Pataphysics Magazine Interview with John Cage
January 20, 1990
from the Blue issue
Pataphysics: In the late '50s in a series of interviews with Georges Charbonnier, Claude LÚvi-Strauss said that he had a feeling that music has always been much more 'avant-garde' than other forms of aesthetic expression. He continued by saying that the music composed at the time of the Impressionist movement was more adventurous musically than Impressionism was pictorially...
John Cage: Really? That's very curious. I have the feeling that visual arts are more advanced than music. It seemed that way to me; it seemed that music follows visual art. For instance, I was born in 1912 and it was then that Duchamp was using chance operations. When I saw him in Venice many years later in the late '50s I said, 'Isn't it strange Marcel, I'm doing now what you did when I was born.' He smiled and he said, 'I must have been 50 years ahead of my time.' His mathematics weren't perfect, but the idea was there. I think people admire music and think that it is abstract-perhaps that's what LÚvi-Strauss was referring to. But if you're involved in music, the ideas expressed it are frequently unadventurous, in the sense that chance operations were used in painting before they were used in composition. Work like that of Malevich is perhaps just now conceivable in terms of music-that extraordinary simplicity. It's conceivable today that someone might be-or is-doing something like Malevich. I think of La Monte Young.
P: Philip Glass?
JC: I think that music is, as everyone agrees, very popular, and it's because of its repetition. I like some of it very much but I don't think it's an advance. It's not just discovered, it's something that has been known for some time.
P: Do you feel that the distinctions that you drew in the late '50s between European and American music still apply today?
JC: For me not quite as much, at least they don't strike me now as they did earlier. What strikes me now is a correspondence between say the work of Walter Zimmermann, who is living in Cologne, and a recent composition of mine for two pianos, Two2, which I wrote last summer. When I heard Zimmermann's piece it gave me an experience similar to the one which I had when I heard my own music-a kind of placelessness. I didn't know where I was when I was listening to either his music or mine, and I had no sense of going anywhere. I did have a sense of movement, not thinking of it as you would in Philip Glass, as a staying, but of moving but not knowing where I was going. In the '50s I suggested there was a great division between music that talks, and music that acts or does-music which carries out a process, and which isn't talking but is doing. That still strikes me very much, and it's something that I'm still concerned with. The differences between Europe and America are sometimes very clear, but sometimes they're not, and sometimes they appear to be the same so that in spots, as it were, we're coming to one place and we don't know what that place is. For instance, I went to two concerts last night; I went to the rehearsal of one of them and the actual performance of the other. I enjoyed them both very much and they were both, of course, American. But it seems to me that there could have been, for instance, music by Walter Zimmermann or certain European musics, and I would have enjoyed them equally and almost in the same way-I might have. What I'm trying to say is that the times are changing and the distinctions between Europe and America are less immediately noticeable. And I hope that we get to be, all of us, in the same world, not that we all do the same thing, but that there's not one place but rather many places where we can enjoy the art, just as we do the nature in all the places.
P: Buckminster Fuller's vision is certainly becoming more of a reality, but today do you find anything problematic in this optimism in technology?
JC: I'm not sure technology changes things that much; it changes them if we are concerned with what the results are. But if we deal with the new technologies as closely as we have dealt with the old ones, then we will come to appearances that aren't superficial. What I hope won't happen is that we are quickly satisfied with technology itself. What is to be hoped for is an interaction of people with technology, rather than a quick acceptance of what technology does. There's so much button pushing now, and the results are so spectacular that there's a temptation, which I hope is avoided, of just taking what the technology gives and not doing anything with it.
P: Much of your earlier work developed through a disregard for the distinctions between art and life. Do you feel there has been progress made since first formulating those ideas?
JC: I think this is one of the familiar aspects of art, that it opens our eyes to things in what we call nature or environment that had escaped our notice. In paying attention to art your observation of nature changes. There's a strong action in both directions, between our experience of environment and our experience of making things, of doing things.
P: Given your position in regard to art and life, did you ever feel that your work was anachronistic?
JC: It's a curious and interesting question... I guess we get carried away and so does our work.
P: Carried away in the work?
JC: Right. Carried away in paying attention to it. As we get involved in the work, in art so to speak, then things could be happening in nature around you which would escape your notice, because your attention is being placed on your work-so then the difference is striking. At the same time the use of the work will be to carry you back to the absence of work and just to the environment. It's very curious. It's actually a question of the movement of attention, so that your attention is placed on the work that you're doing and then once the work is done your attention moves, without any trouble, to not working, in other words, environment. However, I don't think I would say the same things about what I'm doing now. I have the impression in my work that things that I was avoiding formerly, I now no longer avoid. One thing that remains of greatest importance to me is non-intention.
P: And structure?
JC: It needn't be structure, it can just be process. I think of a structure as something having parts and I think of a process as something not having parts. You could now have something not having parts that nevertheless begins and ends. The thing I think of as being something I used to avoid, and which I no longer do, is something like harmony. Now it seems to me that harmony happens no matter what we do. It's like melody; if you make a number of sounds you automatically have melody, and now if you have several sounds together they automatically produce harmony. Most of my life I thought that I had to find an alternative to harmony, but the harmony I was thinking about was the one that had been taught at school. Now I see that everything outside of school is also harmonious.
P: A wider definition of harmony?
JC: A changed definition of harmony; one that doesn't involve any rules or laws. You might call it an anarchic harmony. Just sounds being together.