PRINT February 1965

John Cage in Los Angeles

The following comments were made by the distinguished American composer, Mr. John Cage, at the time of his January 1965 visit to Los Angeles. The remarks are ad lib responses to questions from an audience at the Los Angeles County Museum, following a reading by Mr. Cage from his texts on Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, and Jasper Johns.

QUESTION: IN SPEAKING OF JASPER JOHNS’ WORKING METHOD, you spoke of the alternative of taking moves back, as in chess. But in chess you cannot take moves back.

Cage: Some people you play with, when they see that you have made a bad move, they say, “Take it back and try over again.” And there is a way of working, for instance of seeing that the whole thing you have got involved in is no good, and throwing it away. There are various ways to make things easier for oneself but what I was trying to indicate is that when Johns sees he is in a bad situation, he goes right along, no matter where. It is a high sense of responsibility, courage; it is all kinds of good qualities.

Question: At one point you said you saw three things Johns was doing (rest of question inaudible.)

Cage: That is what I said. I realize that in this John Cage kind of text one doesn’t make himself clear. What I said was this; that I noticed two things he was doing and three things or something like that escaped my notice. What I meant, and then I repeat later, is that he was not working on one painting at a time but was seriously engaged in about five different projects at the same time, and that struck my attention because I don’t work that way. If I am writing a piece of music I’m writing that one all the way through even if it takes me nine months. And so I’m finished with it. I don’t do something else while I’m doing that. My attention is focused on that, whereas Johns is a different character, different person I should say, who is able to give his full attention in a multiplicity of directions and I think something of this complexity enters into every single work of his—that is my point.

. . . Question: Did you do some editing of the texts for the reading tonight?

Cage: This evening?

Question: Yes.

Cage: Well, do you mean how did I write the texts?

Question: Yes.

Cage: The Rauschenberg text was written rather quickly, and followed a musical score of mine. It has been my habit for some years to write texts in a way analogous to the way that I write music. Say I have four subjects that I am willing to discuss. Then I take a sheet of paper with four shapes on it. Over that I place a circle which in the case of music refers to time and in the case of a text, such as these, refers to lines on a page. I have the lines, I have another sheet with points on it (these sheets are transparent) and as the points fall over the one that has shapes, some of the points are within the shape, some are outside. Now the circle with the numbers and other circles—another page not with points but with O’s (circles) also is laid over this complex, then a dotted line which is wiggly—(meandering) is laid over this so that it intersects at least one of the points which is within one of the shapes and intersects also the first circle. It will possibly, very more likely than not, intersect with other points which are either within or outside of this shape, and the circles. In the case of the Johns’ text if it intersects with the circles then I am obliged to tell a story. If it intersects with the points I am obliged to present an idea. If these points and circles are within the shapes, the stories and ideas are relevant to his work, if outside, relevant to his life. And all of that within the number of lines that is given by the intersection of the dotted lines with the first circle.

Now I searched and searched and searched for a way to write about Johns which would not only fulfill my musical obligation but would somehow suggest his work, or something that I felt about it. And one of the things I feel about it that I don’t feel about, say, Rauschenberg, or some other painters, is that the whole surface of the painting has been worked on. There is no emptiness in it. There is no place that something hasn’t been done. There are a few exceptions to that, but few. So I made a text, fulfilling this obligation that I mentioned that produces jobs like this. And then I filled in the gaps, so that I too would have filled up the time, whereas in the Rauschenberg one, and I tried to give some reflection of that by the spaces that I left in time. there were spaces between these various obligations that I had to write. To write the Johns text, the actual writing took me, I think, about three weeks, but the coming to how to write it, this way of writing, took me five months of constant application to this problem of writing about it, and I gave you this evening, all the moves that I made (Laughter.)

Interruption: But you can’t take back your moves.

Cage: I did take back my moves. I admit that what you say is finally true, but in terms of what I gave you this evening, all the moves that I made with respect to this problem of writing about Johns are not given to you. You see what I mean. I had several interesting ideas which I found I could not carry out. And it may be that I will one day carry them out. I don’t know that it is worth discussing. The Duchamp text was written in a simple way. You know the I Ching business of tossing three coins six times to get a number from one to sixty-four, and I got the number twenty-six which meant that I had only to write twenty-six statements. Then I tossed coins for each one of the statements to see how many words were to be used in each one. That is why there are sometimes single words, because I got the number one.

Question: Are your texts numbered?

Cage: No they are not numbered and I am not able to count them any longer because I used another process which was to connect them, so that some are connected and I don’t any longer know where they began.

(A question concerning Mr. Cage’s activity as a painter was asked.)

Cage: I will tell you the story. I went for two years to Pomona College where they didn’t teach me what I was going to do. And they make you think, if you have an inclination to make things, that you are going to be a writer. So that one tends to think of himself as a poet or an author. But he goes to school, and after two years at Pomona I decided to leave the whole thing and I went to Europe where I was impressed by architecture and decided to become an architect. Not to become an architect but to study Gothic architecture, but a teacher of mine said that I should have a more creative involvement. But an architect told me, “In order to be an architect you must devote your life to architecture,” and I still felt very possessive about my life and I didn’t feel like giving it away to architecture. And so then I came in contact with both modern music and with modern painting and I decided that if that was the way things were that I could do it as well as anybody else. And so I began composing and painting, and I continued doing both of these things for three years and that brought me back from Europe to Los Angeles, to Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica, and I came in contact with Richard Buhlig, the pianist (who is no longer living), and with the Arensbergs and with Galka Schier and the Arensbergs and Galka Schier didn’t give me as much encouragement about my painting as Buhlig and others gave me about my music. I had not yet studied music, so, at the suggestion of Henry Cowell, I prepared to study with Schoenberg and after studying with Cowell and with Adolph Weiss I presented myself to Schoenberg and he said, “Well you will probably not be able to afford my price for studying,” and I said, “Well, you don’t even need to mention it because I can’t pay you anything,” and he said, “Will you devote your life to music?” and I said “Yes.” And I stopped painting and I devoted my life to music. Now I wrote a great deal of music and gave concerts and what not and it looked for many years as though this music was not going to be published. In fact people always wanted more to hear about it than to hear it and so I took to writing lectures and articles and, if you please, those articles and lectures were published, or they contracted to publish them, before any of my music was published. But almost immediately all of the music was published too. Now some of that music, particularly around 1958, my “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” used graphic notations and those notations were exhibited in the Stable Gallery. So have I or haven’t I devoted my life to music?