Cage and Cunningham: radical questions

March 31, 1983: John Cage at 70 has a remarkably youthful, relatively unlined face. He keeps his hair dark (or perhaps it has always stayed that way): just a touch of grey at the temples. He has an engaging laugh. His brown eyes sparkle with the pleasure of whatever has struck him as funny (it’s usually an absurdity) and his mouth opens and this big, exultant grin happens.

We share a macrobiotic lunch, part of it from a wicker pannier of special food he brought from New York, part supplied by a nice lady from Banyen Books. (Susan is with me; we both express reluctance to take his food–“We should really get back ….” but he is firm. “There is no should,” he says.)

We talk about his forty-year collaboration with Merce Cunningham, their use of chance and their habit of creating music and dance independently, so that often the first people who experience the finished creation are the members of the audience. “The questions we ask are at the heart of the solution we find,” he says. “Therefore it’s important for us to ask radical questions.”

People were no doubt asking questions this weekend, when he gave the world premiere of his Fifth and Final Writing Through Finnegan’s Wake, a work he created by consulting the I Ching to decide which phrases, words, syllables and letters he should extract from the 17 chapters of Joyce’s text to create 17 much shorter chapters of his own.

Which he sang. For two hours. It was a text that made no sense, yet, as you let the lulling intonations wash over you, as you loosened your shoes and settled back, you’d find yourself floating away on the undulating rhythms, and then a swish of sibilants or a plop of labials or even a stray, meaningful word or two would bring you back to ground for a moment or two, secured by gossamer strands of meaning that would break as soon as you applied the slightest pressure, and off you’d float once more.

It was the oddest kind of experience—though it was plain, from the steady outflow at the door, that many people felt they had received sufficient benefits from it long before it was over.


April 8, 1983: Until he smiles, Merce Cunningham has the long, thin face of a leprechaun who has used up all his happiness. Deep lines; a big nose; a thin frizz of mousy hair. His voice is soft; his gentle seriousness is lightened by a puckish wit.

When I talked to Cunningham’s partner John Cage recently he mentioned how suspicious he is of dancers and the “disgusting” habit they have of drawing attention to themselves and their feelings. When I mention that comment to Cunningham (here for a quick lecture at the VECC) he admits that he agrees.

“The dancing that has always struck me the most,” he says, “is when I perceive the dance through the dancer, not the dancer himself. It goes right back to Fred Astaire. I don’t think of him as an ego. It was his dancing that was astonishing. Fonteyn and Ulanova were the same.”

Like Cage, he’s very different in person from what you might expect from his works. The intellectual thrust is there, of course, but also a gentleness, a capacity to care. He talks interestingly about the lack of emotional or expressive overtones in his work. He doesn’t like to ram messages into the hearts and minds of the people who come to see his dancing.

“When an audience has to use its faculties, then something good might emerge. But when they don’t have a chance to do anything themselves, somehow it’s not so good.”

He sees the use of chance much the way Cage does, as a way to free the ego from responsibility. “It makes you do things you might not think of, or like, and even if it doesn’t work it’s quite likely to send you off in other directions. It’s a way of enlarging your field.”

At the end of our lunch, John Cage gave us a copy of the poster for his Vancouver recital. He signed it, in his characteristic double-line style, with a pair of black, felt-tipped pens. We framed the poster and it hung in a hallway of our house for years, the ink of the signature slowly fading, as ink in those pens has a habit of doing. The signature disappeared completely from the poster the week Cage died. Pure chance, of course.

3 thoughts on “Cage and Cunningham: radical questions

    • Thanks for this note–re your post on conditions that affect/influence performance, are you familiar with the work of Canadian composer R Murray Schafer? Worth hunting down his site and creations, as well as his writings about “the tuning of the world.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am only a little familiar with him (I can think of a few choral graphic scores so it’s not much/pretty surface level knowledge) I’ll be sure to check out his stuff/music and his book has been on my list for a while actually! Thanks for the recommendation always happy to have more music/composers/artists to explore.


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