposelessness. He showed us how the wholeness of life experience incorporated in his work a pluralism not only of styles through singular art forms, but encompassed his interests including music, theater, literature, dance, the visual arts, media-arts, mycology, macrobiotic cooking, chess, and horticulture.

10:36 PG: If Josef Albers taught the complex relationships among colors, Schoenberg espoused the same for pitch. Both of the Americans gained insight and respect for the properties of materials being used. Rauschenberg determined that it was as natural to appropriate "junk" objects as it was to use oil on canvas, or anything else. Cage expanded Schoenberg’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie (that is, melodic continuity through changing timbres) beyond that of pitch to include discontinuities — shifting among sounds of the environment, noise, duration, and silence.

11:19 JC: I developed very early an interest in noise, and so I needed to find a structural means, Schoenberg had impressed upon me the need of structure -- the need of having parts to a composition and distinguishing one from another.

11:35 PG: 4'33" acts as a time grid for the fortuitous sounds in the performance space just as the White Paintings serve as a ground for incidental light and shadows. The horizontal time-space specifies no intentional events except vertical bar-lines which indicate beginnings (60 on top) and endings (i.e. 30"). A performance of the piece works only in the context of a concert when the audience does not purposefully contribute to the ambiance. Similarly, the objective of the White Paintings would be abused by anyone intentionally attempting to project silhouettes on the canvas. Silence is allowed to emerge over sound, and vice-versa, much like the way the white and black overlay each other on the surface of a painting by Franz Kline. 4'33", like Cage’s works with determinate notation, frees music without leaving performers to their own devices.

12:27 MF: Wolpe had a studio on a very Marxist street in New York at that time, 14th Street overlooking 6th Avenue. And he’d always talk about the man in the street, but not on the most simplistic terms. On the most humanistic terms, he meant it that way. I was visiting him, I wasn’t studying at the time and I had already met Jackson Pollock. And he was talking to me and he was saying that my work was too concerned with negation. There was nothing to hold on to for someone to. . . And he started talking about the man in the street and I looked out and I saw Jackson Pollock crossing the street, walking down toward the village. It’s a guiding image in my life, actually. The whole idea; he’s talking about the man in the street and there but for the grace of God go. . .

13:22 PG: The nonlinear quality of events consistent in much of his work, of course, points to that present consciousness of Zen, but moreover because of the layering of parts, one’s perception is taken beyond just that of the center or the now — perhaps towards what the American pragmatist William James and others referred to as the specious present. In each performed verse of Hymnkus the varying repetitions of specious presents, or overlapping series of specious presents define the center or now as a present with a short lag from the past as well as a brief foretelling of the future. This yields over the thirty-minute duration a beautiful prosaic echoing, not a literal one as heard in Feldman’s gorgeous Piece for Four Pianos from 1957, but one of déjà vu and premonition.

14:12 MF: I have to really hand it to John to not have gotten discouraged in any way because, you see, I agree with him, but I agree with him almost as if a child of mine came to me and said, "Dad, I believe in free love. And I’m going to go and move in with Matilda." And I would say, "Well, it’s all right, but for the kind of life that you want to live with Matilda maybe you’re better off getting married."

14:52 JC: Do you know the ten ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism? Well, the problem is stated at the beginning of the ox herding pictures that there is this ox and he’s separate and uncaught by the ox-herder, who goes after him. More and more as the pictures continue the herder herds the ox. Finally and formerly the final picture was an empty circle meaning that the ox had been caught. Now that’s the ninth picture and the tenth picture is of a fat man with a smile on his face bringing gifts back to the village.

15:46 PG: We begin to surmise that much experimental music lacks a perceptible correspondence between the microscopic level of organization, and the macrostructure. Where one may discern homogeneity in the overall form of a piece because the quantity of disorder or entropy appears to be uniform, the events in shorter temporal lengths succeed virtually unrelated to one another.

16:07 PG: In the early 1960s, Naim June Paik produced Zen for Film, a lengthy work of clear film which accumulates scratches, etc., with each showing. Paik preferred to create a "living movie" by meditating in front of the light during the screening, an imposition antithetical to Cage’s premise of non-intention in 4'33".

16:28 MF: Now what I’m really trying to say is that nobody is in the repertoire. Nobody has made it. Unless you go to church, where do you hear Renaissance music? I have to conver. . . If I want to hear Renaissance music I have to convert. You know, where are you going to hear it? You know. A Brandenburg Concerto great! How much Bach do they do? Again, I have to convert. I have to go Easter week. Nobody is in the repertoire. I mean, so in a sense as far as repertoire, Mozart is not even in the repertoire. If you get a whole bunch of hot clarinetists, then they play the Clarinet Quintet, if they can get a quartet together. Of course you have new generations playing these pieces — new fiddle players wanting to compete. The fast fiddle player wants to compete with Heifetz and Itzhak, and all that other stuff, you know. He too has to compete with the Mendelssohn. If there wasn’t that competition for violinists you wouldn’t even hear Mendelssohn. So nobody made the repertoire. A few selective pieces. It’s all hokum you know. It’s all hokum, there’s no repertoire. There’s no repertoire! They’re going to do Pelléas and Mélisande at the Met? They’ll fall asleep for crying out loud. Monteverdi’s Orfeo? They’ll doze off. When’s the last time you heard Machaut in Chicago? Ever sit through a Machaut mass? You could commit suicide. The repertoire is in books only. Of course records I imagine.

18:03 PG: Rauschenberg and Cage persisted in expanding the techniques of indeterminacy. Automobile Tire Print (1953), a "collaboration" between the two friends, involved Cage driving his Model A Ford over a length of connected drawing sheets with Rauschenberg carefully directing as he applied black paint to one of the rear tires. The continuity of the recognizable image constitutes a documentation, or "recording" of this act. Dirt Painting (for John Cage, also 1953), is likewise a documentation of mold and lichen growing on the surface of the work. These works, which uncover an order by way of a circumstantial method, fall short of the extent to which Cage uses randomness in process. The 22-foot-long tire print is a map of a linear progression, whereas a length of magnetic tape used by Cage in Williams Mix (1952), for example, is a history of juxtaposed events created by means of splicing recorded sound according to chance processes.

19:03 JC: To show you how different things are, just at this time and before I came to Chicago, I was employed by the WPA in San Francisco. And I had applied to be in the music section of the WPA. And they refused to admit me because they said I was not a musician. And I said "Well, what am I? Since I work with sounds and percussion instruments, and so forth." And they said, "Well, you could be a recreation leader." So I was employed in the recreation department, and my first . . . it may be the birth of the silent piece, because my first assignment in the recreation department was to go to a hospital in San Francisco, and not to make sounds for the patients, because that would disturb them, but to entertain the children of the visitors, and not to make any sound while I was doing it. And so I thought of games involving movement around the room and counting, and so forth.

20:27 PG: John once talked about the difference between Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He said if a work is damaged in transit, it would be fine with Rauschenberg, but with Johns it would open up a whole new aesthetic realm. In the past, I’ve always equated John’s attitude as being closer to Rauschenberg’s in certain approaches. That once Cage removed himself from the decision-making process, and once the decision is made from outside his control, it’s a means for discovering new things and it’s to be left as it stands, similar to Rauschenberg. But now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps Morty was like Rauschenberg and Cage was like Johns.

21:02 PG: Also in the 1960’s, Austrian Peter Kubelka and American Tony Conrad independently created films without images that exclusively employed the four extreme elements of film: light, darkness, sound, and silence. Conrad’s The Flicker, as the name suggests, alternates between light and dark, accelerating to a frenzy with a single tone increasing in intensity and pitch. Kubelka’s 6-1/2-minute film, Arnulf Rainer, employs long sections of light accompanied by white noise, and darkness accompanied by silence.

21:32 MF: So in a sense that was one advice John gave me. I once showed a kid how to use a catsup bottle. He was like pssss, you know dashing it on the table and I said now look, and he was about five years old, and I told him how to twist the cap so that the catsup goes back in the bottle. About twenty-five years older (later) I see this nice looking man stopping me on Madison Avenue. He says, "I know you but you don’t know me." And I said, "No I don’t know you. Who are you?" He says, "Catsup, the bottle of catsup, remember?" And I remembered him. He was Danny’s nephew. And he said every time he picks up a bottle of catsup for a hamburger, he thinks about me. That’s the way I think about John Cage. Though I think it’s a little more important what he told me.

22:30 JC: To give advice is a very difficult thing to do. I think the most we can do, and we can’t be certain of the results of that, is to carry on with our work, and to think of it in relation to other people, as what you have to say to them. In other words, I don’t think we do our work, I don’t think we conduct our lives just for ourselves, but willy nilly it penetrates with other people. So rather than advice, I would say instance or example. I like that attitude because it goes through the whole process of the life rather than coming to one conclusion. I notice, for instance, that some people now are struck by some of the pieces I wrote between 1940 and 1950; and won’t have anything to do with the rest. And other people now, I noticed, just because they see that happening they’re beginning to be interested in only the music from 1950 to 1980. I don’t think we ought to worry. You just have to do your work, and expect other people to do theirs.

24:05 PG: 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.

24:45 PG: True, his legacy will always be here through his work, ideas and exuberance for life, but now there is a void that humanity can never fill. Duchamp was wrong. On that Wednesday afternoon in August, John took a part of all of us with him.


1 Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg, (NYC: Vintage Books, 1987), 64.

Text Sources by Peter Gena:

After Antiquity: John Cage in Conversation with Peter Gena. Catalog of New Music America '82 Festival (as above); and A John Cage Reader. New York: C.F. Peters Corp. (expanded cloth edition, 1983); and TriQuarterly 54. Evanston, IL: NU Press (paper, 1982).

John Cage 1912-1992. The New Art Examiner (October, 1992): 9.

John Cage the Composer. A John Cage Reader. New York: C.F. Peters Corp. (as above).

Cage and Rauschenberg: Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, for an exhibit of early works of Rauschenberg and scores of Cage, February, 1992.

Freedom in Experimental Music: The New York Revolution. TriQuarterly 52 (Fall, 1981). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1981.

H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody): Morton Feldman in Conversation with Peter Gena. A John Cage Reader. C.F. Peters, etc. (as above).

Introduction of John Cage to the Poetry Center Benefit. The Art Institute of Chicago, March 1, 1992.

Program notes for Hymnkus, written for a concert performance at The Art Institute of Chicago, April, 1988.

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