Collection of articles for John Cage's death
In this page are gathered some articles written after the death of John Cage, New York, August 12, 1992. These articles were taken from the online archives of newspapers La Stampa, Corriere della Sera and la Repubblica.
- Corriere della Sera, Friday, August 14 1992, by Marco Pasi
- La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992, by Sylvano Bussotti
- La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992, by Luciano Berio
- La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992, by Paolo Passarini
- La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992, by Giorgio Pestelli
- Corriere della Sera, Tuesday, August 18 1992, by Fernanda Pivano
- la Repubblica, Tuesday, August 18 1992, by Michelangelo Zurletti
- la Repubblica, Tuesday, August 18 1992, by Landa Ketoff
Cage, the astronaut of sounds
(by Mario Pasi, Corriere della Sera, Friday, August 14 1992)
(subtitle: he wanted to marry music with spirit and nature)
American composer John Cage died two days ago at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan after an heart attack. He was born in Los Angeles 79 years ago. It was a long and hard-working life for the American composer, who more than any other in his country was able to transmit to the young generations the pleasure of research, experimentation and the will to go beyond the borders.
He had just been in Perugia this summer to fulfill his duty and to receive the loving homage of the Italian artists. We had known for a long time that he had heart issues, but he did not refrain himself from coming; he managed to conciliate the work of the musician with an happy relationship with nature and the purest side of humanity: children. And, as if walking on the old trails of the pioneers, he had plunged into the fragrance of forests and earth fostering (scientifically, he used to say) his passion for mushrooms. Therefore he possessed a sort of from the good o' days rural attitude, and he would often appease with a smile his traits dried by the passing of time.
This intellectual in love with technology, with novelties, with the most diverse and complex ideas, seemed to return every now and then to a religious simplicity. He loved to leave his music to children as a game, so that they could live it from the inside and not feel it as something difficult. He organized some kind of ceremony or party with the pupils during a recent Settembre musica in Turin and children of all ages participated at the invitation with pleasure.
Many things could be said about Cage: he was an eccentric, a pioneer, an inventor, a discoverer of distant worlds, an astronaut of sounds. He was able to continuously present new gimmicks and surprises; he could fly with his spirit to Europe and Asia, he could touch Zen and the most sophisticated art, but his main characteristic remained the American spirituality. He embodied an unbreakable Yankee quality consisted of trust and optimism, filled perhaps with a naive philosophy for goodness. He solved the questions of art convinced to be right and he felt to do always something useful for the whole world. The frontier spirit, so deepened into the spirit of Americans, pushed Cage to go beyond the recognized laws and utilize different, new and modified means of expressions.
Before him and perfectly alone, Charles Ives tried to open new ways for music overcoming the old tonal order and starting all kinds of adventures. Ives, who only late in his life, in the 40's, after he made his fortune with the insurance business, saw his musical talent recognized, hoped that the borders of music would be those of the universe. Cage posed his renovating anxiety instead on the most advanced and least traditional artistic practices, interpreting the history of his country with an heroic sense of modernity and shunning every rhetoric through a mental order, mathematical and free at the same time. In spite of his strong mystic character, he was an engineer of sounds, a constructor of images on the verge of abstraction.
Together with friends and performers motivated by the same innovative spirit, John Cage worked personally in the field of music and was the protagonist of historical concerts. It was indeed American also his way of playing the part of the genius who was able to discover the utility of electronics, to create the prepared piano, to use magnetic tapes and the sounds of everyday life now – he believed – elevated to artistic dignity. It was also a way to perform shows that would be often imitated; shows which must be commended for having liberated fantasy within diversity, as he was persuaded by the urge to constantly invent something.
Cage, inspired by his father, early took on the love of adventure: in 1938 he founded a percussion orchestra and in the following years, he experimented the new means offered him by the most advanced technology then. It was a musical workshop in every sense, always nurtured with renovating purposes, a personal mark that had profound meanings and that was available to anyone who was in need of it. In the realm of contemporary music, aside and frequently in tune with the Dodecaphonists, Cage built his own imaginary space with scientific rigor.
There is no contradiction in this way of thinking if imagination supports a scrupulous writing work and if the artist could flee to those philosophical and religious spheres which annihilate the encumbrances of life at the right times. In a omni-comprehensive dimension – union between music, arts and biography – Cage contributed to the development of American modern dance in a significant way. The partnership and the common work with Merce Cunningham, the strictest and most faithful scholar of Martha Graham, and the collaboration with Rauschenberg gave birth to some groundbreaking ballets, where music blended with Pop Art and with an absolutely flawless choreographic style. Music and dance became light and spirit, meditation and physicality.
Cage the laborer composed a remarkable amount of music and he set examples that challenged the common sense. Among his works, 0' 00'', Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, Construction in metal, Imaginary Landscape n.1 must be remembered. These are moments within an artist trajectory drawn with determination, a tip of fun and a serene will of escaping.
Cage the man could recently look like a shaman, a minister of some sort of magic rite, or like a gentleman ready to be sanctified. He loved to tell of long rambles in the woods, discovering plants, insects and naturally those mushroom he was such an expert of. He dreamed of a clean America, without hate and poverty; he hoped for a better world, with no wars and filled with brotherhood. Perhaps art could have been a good medicine for the pains of our planet and music a great solace. Maybe he was unconsciously getting close to an idealist of our century, dancer Isadora Duncan, who thought that teaching dance to the children of the revolutionary Soviet workers could have increased their happiness.
He introduced himself like a normal person, usually wearing jeans and often with a slouch hat over his head, peacefully saying simple things; then, he would suddenly extract from his brain musical plans and magical tricks. He loved Italy very much. Our way of singing and being lively. And he loved us because our country is continuously producing talented musicians, willing to run with him towards mirages of unexplored lands, vast landscapes beyond mountains and rivers. In the end, it was his California.
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John Cage. Music and grimaces
(by Sylvano Bussotti, La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992)
(John Cage, prophet of musical avantgarde, died on Wednesday night at the St. Vincent Hospital in Manhattan. He was 79. Sylvano Bussotti, long time friend and a pupil of his, remembers him for La Stampa)
It is said that is inappropriate to expose our own sorrow. So please forgive me, you the reader, if I confess that overwhelming cry which bursts out when a Father dies. The damned vile race of the professional musicians surely will not shed a tear. And please forgive me Rigoletto too. Because I have to admit something even worse: when I first listened to his works, I could not stop the same loud laughter that was on everybody's face.
The music of the Twentieth Century had his own clown in America; this was the satisfied and unanimous opinion reassuring our magnificent West. It was easy to adhere to his simple Zen philosophy, to surrender to the fascination of his perennial smile, to relish mushrooms with him. As long as he was kept away from Music. He gave conferences on nothingness and he could obey to the hands of the clock, so inexorable when they scan Time, with impassible exactness.
I see how I cannot even contain in this poor text the excess of Time, Music, Father. I would like to find relief in the smile that, still with wet eyes, can stare at reality.
In Italy he was not celebrated at La Scala, but prosaically by Mike Bongiorno on television. That's how he became famous here: by winning the modest millions of the quiz show Lascia o raddoppia?, earned at the last instant after listing a myriad of Latin names of the rarest mushrooms species, whether poisonous or not. He was so tolerant and kind that he really risked to fail because, as he realized that it was difficult for the experts in the jury to keep track and check in their lists those mysterious definitions, he would then patiently wait for them. Once, he let the hands of the clock go on without paying attention and finished together with the sound of the timeout gong.
The day after I guided him into the interminable corridors of a train packed with people, who immediately recognized and complimented him. John, so happy amidst such a juvenile crowd – should I say it? – literally touched everyone, men and women, plunging his 'living' hands in that sea of bodies jammed together and I had to protect him from some sudden reactions which could have ended badly. A real scandal.
Scandal? An uppercase that I was still missing. The slap this immense artist delivered on the withering cheek of the musical universe resonates, throughout the millennium whose finale is about to come, like the most peremptory cadence.
He lived a love relationship with Merce Cunningham, dancer and choreographer, who with his own Company and pianists David Tudor and John Cage sketched on the stages throughout the world the concrete steps of style and chance. While the boldness that looks at music as it is vanishes with him, my orbits become empty.
But if we must mention at least one masterpiece – emotion does not restrain me from doing it – testifying the supreme genius, I would think of Altas Eclipticalis, his score directly descended from the stars and landed on the incommensurable traces of space. Constellations capable to find the echo for any sonorous expression: from the most miserable whistle of a pressure cooker, to the pure and ineffable sound of a boy soprano.
A model drawn on pentagrams inaccessible to the most, John Cage leaves a legacy of an Art of Life to the artists only. No one could express so much. No one will anymore.
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The smiles of the hero
(by Luciano Berio, La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992)
The news of John Cage's death strikes me deeply because I thought of him as untouchable, like the noise of the wind, of the airplanes, of the sea, of traffic, of the birds; because I have always loved and admired him and because we are tied by a huge, almost suffocating, quantity of memories, big and small, public and private. Along with John Cage dies a saint, a juggler, a hero, an inventor and a humorist. In other words, one of the greatest men of this century dies; one who could combine and sublimate with rigor and purity the signs and imprints of such diverse paths. Smiling.
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Scandalous Cage, juggler of sound
(by Paolo Passarini, La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992)
(subtitle: disciple of Schoenberg, master of Stockhausen: the last great provocateur of the Twentieth Century passes away; he threw nails between the strings of the piano)
Until my death there will be sounds and they will continue after. John Cage, who died on Wednesday night at 79 in an hospital in Manhattan due to a heart attack, was not afraid of silence because, very simply, he believed it didn't exist. One of his most famous and scandalous compositions, 4'33'', is made of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, which for him was 'non-silence', since some noise or sound in the background would always be present. Inside the score – ironically divided into three movements – Cage pointed out that the piece
could be played by anyone and anywhere. Challenged by his quicksilver personality, the American press warmly saluted the 'thinker of music', the 'philosopher of sound', nay, 'of sounds'.
Musician of course, composer too, but also writer, poet, painter and many other things. Cage was above all, as his master Arnold Schoenberg defined him,
an inventor of genius. His provocations possessed the impact of an atomic bomb, as he stared entertained and stupefied because, like all the great provocateurs, he was kind, mild and shy. Schoenberg's definition was very much appreciated by Cage, who loved to recall that his father, an inventor, transmitted to him what later would become his inspiring principle:
He taught me that when people say 'we can't', well in that moment they tell you what you need to do.
John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles on September 5, 1912. At twelve he was already exhibiting on a boy-scout radio program, though he wasn't a precocious talent like Mozart. In the book A Year from Monday he confessed that he wasn't
able to remember a melody and to have no feeling for harmony. He surely possessed instead the instinct for avantgarde, intended as a full profession. In the 30's Cage moved to Paris where he got in touch the Dadaists and became friend with Marcel Duchamp, with whom he engaged in interminable and unlucky chess matches.
He plays very well – Duchamp said –
but his problem is that he doesn't want to win. Chess remained one of Cage's greatest passions, besides art. The other one were mushrooms of which it seems Cage was a worldwide authority.
Once back in California, Cage worked as a cook first and as a gardener after. Plants were another great love of his. The apartment in Chelsea, a quarter in New York, where he lived in his last years, seemed a tidy tropical forest and he proudly used to say:
I have more than 200 plants. He would naturally 'listen' to them and his work Child of Tree constituted in the enormously amplified sounds of plants to which sensitive microphones had been applied. Cage gently asked to whom used to visit him:
Do you hear this music? He was referring to the sirens, the beeps, the squeak of brakes, the hoots and the clangor soaring from the snarling American Avenue below.
In 1945 he divorced from his wife Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff and since then he had always lived with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who sadly survived him in the flat in Chelsea. Cage wrote for Cunningham's dances a great amount of music – his 'music' – often made with bells for cows or sleighs, slabs of steel beaten, frequency oscillators, tuned radios or pianos 'prepared' with screws, shreds of paper and other stuff shoved among the strings of the instrument. Perhaps, he was the only composer contested by the orchestra at the end of a performance, but he influenced artists such as painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Schoenberg, who considered him his most talented pupil, always found an excuse not to attend his 'concerts'.
He was a great teacher – Cage remembered –
If you followed the rules, he would invite you to break them. If you broke them, he would rebuke: ' Don't you know the rules?' . Of course, he always told the latter to Cage.
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The minister of silence
(by Giorgio Pestelli, La Stampa, Friday, August 14 1992)
(subtitle: he was worthier than his music)
In spite of all his efforts to make scandal, John Cage passed away quietly, after some years of silence and rare appearances in which his provoking attitude had retreated behind.
How many people recall his winning participation at Mike Bongiorno's quiz show Lascia o raddoppia? as a mycologist? As a musician, he had already appeared in front of a small audience at the American Academy in Rome, but no one linked him to the formidable mushroom expert on tv; that episode however, was an inkling about his personality: imaginative, heterogeneous, actor, exhibitionist and fond of useless and patient games.
Cage's big time was in the 50's, when composition determined by serial or meta-serial principles, pushed to its extremes by a total rational control, opened itself enthusiastically to the refusal of the idea of language Cage pointed at: the worshiping of chance, games; open experience opposed to finite and precise objects. Moreover, there was a small pinch of East, the well-known Siren that periodically fascinates the West each time its historical structure and its moral beliefs become an unsustainable burden: the invitation to dispersion, the amorphous infinite, the monotonous exhalation, the ritual and mellifluous sonorities. Cage was then the 'password' of who felt the cultural need, in the musical field also, to 'march in line with the times'; pronouncing his name became a sort of wink meaning:
We are the among good ones, those who know.
His most blatant gimmick was the 'prepared piano', that is the insertion between its strings of pieces of wood, screws, nails, erasers and other objects which endowed the glorious instrument of Chopin and Brahms with the mellow sound of the Javanese gamelan (already envisioned by Debussy by the way). However, Cage's most famous works are easier to describe as public events, rather than sonorous facts: performers that fumble inside the piano and press some keys after prolonged silent intervals, or that stand up and switch on a radio, scratch some balloons hovering in the air, walk through the entire stage to shatter a stack of dishes.
Such performances allowed many people to say that Cage did not know music, beginning from Schoenberg, his 'unexpected' master in Los Angeles; nevertheless, a careful listen to the pieces composed in the 40's, particularly the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-48), suggests instead a deep knowledge of the combinatorial techniques of traditional harmony. But Cage wanted to free himself from the past and history, he wanted to play and represent informal actions, empty and nonsensical. To achieve this, he was guided by the theatrical instinct of the actor: he had the perception of the environment, the astuteness of the situation, so his gestures and his unpredictable sound associations could transform into rite and celebration and therefore become a school.
He mainly wanted to scandalize and it is said that Cage was the only modern composer, after Schoenberg and Stravinsky, to be still able to provoke. But when we look at these scandals closely, we realize they were little sincere, they were 'prepared' too, like his piano. It is strange that Cage, even if he came from the country that is establishing our cultural behaviors, really thought that yet today, due to the invention of the avantgarde for the masses, something could scandalize. Thanks to the spread of recorded music, the real need of hearing it is ended and hence music could only be offered as a cultural product and as such, devotedly accepted in any form.
A deeper knowledge of Cage and of his links with the great American masters, Ives and Varese, should encompass his vast production – still unknown to us – for dance and his collaboration with relevant personalities like Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown and pianist John Tilbury. On this note, we can affirm that Cage has been more important than his music:
After Cage – Maderna said once –
we are all Cagean. His influence is evident on Stockhausen, on Kagel, on some of the works of Berio, even on Nono, despite of his radical theoretical opposition.
I really think I am not the right person to praise Cage's oeuvre, as it embodies all the things which are more distant from me in terms of taste and culture, but I will always admire the person: very nice and polite. He dressed with elegance and talked with low voice. He was a light and pleasant presence, a civilized minister of that silence that occupied so much of his journey to the limits of the sonorous matter.
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and John Cage talked about Zen
(by Fernanda Pivano, Corriere della Sera, Tuesday, August 18 1992)
(subtitle: a concert, an encounter with friends, the ideas and dreams of the American composer during a visit in Milan in 1956)
John Cage, another hero of the 60's, one of the most brilliant, carried away from creativity and music, was almost Italian, both for the love he brought us and for his frequent visits here. I still remember him in 1956 when Giorgio Federico Ghedini let his young friends use the Sala Piccola del Conservatorio and Cage came to perform his Music for 2 pianos. David Tudor, a great Liszt virtuoso who had abandoned classical music to follow the ideas of his friend, was already with Cage then.
That December evening the audience was yet naive to be amazed when Tudor hit the piano case with a hammer and fiddled with a screwdriver between its strings. We were already aware that Cage's great idea was more bizarre and we listened to him smiling and calmly talking about it after the concert, when the hall was filled with admirers, colleagues and curious people. Cage explained the music he had invented, creating the presence of Silence: like in a empty room when we hear the water gurgle in the heaters or as in a desert room when we feel the vibrations of the telephone ringing. He was standing still, with his eternal jeans outfit, refusing sweets and drinks; rigorously macrobiotic. He was smiling at any thing he was told either was it a joke, or a compliment.
I saw him often in Milan. He would come for this or that festival. He was often guest of Gianni Sassi at Mec Hotel, near Viale Umbria, and we would usually be late there: we would talk of the new works, or about Rauschenberg who was designing the costumes for Merce Cunningham's choreographies for which Cage was writing the music, or about the Black Mountain College where he had organized the first happenings with them. With his less frivolous friends he would speak of Zen that he was still so enchanted by and that, because of him, was enchanting us as well.
Last time I met him was during an important performance in St. Paul De Vence. He was there with the Cunningham Dance Company and David Tudor with his arsenal of instruments, as he called them. They had been invited by the Maeght Trust and had set up the stage temporarily outdoors in the Jacometti alley. When I arrived, the group of dancers (not Cage obviously) was dining: each one was grabbing a little bit of prosciutto and some pears from enormous trays laid on the platform that served as the stage.
That evening, in the piece Come passare, Cage recited in a formally perfect French – though with an exotic kind of accent – a series of entropic anecdotes. He had a microphone fixed on his lip, four on his throat, one on his chest and one in his hand: every microphone produced a different sound that Tudor gathered through various modulators and forwarded to different points in the space of the alley by means of a set of speakers: the audience could hear even three sounds at the same time. The preparation of another piece included the placing of two electrical cables in order to obtain a disturbed transmission, eight recorders, a phonograph, six radios, a wave generator, six sound mixers, sixteen microphones, three transformers, seven speakers and seven amplifiers. These were Tudor's instruments. They called it Musica elettronica viva (Live Electronic Music).
Later in the evening we met in a restaurant with big wooden tables, Provençal plates and gigantic bowls of salade niçoise. Cage was eating without talking. He was smiling. Dressed like a farmer, he was emanating through his smile the love for music, either silent, talked or played. But yet music for him. His smile and love were his message. Many of us welcomed it and many of us will not forget it as one of his spells: the last one that would tie us to him.
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(by Michelangelo Zurletti, la Repubblica, Tuesday, August 18 1992)
With John Cage's death, one of the fathers of the music of our century disappears. If a 'grandson' of the movies or a television star had died, the papers would have talked about him from the very first page; few people indeed remembered Cage appropriately, although through the usual old archived news: [the participation at the quiz show] Lascia o raddoppia? as a mycologist; 4'33'' a score which imposed silence on the performer for a duration equal to its title; some Imaginary Landscapes in which he fiddled with radios and multiple records played simultaneously.
Some people remember the carrot flavored shake, where the sound of the blender together with the audience humming constituted the musical event. The peperonata [a pepper based dish] at the Filarmonica Romana could also be recalled, when the sizzle of peppers in the hot oil, the noise of the public and the diverse music flowing from the speakers, resulted in a succulent musical happening. We could smile once again thinking about the audience uproar as it eventually felt to be seriously challenged and that almost cost the safety of the composer, who luckily survived just with a broken pair of glasses and a laughter louder than the bustle of the angry mob. An impossible rapport.
But these are only gags from John Cage musical life, which is much more than them and features a rarely cited, though decisive, episode: the master-to-pupil relationship with the other musical father of the Twentieth Century, Arnold Schoenberg. It was an impossible relationship. Schoenberg taught the pupil how to formalize music on a rational base, whereas the twenty-two years old Cage was hoisting the flag of chance and proposing the shattering of all kinds of form. Schoenberg proceeded coherently along the Euro-centric tradition, while Cage pushed the Americanism of Ives and Varèse to the extremes.
Such a 'non-rapport' was a disjointing event that separated America and Europe much more than a body of water; it stated, more than the distance, the diversity and the cultural discontinuity of the two continents. It was then the turn of each other's pupils to put things together again and build a relationship, when the radical heirs of Webern found that chance was a field open to the American experience. Cage had discovered it much before, since he had privileged the curiousness for sound – which he had sought for and had found everywhere – to formal organization.
Sound was not only the academic one, but also any acoustically classifiable fact, preferably that which was naturally produced and that was just asking to be acknowledged, perceived, grasped. Or the classic sound revisited, assisted by different objects in order to become unpredictable (like the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano). And if sound was nice, silence was beautiful. That is, the 'unsound' or the union of all sounds. So was its physical counterpart, nothingness. Silence and nothingness could even blend together and generate the Lecture on Nothing, an interminable monologue scanned by pauses, filled with common places which aimed at not communicating anything, not even messages, but that in the end captured that listener who would abandon the idea of searching for sense and would relax after the pleasure of open vowels, fricative consonants and the uncertainties of pronunciation; who would dedicate himself to the pure sounds of the most humane instrument. It seemed a structured blather on a score. And Cage knew how to structure the sounds, as he mastered the traditional techniques.
Those techniques did not interest him however. He liked more to discover and free the sounds beyond the established limits. His teaching can be essentially summarized like this: to open oneself to the other, to enjoy every sound as if it were a discovery donated by nature. After Cage, we're all a little bit Cagean, it was said. It meant that despite of the unrighteous welcome, his lesson had been absorbed. Cage masterpiece is the doubt he instilled in everyone. It was a lash against all the 'Brothers of David' and obviously all the Philistines. They did not sensed the lash, but they felt its wounds that are still bleeding. And they regenerated: the music between the 60's and the 80's cannot be comprehended without Cage.
Naturally the need to formalize informality in order to present it, hides a contradiction, that is to make Utopia real. A train is a train: wagons filled with predictable and unexpected sounds; but if we take 'a train', it becomes 'the train'. And it is difficult to artificially reconstruct the natural sound of a train; it is not enough to choose the wagons, the bands or the background music. Spontaneity lies in nature, but culture ignores it. And if there is any, it is announced. Sound as Utopia. Even the breath of plants or the buzz of insects seized by the microphone: there is no poet who does not aspire to impossible sounds.
And Cage was certainly a poet, when he fictitiously exposed those sounds that nature wanted to remain covert. When it wasn't the microcosm, he would reveal the macrocosm, like when he opened all the windows of a Conservatorio (A House Full of Music) before an audience packed in the courtyard. Sonorous tails of a thousand classic pieces that morphed into acoustic marsh, an impossible crucible of meaningful facts becoming globally insignificant. Confusion as event. It was surely irreverent. To whom renewed the rite of the concert, who would go out and drive across the city to finally enter the temple of music dressed up as a listener, silence could be given as an anti-concert, or confusion as event. Or the peperonata as an alternative.
The refusal of the concert as a rite was the rejection of the society that produces rituals and that produces other similar things, in which there is no room for unplanned events and life is replaced or annihilated by design. Cage was considered as 'dangerously contagious' in America. While he was pointing at wisdom, people would look at his finger. It was useless to hear a work of his with the usual approach: each piece demonstrated that life and harmony inhabit in the imperfections of paper, in the numbers on dice cast, in the position of the stars, even in the everyday bustle of cities. We had to liberate the child within us and let him attune to the breath of the universe. That this music exists, or this other kind of music or non-music exists, everybody knows. However, who had the courage to say it out loud is not here anymore.
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Mushrooms, macrobiotics and the secret of a smile
(by Landa Ketoff, la Repubblica, Tuesday, August 18 1992)
In a few weeks he would have turned 80. He was glad about it. We happened to hear the stupid question usually posed to an aged celebrity:
Are you afraid of dying?.
No, he answered with a flash of irony in his eyes. How can it be explained that we could not fear death and wish to meet it as late as possible because we love life? The choice of macrobiotics, the elimination of alcohol and smoke were testifying the love for life; choices he made, as he admitted,
not to follow some fashion, but to save myself.
In the beginning, many years ago, in order to recover from a bad arthritis; more recently, to save himself from the whims of an ailing heart. A mania, that for macrobiotics, he never indulged himself with, and was actually a nightmare for those who were hosting him. I remember once, totally aware of his macrobiotic diet, when I thought to have made a good thing cooking boiled vegetables for him. Boiled in water? No way! We saw him for the last time in Perugia less than two months ago. The body was not in good shape, but his spirit was very alive. Only his characteristic, unstoppable, contagious laughter had become rare and had transformed into a smile that was irradiating him.
He was visibly happy about the celebrations for his 80th birthday and, in spite of the evident tiredness, he did not restrain himself from traveling in order to be at the Moma in New York as well as in Perugia, Florence and in other parts of the world. He had promised to be in Cologne next September for the 'premiere' of his work 103, entitled after the number of musicians that, during the concert which will be still performed, are going to be conducted by a gigantic digital watch instead of a director.
He was pleased by the affection shown by the young generations, for whom he sensed not to be an embalmed guru of an obsolete avantgarde, but a composer who had torn myths apart and had taught them how to listen. Because Cage embraced the statement he had found on the Journal of Thoreau, the American poet and philosopher:
Music exists everywhere and forever; only listening is intermittent. From the famous American transcendentalist of the Nineteenth Century, Cage had also absorbed the independent spirit, the profound simplicity, the carefulness for his neighbors and the love for nature.
He smiled as he heard himself defined like a post-WWII outcome from the many who were forgetting that the 'prepared' piano was born at the end of the 30's, just like his experiments with electronic music and his collaboration with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (which would last for his whole life) that would result in a revolution for dance. His expertise on mushrooms was well known too. At the end of the 50's, thanks to Luciano Berio and Umberto Eco, he participated at Mike Bongiorno's quiz show Lascia o raddoppia? where he won the five million lire jackpot. An experience that he enjoyed very much.
Why mushrooms? Like macrobiotics, another practical reason was lying behind this passion. Since he was practically broke during the Depression, for some time he fed himself with mushrooms that he could easily find where in lived. He used to go to the library to check whether they were edible or not and he became so fascinated by the subject, that he decided to deepen into it more and more. Only the love for music, or better, for sounds, had been instinctive, not caused by practical reasons. First the piano, then composition, which he tried to study with Schoenberg, professor at UCLA.
But (it is not difficult to imagine it) the incompatibility between them was too strong, even if they esteemed each other. Schoenberg told him that he was not a composer, but an inventor, which perhaps wasn't intended as a compliment. Nevertheless Cage considered it as such, proud to be the son of an inventor who taught him to
think of doing things in different ways, and who in 1912 had invented a submarine which had established the record of immersion.
Cage had been one of the protagonists of the 'roaring 50's', a golden age for America, which became a forger of ideas, and for New York that was the gathering point for the creative minds from the whole world. Together with Cunningham, Tudor, Rauschenberg, Duchamp and many others, he set up unrepeatable happenings, performances, spectacles. From the I-Ching he learned how to play with chance, while Zen philosophy supported his individualism and chess were a way to exert his art of patience and of listening: the noises of the environment, of traffic, the vibration of plants (he had more than two hundred in his house), the breath of his partner or his own. Everything interested him. He did not know what boredom was. He used to repeat the Zen koan:
If something bores you after two minutes, try it for four minutes, then eight, sixteen, thirty-two. You would eventually find out that not boredom, but lively interest existed.
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