Nicholas Zurbrugg interviews John Cage

Mon, 24/06/2013 - 01:35 -- damien

N.Z. Perhaps I could begin by asking you what projects you are presently working upon?

J.C. One of my most recent projects is called The First Meeting of the Satie Society. It consists of a plurality of texts which are conceived of as presents for Erik Satie. For instance, I made eighteen writings through the Essay on Civil Disobedience by Thoreau. All of these texts are in the form of mesostics, but the string words of the mesostics are titles of compositions by Erik Satie. So that Thoreau's present is written on the title Messe des pauvres, since Satie was known as ''Monsieur le pauvre", and Thoreau said that the best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to carry out the projects that he had when he was poor. So, I thought of poverty as a bond between Thoreau and Satie and so on with the others. I also used a text by Chris Mann to write mesostics. I think of Chris Mann' s work as being fresh and a new direction in poetry. And Satie said "Show me something new and I'll begin all over again!" I've managed to make all of this material - which is over two hundred pages - accessible electronically through an organization in San Francisco called The Well, which means ''Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link’". I believe that the people who started that started the Whole Earth Catalogue earlier in the century. So now, no matter where one is, one can contact this work.

I'm also working on Europera, an opera without a libretto. There's no plot. It's a collage of all the theatrical elements, and nothing is related intentionally to anything else. The lighting does not light the activities, but is independent of them. The singers will be singing arias of their choice. The instruments will be playing bits and pieces of actual, say; flute and oboe parts from the literature. So that the instrumental music will be at the same time as the arias, but will not accompany them. The action comes from submitting an unabridged dictionary to chance operations. So that I would read a page of the dictionary until one of the words on the page suggested some kind of action. And just yesterday we were able to get through all the actions of the ten singers in Europera One, which is an hour and a half long. It's actually in a form of theatre with which I'm unfamiliar. I look forward to experiencing it.


Are there any other people working with similar forms of theatre? Would this relate to things Robert Wilson has done?

Well, Robert Wilson's work takes a long time and very, very little happens. It's also an interesting form of theatre. But it's almost at the other extreme of what I'm doing, because here, every four minutes a wealth of material is changing. It's very complex.


Would it be fair to say then, that you are interested in the connections that arise between the complex materials in these works?

Well the connections are multiple. And since there's no intention, the multiplicity of possible interpenetrations is very great. It's like the puns in Finnegans Wake - things go in almost any direction.


A lot of critics have recently argued that the present "Post-Modern" age is rather gloomy and an age in which there aren't any more connections and meanings or whatever. But it seems to me that what you're describing is very affirmative.

I hope so. I had a really alarming experience, I think it was last week. I'm a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and I was asked to be on a committee giving awards to composers. There were seven of us. And I had to listen in one day, even disliking as I do recordings - I had to listen to sixty pieces of music. And all of it, not all of it literally, but most of it, was what is now called Neo-Romantic material. It was as though we were living in the Nineteenth Century! Maybe it's peculiar to music? But I'm afraid it may exist in poetry too. What do you think?


I'm not quite sure about poetry. I think in art there's a return to this Neo-Expressionism, and in theoretical works people say that there's no advance possible, and that all one can do is synthesize the past in a fairly unadventurous manner.

Well I'm in disagreement.


This is a vast question, but is it possible to say what the most important lessons of the twentieth century might be?

I think that a great deal of our experience comes from the vast use of glass in our architecture, so that our experience is one of reflection, collage, transparency. I think these elements are very important and very different from a life that had less glass in it!


One problem that arises here, is that some theorists say everything has become flat and suggest that we're living in a culture of surfaces, without depth and without significance.

No, we see several things at once!


So it's a rich simultaneity?

It's very rich. Instead of seeing one thing, it's as though we lived constantly in Rome where you see many centuries interpenetrating.


Well, I think you wrote many years ago that our souls have become "electronic", and able to assimilate

many experiences. Just to go back to technology, do you see that as being of equal importance to, say, the experience of glass?

Well, it's like transparency. I remember once when I was giving a performance with David Tudor – of what we called 'live' electronic music. There was one machine that was under my control which was not plugged in. But it worked anyway!


How did it work?

It worked as though it was plugged in. And I said, "Isn't that strange?" to David. He said, ''No. It's because it's so close to the others that are plugged in". So that it was vibrating sympathetically! Isn't that amazing! But it's like transparency and reflection. I don't think we know all the words yet that describe the effect on the other senses. I mean to say, we could accept the word "collage" in music. "Transparency'' becomes a little more difficult, and "reflection". "Collage", I think is the essence of work in the arts in the Twentieth Century. And for someone who is Neo-Romantic, collage is impossible. They simply don't accept it. They think you should carry one thing through to the end - like a stone wall!


I sometimes think that even that is an illusion, because if you are reading a so-called "linear novel", it is quite possible to jump about, and, as it were, make the text get out of line.

Yes. I'm able with my mesostics to put a source text in the computer, and then, following the rule of the mesostics, which is not to commence the second letter of a string until the second line, and so on, or not to permit either letter between two letters of a string, I'm able to analyse such a text with the computer, so that I have a list of all the words throughout the source that satisfy the mesostic rules, and then, through the use of chance operations, to write a text which comes first from here and then from there. And I find it very fascinating. I did it recently for a longish text from an interview with Jasper Johns about his way of making a painting. It goes on and on, and it interested me because though it comes from ideas, it produces other ideas. There comes a kind of fertilization of ideas.


Do you ever find the idea of working with a computer at all contradictory? The idea of "mechanized chance" seems a little paradoxical, doesn't it?

No, I like it very much!