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John Cage and Europe
(Perugia, 1992)

During the month of June, 1992, John Cage was guest of the John Cage e l'Europa Festival promoted by the Quaderni Perugini di Musica Contemporanea. It was his last appearance in Italy as he would pass away shortly after (August 12, 1992).
The Festival, curated by cellist Ulrike Brand and artist Alfonso Fratteggiani Bianchi, featured some of the latest works of the composer, namely his Number Pieces which characterized his last composing phase.

John Cage e l'Europa (poster)

Caption: The poster of the Festival

You can read below the full transcription of Simplicity and Chaos, the press conference extracted by the issue of the Quaderni Perugini di Musica Contemporanea dedicated to John Cage that took place on June 23 inside the Sala del Grifo e del Leone of the Palazzo dei Priori. You can read Veniero Rizzardi's essay Sentieri Interrotti at this link (only in Italian).

This is the program of the five days dedicated to Cage (June 22-26, 1992):

John Cage a Perugia

Caption: John Cage in Perugia with Ulrike Brand (standing) and Laura Kuhn (sitting)

After the composer’s death following their regular praxis, the Quaderni Perugini di Musica Contemporanea published a volume – released in 1993 – that reviewed the entire Cage festival.
Aside this publication, the book by Materiali Sonori, and part of their Sonora series, must be mentioned as well. This other book contains an audio disc entitled John Cage a Firenze which is the recording of a concert in Florence (on June 21, 1992) that featured performances of his pieces by Giancarlo Cardini, Francesca della Monica, Roberto Fabbriciani, Daniele Lombardi, Stefano Scodanibbio. The disc is augmented by an interview to John Cage by Michele Porzio. More details in the Books and Recordings sections.

Simplicity and Chaos
(Perugia, 1992)

(This interview was published, in Italian, on the Katazen. site. Translated in Italian by Caterina Fitzgerald and re-translated in English by Stefano Pocci)

Question: Recently the press has written about a French scientist who published a book upon chaos and chance, in which he asserts that math and physics rules are governed by randomness and chaos. You, as an artist, have always based your work on these ideas. What do you think about it?

JC: It is an idea that is 'in the air', evidently. One of the things that influenced me the most was the work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, because it aroused my interest towards science and physics.

Q: Was he a scientist?

JC: No, he was a philosopher. He was both Irish and Indian, a living example of East and West in the same person. You must understand that in the 40's people thought that a Western person, like it had happened to me, had no right to get into Eastern philosophy; the East was for the Eastern people and the West for the Western and I was forced to be a Western. But this man, Ananda Coomaraswamy, having a Western mother and an Indian father, practically embodied the two cultures. In his book The transfiguration of nature in art, he affirmed that the artist's responsability is to imitate nature in its manner of operation. The concept of an art that resembles nature is familiar to us, as well as the fact that art changes during history. The question then is: what does produce these changes?
An answer we could give to ourselves, if not to other people, is that art changes because our idea of how nature operates changes too. This is why I'm interested into how nature works not as a scientist, but as a composer. And this is what convinced me of the need of chance operations; if I used music to express myself, it would be related, for instance, to my feelings, but not to the way we interpret nature's manner of operation.
I believe that the idea of indetermincacy existed already in the 40's, but surely there wasn't the same interest for chaos that there is today. I happened to know of such a problem through Eastern philosophy. In China, chance is not an enemy, on the contrary, it's considered a friend. There is a story in the work of Chuang Tzu that says that one of the Winds goes to Chaos and asks: The world is in a terrible situation, what can I do to improve it?. Chaos jumped around him as a bird, totally careless. The Wind asks his question a second time, but he doesn't get any reply again. As often happens in tales, the question must be repeated three times. After the third inquiry, Chaos stops to jump and says: You will only make matters worse. This is why I entitled my diary How will you improve the world? adding in brackets (You will only make matters worse).
These are the ideas and worries that I had, both in my writings and in my compositions. I tried to search for a flexibility that allowed me to put something freely in the space, rather than in one specific point. When I say point or space I'm talking about time. For this reason I work with time brackets. In yesterday's concert, the cellist could decide when to make each sound; he had his watch and his music, so he knew which period could begin and which one could end. He knew when he would play the next sound. Between each sound there was this time bracket overlapped to another one, so we had a series of time brackets juxtaposed. This page is an example of IC, music composed by means of the computer.

Q: What is IC?

JC: IC is a program for computer that gives a series of numbers between 1 and 12 randomly determined. There is another program called TIC, that is the time according to I-Ching, that is chance. TIC and IC and other programs with time brackets were written for me by Andrew Culver. Thanks to the computer, I can work with any number of time brackets I wish to use. I must confess that all this interest for chaos today it relieves me. It demonstrates some kind of connection to the way nature operates.
I think that one of the factors that changes how we make art, music, etc, is the increase of the world population. Let's just think about this: the number of people that were inhabiting the planet in 1949 equalled the number of people who had lived since the beginning of the story of man and that from 1949 the population has doubled up and since then it continues on increasing, geometrically, not gradually, so now we experience overpopulation. This situation determines the nature of our social relationships and influences our personal behavior. We don't know how to behave yet. We live in a world where the main topic of the press is the difference between the rich and the poor people, not as individuals but as a whole. There is an enormous amount of people who don't have the essential to live. The outcome of this is that people like president Bush don't have the slighest idea of what to do. For instance, Bush is not understanding the nature of the disorders in Los Angeles.

Q: Are you referring to the riots?

JC: These riots of the poor people will continue, they must go on until something will be done to help them. We need to modify the way society operates, so that the whole world could work better. I could continue in my own way, but perhaps it is better if specific questions are posed, in order for me to speak of my own positions.

Q: It sounds a bit strange to talk about politics and laws while we were discussing of chance and randomness. Isn't it contradictory?

JC: Yes, it is.

Q: Would it be the same thing, if we let chaos increase, without imposing any rule?

JC: It would surely affect our behavior in the arts.

Q: What? Establishing some rules?

JC: No, our conscience of the situation we are living in and its chaotic nature. First of all, we would drop the object-nature of our jobs. This feeling of contradiction that we're now in will change the character of our arts. In my case, I started to abandon the idea of the beginning, of the middle and of the end and to refuse any logic relation of the parts.
In my first works, the pieces had the same number as the square root. For instance, eight times eight yields sixty-four, and I could divide each eight in the same way I split the eight eights. It seemed to me a reasonable way to divide the time, persuading as a crystal. But now I moved from the object to the process. The process I'm currently involved with is what I already described, that of the time brackets and chance operations. What I'm suggesting is that this kind of liberty, the flexibility obtained through the time brackets, could produce a better understanding of how nature operates, a better model for social relationships.

Q: Man is nature.

JC: Too often man is a man without nature.

Q: Do you know the Indian philosopher Dane Rudyar?

JC: I read his book and when I was young I admired his music, a music with a strong, stout, heavy sense of harmony. Unlike Satie. It was very sturdy, a sort of crossbreed between Scriabin and Wagner. Without Satie's transparency and simplicity. I would like... but this is a personal preference, it doesn't matter.

Q: What would you like?

JC: I would like to have simplicity and chaos.

Q: Do you think it is possible to transmit knowledge, transmit it from person to person?

JC: I am dubious about communication. Often a statement or a question can completely change when moving from one person to another.

Q: In the chaotic situation we're in, communication could be a solution. How could we solve this problem? How could we make it, if everyone is deaf and no one listens, and everyone says something that cannot be transmitted?

JC: We haven't found out the right way to behave. The attitude that will work would be characterized by wit, humanity and respect towards nature. Not only respect, but also comprehension and cooperation with nature's manner of operation. In other words, we must think of the place we live not as a place to destroy, but as a place to collaborate with. We have already destroyed so much... but there is hope.
Molecular technology might assist us. Molecular robots could really help us to produce what we need. The material used by these robots will be our rubbish. After all, pollution is made of the same substances that constitute everything: hydrogen, oxigen and carbonium. So, instead of being destroyed by pollution, this microtechnology could be a smart way to use it and make two things: produce what we need and clean the mess we made.

Q: You would like things to change, but at the same time you are fatalist. You accept things as they are.

JC: What else can I do? What do you want me to do?

Q: You provided two solutions: one it's an involution and the other one is an evolution. You must choose.

JC: Between what?

Q: Among involution and evolution. Time brackets are involution.

JC: Sorry, what are they?

Q: When you work with time brckets you divide time, so this is an involution. That's why time brackets won't...


Q: It's an involution.

JC: What do you mean?

Q: Time for you is not a physical, but a conceptual entity.

JC: It's physical. What we have in conventional music is a point in time.

Q: A physical point?

JC: Yes, a physical point. Here, we have the problem that whenever we begin something we must start all together, therefore we must have a conductor. Thanks to the time brackets, we can write a piece for an entire orchestra without a conductor. We can imagine a society without a president, I believe this is very important. And the reason consists in moving from the idea of point to space. We can use it in as many ways as the people, don't you think?
Through the time brackets we can write one line of music and have a full orchestra playing it. It's not hard, it's easy, but it would result in many diverse sounds, either long or short, and with any color the musician wishes to give. There could be a movement towards... there could be the refusal to tune in... there could be an harmony made by the differences of the same thing.

Q: Of the same thing?

JC: From one line of music. I could cite Giacinto Sclesi's music which possesses an incredible variety and richness in one single sound. I think that this kind of behavior in the arts could assist us as we face the contradictions today we're surrounded by. So you could find, if you want, a link between chaos and richness.

Q: What do you mean for richness?

JC: If everybody lives, so to speak, in 'unison', then each one can live in his own way, instead of being forced to focus on one point. Something like this.

Q: Before you mentioned time brackets and the fact that they allow you not to have a conductor. But within a time bracket there is a beginning and an end and their number must be specified. And of course you state this.

JC: Sure. I'm the composer.

Q: Are the start and the end of the time brackets random-based decisions?

JC: When you say random you mean chance?

Q: Chance.

JC: These are questions I pose to myself each time I write a piece. And I decide. There is a funny thing also... Let's assume that we don't use a conductor, as I do. How can the musicians know when they shoud start? For now, the solution is the video-watch.

Q: Video-watch?

JC: Yes. The watches must be placed, let's say we have a hundred elements orchestra, in such a way that all the musicians can see one. And if we have three juxtaposed time brackets, played at the same time, we need three watches that start at different times. I'm dealing with this kind of ideas. Once the watch starts, every musician becomes an individual. However, there must be someone who starts the watch. How can we establish who will do it? It seems to me that people still think in democratic terms. Actually, it doesn't matter who starts the watch, because once the movement commenced each one is himself. The privilege of starting the watch is not important. The only reason we think it is important derives from our idea of behavior, which comes from the past. We think it is more important to be president than a citizen. But we need to move towards a witty direction that enables us to involve more people in order to give to each one the possibility to live in its own center, not in the center of, for instance, the president. We should all be ourselves. I'm speaking of anarchy of course. That is, the belief that each person can be in its own center.

Q: I have two questions. First: what do you think will be the artistic future of an Europe without walls? Second: how would you describe yourself with a sound? Which one would you pick?

JC: I choose sounds through chance operations. I have never heard a sound that disgusted me. The only problem with sound is music. Specially when it's your neighbour's one. My music is the sound of the environment around me.

Q: Of the environment?

JC: Yes, around me. For instance, I live on the Sixth Avenue in New York, where traffic is constantly flowing, so I hear many sounds.

Q: And what about the future of art in Europe?

JC: There will be, we know it, more and more people. There will be more types of music. And the number of ways to appreciate or use music will increase accordingly. The amount of music and place where people go to listen to it today in New York is extraordinary. When I was young, both the types of music and the places to hear it were very few. Now there are so many. And in diverse situations, as it were, too. It could be very possible, for example, to use an automatic laundry.

Q: How?

JC: An automatic laundry as a concert hall. As people have to wait anyway, it could have something to listen to in the meantime.

Q: In 1979 you worked on a project in Ivrea, in which microphones would be installed on Monte Stella, so that people passing by could make sounds, especially children. It has been canceled, but do you think you can still finish it?

JC: Do it again? The project involved very peculiar acoustics. The incredible nature of those acoustics consisted of the absence of the sound of traffic, so present today everywhere. On top of that mountain, from which the Alps could be seen, there was no traffic in the distance and you could hear an insect flying. I had in mind to amplify the trees and the plants, so that if a kid touched them, he could have heard the result of his action.

Q: You would have placed microphones on the trees then?

JC: Yes, it could have been done. If the electronic system were turned off, we could have listened to the sounds of the environment.

Q: A television?

JC: A computer company?

Q: Olivetti?

JC: Yes, Olivetti. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the guy working for it now. Tredici, or something like that. He was very interested in the project. Anyway, he has been transfered to another division of Olivetti and the person who replaced him didn't show great interest for it, so the project was abandoned. It could still be done.

D: Doesn't it depend on you?

JC: In order to work, a very sophisticated technology should be employed. There should be a company sponsoring it. It should have those acoustics, which are quite rare. I heard that another place where it could be done is Bourges, but there is no sponsor.

D: Elliot Carter says, in a snobbish way, to give something to do to the musicians. Why do you write music? What is the purpose of music?

JC: I could answer in so many ways... I'd say that the first reason is that I love music. Or, even better, I love sounds. Once this is clear, I see that through the passing of time, the older I get, the more compositions I am requested to write. There are two people that can let me write music. One it's me and the other one is someone else. Personally, as I live on the Sixth Avenue, I don't need music: I hear more sounds than I need. But mail arrives every day, faxes arrive too and I don't have an answering machine. I must keep a list of the requests I'm asked. Now I have finished to compose what I was asked until next February.

D: You mean that you have a list of works to write until February?

JC: I had one, but it's already growing. And my copywriter is behind.

D: Your copywriter?

JC: Paul Sadowsky, who transcribes music for me. He has a stack of works already finished that must be still copied.

Q: Is he behind?

JC: Yes, he is three compositions behind. Today there is a greater number of composers: one of the effects of overpopulation. I write faster than he's able to copy. I compose, I mean, because I'm asked to write music. It's also my work naturally, but I don't have a collection of records with all my music.

Q: During a conference in Darmstadt, in 1959, Luigi Nono replied to your question: Sounds are sounds, or are they Webern?, saying: Are men men, or feet, legs hands and stomachs?. What do you answer?

JC: There is no need to answer. The story of my collaboration with Nono is long. Last time I saw him was shortly before his death, in Saint Petersburg. I heard a very beautiful work of his. At that time, if I may say it, it was a piece of music which I was very tied to.

Q: What was its title?

JC: It was the title of a Spanish poem.

Q: Caminantes?

JC: Yes, that one. What was it about? A travel, a road...

Q: The poem?

JC: Yes, the poem. Anyway, I feel very close to that music and I believe that the music I'm writing with the time brackets is close to Nono's one.

Q: One more question, a stupid one. I know that you played chess with Duchamp. Who else would you like to play chess with?

JC: I played with Duchamp's wife, Teeny, rather than with him. We would sit in one side of the room and he in the other, usually smoking a cigar. Every now and then he would come to see how the game was going and to tell us which mistakes we had made. He was a good chess player, but as he was alive I was more interested in him, than in his playing. I was interested in him, not as a person to ask questions. I didn't want to ask him questions, I just wanted to be near him. Sometimes we would sit together to talk, as he put it, but actually we barely spoke.

Q: Are you going to the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto?

JC: No, I'm interested in what's going on here. I decided to come here to listen the piece for Miyata Mayumi. When I was composing, she was sitting at the table as I was learning to write for the Shò, a beatiful instrument which uses hands in a very particular way. As I little by little I handed her the pieces, I learned how to write for this instrument. I began with various things we both found interesting. Eventually, I discovered a way to use chance operations that worked fine. Chance operations must work in every situation, so we must be aware of all the possibilities in order to employ them. And with her assistance, I was able to do it for the Shò. Finally, I managed to write the music without having her aside. It lasts a little bit more than two hours.