50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
John Cage was much taken with silence. And noise, too. According to Gann, he was able to mix the two with no effort. His apartment once had a malfunctioning fire alarm "that beeped all night." No one slept but Cage.
I remained in bed, listened carefully to its pattern, and worked it into my thoughts and dreams; and I slept very well.
He told Gann that a baby crying in a concert hall --- especially during a concert of modern music --- was there to be enjoyed.
It reminds us of Joseph Goldstein's story, about studying in India. Some workmen were making considerable noise with their hammerings and yelling right next to his meditation space. When he went to complain, his master asked him, "Did you note it?" Of course, how could I miss it, he thought. The question was repeated: "But did you note it?"
For fans of Cage, this book is all she wrote of note. Also, because it is by Cage, much of it makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, there is still a fair distance between Silence and Dada. Dada is a babble; Cage's presentations seem to be a babble with purpose ... so much so that it often irritated his audiences. A recent article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker tells us that "Sometimes I thought that if I heard Cage or one of his followers banging a stick on a stick or blasting static on a sound system one more time I would run screaming from the theatre..." And earlier on, one of the parts of Cage's Lecture on Nothing was "the repetition, some fourteen times, of a page in which the refrain, If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep." Cage reports that
Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way though, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." She then walked out.
Anyone who has studied the techniques of Milton Erickson knows that a sentence, with the word "relax" or "sleep," repeated enough times, will put people in a trance (or to sleep). Or, alternatively, out the door.
§ § §
Many years ago, Folkways issued Cage's Indeterminacy --- a two-disc record being a series of koans, all delivered by Cage, each one lasting a minute. If the story was short, he would slow down the telling so that it fit exactly into a sixty-second track. If it was, long, he speeded up his delivery, racing through it.
This one would be rather slow:
George Mantor had an iris garden, which he improved each year by throwing out the commoner varieties. One day his attention was called to another very fine iris garden. Jealously he made some inquiries. The garden, it turned out, belonged to the man who collected his garbage.
This one runs about the same:
An Indian woman who lived in the islands was required to come to Juneau to testify in a trial. After she had solemnly sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she was asked whether she had been subpoenaed. She said, "Yes. Once on the boat coming over, and once in the hotel here in Juneau."Cage had a melodious voice, and appeared to be unflappable. He also had a slow and infectious laugh. I once interviewed him on KRAB radio, in 1968, in Seattle. I asked him the usual dunce-like question about 4'33" --- his concert piece where the musician sits silently before the keyboard of a piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suggested that it wasn't much in the way of art, but rather a good joke. He got a fine belly laugh out of that one (as did I).
In all, Cage comes off as a sweet, soothing, absurdly funny person. That his presentations goad people to outbursts of rage says less about him and more about them, I suppose.
§ § §
Silence is infinitely quotable, mostly because of the koans. All are a bit floaty, so Cage sticks in names and places and details that leave one befuddled, but you have all the facts you need to befuddle you somewhat less. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains."
After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What's the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."
There's a lot of music stuff going here which doesn't interest me very much, because when I am listening, for example, to a good performance of a Bach cantata, or to Schubert's Winterreise, words of explanation are furtherest from my mind.
It's not that they have no place, or that criticism isn't important ... but it becomes as attention-grabbing as the baby crying during Stockhausen's Pierrot lunaire or an errant fire-alarm in the bedroom. It depends on the person involved.
Cage doesn't seem to have much use for the Romantics, but in his Lecture on Nothing, he does relate that "Somebody asked Debussy how he wrote music, and the composer said: I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don't want, and use all the others." If you read this mot on page 118 of Silence, you will find that the spacing is a bit zany. When Cage wasn't driving people bonkers by repeating the same line over and over, or playing fourteen radios at once, or trying to put people --- or himself --- to sleep, he would attack a few pages of his writings with spaces, breaking up sentences and paragraphs into random hunks. In this one, you'll find four vertical lines --- blocks of words and em and en spaces, all of which have to be a typesetter's nightmare. I couldn't figure out how to reproduce them here even if I tried, so I didn't. He would have wanted it that way.
John Cage and I grew up on Cracker Jacks: we knew that there was always a prize at the bottom of the box after you got through the glazed popcorn. Prizes in Silence include charming thoughts on mushroom and wild plant collecting ... including an account of the time he almost killed himself and several friends. He made a mistake on the identity of skunk cabbage, cooked it and served it up to some buddies. "I was removed to the Spring Valley hospital. There during the night I was kept supplied with adrenaline and I was thoroughly cleaned out. In the morning I felt like a million dollars."
There are also charming stories of people who passed though his life: D. T. Suzuki, Harry Partch, David Tudor, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henry Jacobs, and the artist Morris Graves who attended one of his percussion concerts and created "such a disturbance that he was thrown out."
Cage can't speak about his friends without sticking in yet another koan. This on Morton Feldman: "We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He's a large man and falls asleep easily."
Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.
I was smitten by Cage before I met him for interview because he carried such a strange admixture of common sense and plain old madness, neither of which seemed to bother him (like almost killing himself and his friends one night, and, the next day, feeling "like a million dollars.")
I was even more entranced by Cage after meeting him and experiencing his good-humored response to my rather testy questions. After his visit to KRAB we started using selections from the recording of Indeterminacy as fillers between programs. If we had an extra minute, we'd play one. If seven, seven. Or at times, in homage to him, we would turn off the machines entirely and listen to the sound of our transmitter beating out silence for awhile.
One of my favorite koans, repeated here, was "When asked why, God being good, there was evil in the world, Sri Ramakrishna said: To thicken the plot." I swear to you that when I heard the koan on Indeterminacy so long ago the final line came out "To thicken the broth."
I can assure you it would make no difference to Cage. I've always liked food, and think about it a lot, though I am not all that smitten with edible wild plants. Perhaps that's why I heard it as "the broth" and not "the plot."--- L. W. Milam