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“John Cage: An Interview,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. XX, No. 6, Jan-Feb 1990, p. 204-209.

John Cage has never let himself be restricted to one area. As musician, poet, essayist, mycologist, and printmaker, he has probed wherever an appropriate medium offered possibilities. A main concern has been removing personality—in his case, his personality, tastes, habits—from the compositional process. Instead of taste, he substituted chance and silence. By using the I Ching, the Chinese “book of changes” consulted for centuries for answers to questions, he provided an impersonal way of determining structure and subject matter. Introducing large sections of silence into his musical pieces caused listeners to focus on sounds extraneous to the musical notes of the piece. All these sounds were gradually becoming part of the music, at Cage’s design, and also along these lines, he helped us appreciate sounds that weren’t considered “musical” at one time, focusing on percussion (including percussion of found objects and “prepared” pianos) and electronics (in amplifying things like pens and cactuses, not synthesizers). In the late ’70s, Cage returned to one of his early interests, visual art, embarking on a series of prints, mostly done at Crown Point Press in California. A recent set includes smoke impressions, made by snuffing a fire on the press bed, and drawing around stones in aquatint. While he uses familiar chance operations in his printmaking, to determine position of places, colors, position of lines on plates, and position of stones, lately he has been allowing previously unheard of freedoms into his printmaking. He even talks of gesture. This interview took place at his loft in New York on October 2.


John Cage. Photo by Vivien Bittencourt.

John Cage  We’re living more and more in a place where one goes to any part of it. The lower Bronx is terrible. Quite frightening. Have you been there?

Vincent Katz  Just driven through.

JC  But if you have to go there, as I did, because I lost a billfold, and I received the information over the telephone, that if I came to such and such a place, I could get the billfold back…. It was stolen right here, when I was sitting here, and I hadn’t locked the door, and a hand reached in and took it. And then it was found by someone else in a vacant lot.

VK  In the Bronx?

JC  No, here. And then the person who found it lived in this place, and he gave it back to me because of the papers and the passport and so on. I got that—the money was all gone.

VK  I’d like to maybe talk a little bit about music and then some general things, and then we can talk about prints, specifically.


VK  Is it true that you don’t even own a record or tape player?

JC  I have a cassette machine.

VK  Because I read that you don’t —

JC  I don’t like to play them.

VK  — you don’t like to listen to records.

JC  It’s very hard for me. I receive many, many cassettes and requests to play them. And if I did that all the time, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. Or I’d have less time than I have now. So I save them mostly and then try to do it all in one fell swoop, you know, to play one thing after another. I play them generally a little bit, and if I’m interested in what I hear, then I keep playing it. Or, if I’m not, I go fast forward, and if it’s the same when I stop as it was before, then I don’t listen anymore.

VK  It goes in the “out” file.

JC  Right. And I don’t throw things away. I wouldn’t throw it away. But I send it to a university, where they’ll have more time to listen to it. I send the music to Northwestern University — I’ve also made a big collection of manuscripts.

VK  That people had given you?

JC  Yes, and I collected them for the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, hoping that if they were sold, they could benefit composers and performers of music, who are benefited mostly by the artists — Rauschenberg and Johns and so forth. And that’s how the foundation began. But the collection has not been sold.

John Cage, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, screenprint on eight panels on plexiglass mounted on walnut base (each panel 14 x 8 1/8 in.), 1969. Courtesy Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.

VK  I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what “considered improvisation” is.

JC  I’ve always had a — not always, because recently it’s changed — but I’ve not enjoyed improvisation. Because it seemed to me that the person improvising fell back on his tastes and memory and so didn’t make any kind of discovery or have any new experience, which interested me more than improvisation of that kind would. However, working with David Tudor, I became more and more interested in giving him freedoms, because he’s quite an astonishing musician. I no longer write for him, because he makes his own music, but when I was writing for him, I developed what is now called indeterminacy, where I didn’t specify everything precisely, and where he had freedoms of different kinds to make decisions. In Winter Music, I would write an aggregate on one staff rather than on two, and above the staff, using chance operations, I would put two numbers. Say there were ten notes. Then the two numbers might be 7 and 3. That would mean that seven of them would be in the clef sign that was above the staff and three of them would be in the clef sign that was below the staff, but any three or any seven. Do you see? So, many possibilities came about that way.

VK  So “considered improvisation” was a compositional technique at one point? That was the phrase you used in your piece Composition as Process. Maybe it was a minor point, but it kind of struck me as something interesting.

JC  Well, actually, recently I’ve made several improvisations and I call them … I don’t really call them anything. They begin, for instance, with a piece like Branches, which starts with any number of percussion instruments that are plant materials. Like, if you have a piece of cactus, and you connect it to a sound system, then each spine of the cactus, if you touch it, will give you a pitch. It’s like a plucked wooden sound, it’s very beautiful. Now we could consider the piece of cactus with all of its spines as one instrument, or we could find nine spines say on the one piece of cactus, and they would be nine separate instruments. Then the tenth one was to be a rattle, made from the pod of the Poinciana tree that grows in Mexico. Maybe you have it in Brazil too. The rattle is about so long, and it hands from the trees.

Vivien Bittencourt Can you eat it?

JC  Maybe it is edible, but it’s not a small rattle, and the pod itself is very strong. Some pods are very thin, but this is not. It’s a thick pod, and it makes a beautiful rattle. And I think that among Mexican musicians you’ll often hear it used as a rattle. And in the piece called Branches I always used the rattle at the end of each improvised section. Then with chance operations you could divide, you could make the time structure so to speak within eight minutes. You could find out what the kind of sections the piece had, or what kind of, you could say, structure, what kind of large parts. If the first part was four minutes, then the second part could be 4, 3, 2 or 1. If it was one, then there would be three left, and that could be 3, 2 or 1, and you’d find out through chance operations which it was. And say it was one again, you’d have so far 4-1-1. And then it could be 2 or 1. Say it was 2. So you’d have a piece four minutes, one minute, one minute, and two minutes. Then having four sections, 4-1-1-2, you would put the rattle in the last section, 2, and then you would ask the questions, which would be answered by chance operations, which instruments go into the first, which go into the second, which go into the third. Do you see? And then you would have the basis for an improvisation in which the instruments would chance from one section to another. And then you could improvise, and your improvisation would have what I call a structure to it. And might result in something that was free of your taste and memory, because you’d have that problem.

VK  So within that, say, four minutes that that one instrument was playing —

JC  There might be, say, three instruments there, through chance.

VK  And do they have other guidelines within that four-minute section?

JC  No, no.

VK  I see.

John Cage, Fire #3, monoprint, (20 x 11 inches), 1985. Courtesy Crown Point Press, San Francisco.

JC  Nowadays, I work actually in a similar way. I mean even when I don’t call it an improvisation. I write in what are called “time brackets,” and they’re flexible. So that if I give 0 seconds to 45 seconds as the beginning of the bracket and 30 seconds and 1 minute 15 seconds as the end of the bracket, then if I put five tones to be played, you can begin anywhere in that flexible opening and end anywhere in the flexible ending. So it could be done quickly, or it could be done slowly.

VK  What types of pieces have you been working on lately?

JC  They vary from symphony orchestra to piano solo, or percussion, some of them. Or 23 instruments.

VK  Do you ever listen to any rap music?

JC  I don’t know precisely what that is. I have very little experience of popular music.

VK  It’s an urban, basically black music, with a lot of talking. There’s not much harmonic development, but the rhythm is very interesting. It has a disjointed and cut-up feel, because they’ll take things and combine them very harshly. They use digital samplers to take a bit of music and loop it to form the basis of a new piece of music.

JC  So you would find it similar to live electronic music?

VK  Yeah. It has a similarity to things you did, and other people did, with tapes or using radios, in that outside sources enter the music intact.

JC  I see.

VK  Another thing that interested me in that same pieces, Composition as Process, and you’ve talked about it elsewhere, is that one of your main concerns was to be purposeless, or to have this purposelessness in your work.

JC  But it’s also called purposeful purposelessness.

VK  Right! OK. It’s a planned way of removing purpose or choice from your work. And then another thing you were interested in was making people aware of sounds, by leaving  spaces in your music, and you talked about how the composer, or musicians, or even listeners, I guess, at that point had to deal with sounds. There was no more just discrete Western notes. But then there’s a sense in which everything is equivalent, all sounds. So I was wondering, if you take a composer like Schoenberg and then a musical, say, like Mary Poppins, I mean they’re obviously very different, but can you really distinguish between them in any way, or between them and a sound, like the cars? Or is that irrelevant? You don’t think about that.

JC  I don’t have any trouble with the traffic sounds. When I have any trouble, it’s with music. If, for instance, I’m on the jury of a music competition, and I have to listen to a thousand pieces of music — and I was on such a jury — then I have a lot of trouble. Particularly because I don’t like records. But there’s another thing I don’t like, and it doesn’t sound as though the rap people you mentioned are doing it, but there’s a kind of music that seems to be talking, and there’s a kind of music that doesn’t seem to be talking, but seems to be doing. And I get along better with the doing music than I do with the talking music.

VK  I know what you mean.

JC If I were given a prize, I would give it to the doer rather than the talker. Probably wouldn’t give it to Schoenberg! Whom I worshipped when I was studying with him. But his music is so involved with climaxes and going away from them, and that Is largely what I mean by talking. Whereas what you said about rap music sounds more like doing.

VK  Yeah. Talk is used, but it’s not talking in the sense of explaining.

JC  Saying something.

VK  The piece that you wrote in 1937, The Future of Music, was so insightful as to how sounds were going to become so important and electronics and percussion and non-western music to western people, and everything you said came true many years later, so I was wondering what is the future of music now? Do you have any thoughts on that?

JC  I’ve written down a kind of statement on that. The reason I want to read from this is that I had more time to consider it than I would if I just answered your question… “We are living in a time in which many people have changed their minds about what the use of music is or could be. Something that doesn’t speak or talk like a human being, that doesn’t know its definition in the dictionary nor its theory in the schools but expresses itself simply by the fact of its vibrations.” That comes very close to your “Do you distinguish between this and that? … “People paying attention to vibratory activity, not in relation to a fixed ideal performance.” That was so much the concern of music critics — which one was the best performance of Beethoven. We’re not interested in that kind of thing any longer, I think. “But each time attentively to how it happens to be this time.” Don’t you think?

VK  Yeah.

JC  “Not necessarily two times the same. A music that transports the listener to the moment where he is.”

VK  A lot of your scores are so visual. And obviously one has a relationship to them that is not simply a case of reading and finding the right answer, as in a more traditional score. So it’s a different type of process when you’re reading one of these non-traditional scores or trying to play one of these pieces. And I was wondering if you think of them as artworks in any sense, visual artworks, or do you think of them as purely notations for a performance?

JC  Well, the one which best answers to what you’re talking about is the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and that was written for David Tudor, and it was exhibited in the Stable Gallery as art. And pages of it were sold. And I had to copy those pages that were sold, in order to maintain its existence as a piece of music. At the time I was very poor, so that I was both glad to have that work, you know, to sell them, and then to have to rewrite it at the time. And now there’s a show of the work of Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham and me, and I suggested that, rather than exhibit many single pages from separate works, they exhibit that book again, which had been exhibited in the Stable Gallery, and that’s what’s happening.

VK  Where’s that?

JC  It’ll be in London, at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery. So as I was writing it, I was simply following the use of chance operations, and I had set myself the problem of finding out where, through asking questions, where the notation would be put, how much space it had and so forth. I forget now the details of the answers, but I got actually amounts of space, within which to write and to have the ledger lines and so forth. And I started with two ideas, one was Music for Piano and one was Winter Music. And I then asked the questions whether the music was to be just like the Music for Piano or Winter Music or was it to be a variation of that or was it to be a new idea, a third idea. And in this way I developed 84 kinds of notation, not all of them different because some of them are repetitions, and I did the same kind of composing with the Songbooks later on. In other words, I developed a way to spur my inventiveness with regard to notation. Now, at the time, my notion of notation was that space was equal to time, but in this situation, asking questions and so forth, and making a page which had several superimposed different kinds of notation, I obviously contradict that space = time. Since I don’t think you could play the whole page in time. Because the nature of time changes with each one of the block.

VK  Yeah, that could be difficult.

JCL So it was almost immediately apparent, not to me but to artists, that this work resembled, could be looked at as, a work of art. Whereas I was writing it, as I’ve explained, as a piece of music. But it’s at a point where the things get to be one or the other, perhaps. And this came about, apart from me it seems, in the fact of magnetic tape—having sound and being physical, being able to be cut. So that what belonged to painting became something that belongs to music.

VK  So when did you start making prints per se?

JC  Before the time that Kathan Brown invited me to the Crown Point Press. Alice Weston—though maybe she wasn’t the first. There was a magazine that wanted to have something in memory of Marcel Duchamp when he died. So first I made a page involving letraset for the magazine. I don’t know what that was exactly—I haven’t seen it for a long time. And then I made the plexigrams for Carl Solway Gallery and two lithographs with the help of Calvin Sumsion. I was at the University of Illinois, and he was in the art department there.

VK  When was that?

JC  In the late ’60s. I made them at the Hollanders Workshop in New York. I would use chance operations, and I would get all the materials and what was to be done with them, and I would send the work to Calvin for him to do the handwork. Cause I’d get things like this—a capital A and three quarters of it should be missing, not in one fell swoop but with a certain number of cuts. And then he would do the work and send it back.

VK  And then you would leave it up to Calvin as to which part of the A would get cut, for example?

JC  Yeah, uh-huh, but I would do it as though it were a musical composition and would give him directions as to what to do.

VK  There were examples I saw of layout you did for somebody, some design for printing? Was that just a job?

JC  Yes. I needed money. So I was what was called art director for Jack Leonor Larson, the fabric designer.

VK  Those are nice. They’re pretty graphic also.

JC  He wanted me to develop a logo. And I didn’t want to. I wanted to have problems, new problems each time. So we didn’t see eye to eye.

VK  You didn’t last long at that job. So when did you start working with Crown Point? Was that the next thing you did after the lithographs you were talking about, in the late ’70s?

JC  Yes.

VK  Have you worked with any other printers or publishers?

JC  I’ve made watercolors with the help of Ray Kass. He teaches at VPI, which is Virginia Polytechnic Institute. And I made prints in Pennsylvania, and the printer made this print you see here. Is this a print, do you think, or a drawing? He’s invited one artist every year, or sometimes more than one a year, Laurie Anderson, for instance — anyone who strikes his attention. I made prints with him. Kermit Oswald was the printer. What we did was to drop strings that were inked in different colors and make monoprints. But most of the prints have been at Crown Point Press. And this is a catalogue I designed, a program for the operas, when they were done in Frankfurt, using chance operations, so that these images were positioned and the size of each was chosen by chance, and which pages were left blank. That’s a page of music.

VK  It’s tiny. One thing that I was interested in was we were talking about purposeful purposelessness before, and I remember reading in one of the early writings you compared what you were trying to do in some of your pieces — that is, leave emptiness that would get filled by outside objects, sounds — to mobiles, for example, by Calder, that allowed things to be seen through the artwork. I was wondering how you see your work in prints in relation to that. I know that a lot of it is determined by chance, so is that the element that would correspond? I mean, is there any way that, as when we hear a piece of yours we become aware of other sounds, is there any way that maybe by seeing the prints we become aware of other things, maybe random markings that could be interesting that we wouldn’t look at ordinarily or something like that?

JC  That happens I think in the plexigrams, and I think when you deal with reflections and transparencies and so forth — that’s of course the world that we’re living in, and it gives us such thoughts, because it gives us those experiences. But paper is, it seems to me, different. And that may account for the fact that I’ve moved toward each print being not in edition but in being unique. More monotypes. And the Changes and Disappearances is perhaps the most impractical extreme that I’ve gone to in complexity and difference and away from edition. But we did there take the precaution of keeping one set extant, and it exists now in a museum in Japan. I think that’s all that I can say about that. That as we work, we work so to speak blindly, putting one image over another one onto the paper — we work in the spirit of reflections and transparencies — but once it is printed it’s printed.

VK  Maybe also when you do the kind of “reflection” of the fire, and you get that on the paper, that adds something.

JC  But again, it’s the same thing. More like a photograph, don’t you think? I mean, it’s an instant. It isn’t the actual experience.

VK  Right, but it’s also not an image of it, it’s somehow an impression of it.

JC  Yes, it’s the real thing.

VK  So that makes one aware of something outside of it, at least, outside the picture plane. You mentioned in your Crown Point Press catalogue from 1982 that in On the Surface you were responding to work by Tobey, and I was wondering if there were any other influence or at least correspondences that maybe you could see after you do something. A lot of your prints seem to have an Oriental feel in the mutedness and earth colors of some of them, and also in the calligraphic aspect that they have and the delicacy. I was wondering if you see a correspondence to any Japanese art, say, or not?

JC  Well, I like this particular Tobey very much that I showed you, and there’s a beautiful Rauschenberg nearby. You can look at that. I hesitate to find a correspondence with art in general or Japanese art, because I’m not that practiced. I mean, I don’t have the right. Isn’t that Rauschenberg beautiful? It’s an early one of Bob’s.

VK  It’s so delicate.

JC  I was very excited near the beginning of my work at Crown Point Press when I did the group called Signals, which are so simple. Some of them have the possibility of having nothing in them. this was one of them. And I like that very much. And when we had all of them in front of us, there were two that had nothing in them, and this was one of them, and I took this, and Kathan took the other one. So we both liked the. This year when I was working there, Lilah Toland, who was the printer for this, was pointing out that in my recent work at Crown Point this doesn’t exist as a possibility. There would always be something. So that makes it clear that my next step I must somehow incorporate into these smoked ones the possibility of nothing.

VK  Right! Smokeless fire!

JC  Have you seen the prints I’ve just done? We could open this up. They must be in here.

VK  Is it two prints that go together?

John Cage in his loft. Photo by Vivien Bittencourt.

JC  Right, right. The 64 was divided into 1-32, which is the lower plate, and 33-64 below, and this other print is the reverse. It has the same tones that I used in the previous, smaller prints. But with the addition of these big ones that come from the Rocky Mountains. I was in telluride for two weeks. The stones are a mixture. They’re from different places. You see, I have lots of stones. What happened was there are five impressions in this one print, and this other one would have been the sixth on top of the others, but it was reversed from the other five. So we decided to stop at five and leave the sixth one separate — so that’s a question of taste. If this were the sixth one, it would have meant that these two plates changed position, through the chance operations. And I thought that maybe that would be something to try. So we tried it. But I found the result was confusing. Whereas I find this complex but not confusing. Here’s another thing that happened that’s interesting. This was to have 15 stones that I drew around, and the reason it was to have 15 is that there are 15 stones in the garden at Kyoto, the Ryoanji. And there are only 14 here, so the title is The Missing Stone — the other is called 75 Stones.

VK  These are aquatint?

JC  It’s a mixture of aquatint and spitbite. I’m very devoted, of course, to involvement in nothing and purposelessness and so forth, and I’m involved also in not really liking or disliking, but then I like it — I’m a pushover, so to speak. I think that’s one of the exciting things about graphic work, that you can see it. With the music, you write it, and then there’s nothing to see until it’s played.

VK  How do you find working with other people? I guess that’s also part of chance. In a sense, printing is like a performance of a piece — it’s up to them how it comes out. And I was wondering how you find, given that you use chance operations both in your print-making and in your compositions, what differences you find, and how that affects how you work.

JC  There are all kinds of things that happen if you move from music to graphic work. For instance, I think, I mean I could be wrong, but this is the point of my experience at the moment, that in graphic work the horizontal has the kind of importance that in music, in the notation of music, the vertical has. Because music is in time, and graphic work is in the world that we live, which has a horizon. That’s how my thinking goes. It may be foolish thinking.

VK  So then the horizontal of the picture would correspond to the temporal progression of music and provide different harmonies.

JC  In all these, the rocks are given positions, but I think that the next time I go to Crown Point they won’t be given positions. They’ll be given positions according to 360 degrees, and that would be useful. But you see this stone and that green one are the same stone, and I gave them that position. Whereas if I liberate them from that, then they’ll turn. In 360 degrees. And they would move, hopefully, toward disappearing, you see. And further things would happen in the composition, in which they wouldn’t just stay partly on the paper but would leave. Or the times the acids and so forth would be too short. One second is enough. I have to do some more thinking about what I’ll do next.

VK  So in your visual art there’s a parallel to a concept like “considered improvisation” since you’re giving yourself a structure imposed by chance — this stone is determined by chance operations to go here — and then you make your mark around it. Do you have any ideas on what you’ll do next?

JC  I’ll keep working with the rocks and with the aquatints.

VK  And the flame also?

JC  Yes.

VK  Are these monotypes or editions?

JC  Editions. But these smoke will be different on each one, you see.

VK  Do you find any correspondence in these prints to work of Oriental calligraphists who paint as a kind of meditation, where they try not to think while they’re working and don’t take the brush from the paper and so on?

JC  And they do one thing over and over. Where they can’t see the paper. Because they’re trying to do gesture.

VK  Do you have any feeling like that when you’re making these prints?

JC  The reason I don’t is that gesture is something that is just new to me. My attitude to gesture is now changing. Just as my attitude toward harmony is changing and improvisation. All those things are, well they’re different, but they’re things that are changing. For me.

VK  So you’re allowing them back into your work?

JC  Very much.

VK  That will be interesting to hear. And to see.

JC  On the other hand, this is a very circumscribed gesture, because it has the support of the stone.