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Quest for Cage

I'm a collector. Or maybe I was. Such a definition is often associated with greedy fellows proud of their own archives – usually built up after several years of trades, deals and swaps among other stingy collectors – that can't be accessed by anyone except from a few well-known acquaintances of them. I must admit that was my approach also: I started to absorb as many documents as I could despite of the evident lack of time the consultation of all that data required. A couple of lifetimes perhaps, or more.

After a while my attitude changed. I became more selective, I began to look for certain documents only, specific items I was more interested in. I guess I had simply realized I could not enjoy anything I had previously collected, especially if I kept piling up stuff maniacally placed on the shelves. Oops, I forgot to tell that I am a music collector. During this 'redemption phase' (February 2005), let's call it this way, I tripped over the news of the Lascia o Raddoppia. What? You may ask. Actually I already knew about that strange event (taken place in the early 1959 while John Cage was in Milan, guest of Luciano Berio), but it was only then that the idea of seeking for the video evidence of his participation to the quiz show popped into my head.

John Cage at Lascia o raddoppia (radiocorriere n°7)

Caption: The mythic picture of John Cage and Mike Bongiorno from Radiocorriere-Tv n°7, February 15-21 1959

I am a John Cage fan since January 2000, when I read an article about him on the Italian music magazine Blow Up, at the end of which I said to myself: What the hell? I could not understand anything there described. I was struck by the uncommon way of thinking of this man whom I could not completely grasp. His name spun through my head for some time until I stumbled upon Conversing with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz (the Italian version by Edizioni Socrates) which I decided to buy. It was October 2003 and that was the second book I deliberately wanted to buy in my life [It might interesting to say that the first was A mammal's notebook by Erik Satie, purchased only few months before without knowing the link between Cage and Satie himself]. I am not a good reader at all, nevertheless I devoured that volume in a week. I still remember the feeling I had when I finished it: it seemed to me that I could have done anything. It was so rewarding to me that the stimulating presence of Cage has never left me since then.

What seemed incredible and hard to believe among all the events and things John Cage did during his life, was that he guested in this old Italian quiz show (Lascia o Raddoppia which could be roughly translated into Double or nothing) answering questions about mushrooms. 'John Cage the mycologist': it was such an odd topic and a weird combination of facts, that I felt I had to do something. After five episodes, Cage won the full jackpot which enabled him to continue and support his tour with Merce Cunningham's Dance Company across the United States. Of course John Cage wasn't invited to stay in Milan by Luciano Berio to partake in the quiz show, but for musical purposes. Since Cage was in dire straits then, his friends thought of letting him participate as a contestant to the quiz show, aired by RAI who owned the Phonology Lab where Berio was working, exploiting his love for mushrooms so that he could maybe win the final prize. Someone later rumored that John was helped not only to be picked as a quiz candidate, but also to win the money after having sneaked out the answers to the mushroom questions; urban legends? Who knows? Considering Cage's stature and wittiness however, it sounds quite improbable.

John Cage smiling

At first I tried to reach the tv archives that were supposed to preserve such a document. No luck! My guess was that those old vaults were in a mess and John Cage wasn't regarded as a very important figure at that time. Web-surfing research revealed that many people before me had attempted the same feat ending up with the same result: no trace of such video, just an image or two witnessing that the fact wasn't just a mirage but that it had really happened. The advent of web sped my research up comparing to the previous efforts. In a few, so to speak, clicks I was able to reach musicians, fans and archivists around the world, all interested in this document or claiming to have seen it on tv some years before. Such confirmations reinforced the will and determination to continue my research, although these multiple unlucky tries were at the same time making me doubt about the actual chances of finding what I was looking for.

I decided to store all the emails I was sending in a separate mailbox as the number of them kept increasing even if at a discontinuous pace: whenever the hope was reinvigorated, I found energies to go on and make more attempts, whereas each time I got a bad reply I felt a bit helpless and put the search on stand-by.

At this point, I cannot tell whether it was a defensive mechanism that I unconsciously devised or not, I came up with a new concept of my 'mission'. Instead of looking at it as a difficult quest for a hidden (or maybe lost) item in an unreachable place, I thought of the entire process as a meeting place, sort of a 'crossroad of lives'. A means of getting in touch with other people who like me loved the character (John Cage) and were curious to see this bizzarre episode of his life.

John Cage at the toy piano

Paradoxically I then wished myself NOT to find the item anymore, but to continue the ever-going explorations and encounters that such a research had been causing so far. Many branches sprang up from the main trunk. Besides meeting all these people, I stumbled upon other documents I didn't even know existed, which became part of my collection that gradually morphed into an open resource to strangers and fans. During my multiple attempts I got in touch with Brian Brandt (director of Mode Records), Cristina Berio (daughter of Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian), Enrico Ghezzi, Nicolò Bongiorno (the son of the quiz show host) and many others who shared nice stories with me.

One particular document, the twelve episodes of C'è musica e musica, deserves a special mention due to the funny chain of anecdotes behind (and after) its find. This music tv program was conceived by Luciano Berio in the early 70's. Basically it's a great journey in the world of music: composers, musicians, musicologists, all interviewed by Berio himself! I was able to reach via email the curator of the program, Vittoria Ottolenghi, who kindly addressed me to the camera operator, Ugo Picone, who worked with her and Luciano Berio on the set. Mr. Picone told me few nice stories with me over the phone, but he couldn't help me with the missing episodes, so he made me talk with the director of the program, Gianfranco Mingozzi. When I called him he said he still had the masters (Umatic reels), but converting them into a portable format was out of the question.

I was bit upset about this failure although happy on the other side, because I realized how interesting was to have talked with these figures, all very kind with a perfect stranger like me. When I started to lose faith I bumped into a guy living in my town (Daniele Poletti) who had recorded all the episodes from a tv broadcast! I couldn't believe my eyes. I immediately sent them to Cristina Berio, who did not own them, and later on to whoever asked me for. This little story wrapping the C'è musica e musica tv program hunt witnessed how the new perspective from which I was looking at the search for the Cage clip was true.

John Cage in Paris 1981

Back on topic now. No need to say that the John Cage Trust was one of the first contacts I stimulated. Since our first mail contact its director, Laura Kuhn, and I exchanged thoughts and opinions about the material I was finding during my 'quest'. We also physically met in Milan during the Milano Musica Festival in 2007 which focused on John Cage. That's where I also spoke to Daniel Charles (r.i.p.) who surprisingly remembered my email inquiry (yes, I dropped a message about the clip to him also). I felt privileged to have known such a helpful and kind person as well as a devoted Cage scholar. The link with the Cage Trust was eventually cemented by an article I wrote upon the Lascia e Raddoppia topic which Laura kindly published on her official Cagean blog.

Some acquaintances I made over my trading years started sending me anything Cage related they were coming by (that's how I got the Italian transcription of the final episode of Cage at the quiz show: a scan from a 1975 music article based on an audio tape, yet obviously unreachable) perceiving how much the whole search meant to me. I must mention my friend Gianmaria for all the nice scans of John Cage related articles he sent me. Scans that I keep on spreading among my contacts with no hesitation (check the materials section).

I cannot detail the full story here because many persons I got in touch with knew each other already or shared common grounds, experiences or studies. In spite of this entanglement, it became easy for me to guess who knew whom. Thanks to a bunch of RAI tv short clips featuring Cage I reached Veniero Rizzardi whose partner recognized a friend of hers in those videos: journalist, music producer Renato Marengo. He was a friend of Demetrio Stratos and he was in Milan when Cage performed Empty Words (1977) in front of an angry audience tamed by Cage himself after a two hour performance. Once I reached him, Renato told me stories about Demetrio whose link with Cage became so clear before his premature death. Another layer was peeled right in front of me revealing new connections, possible directions, inspiring ideas. And this would go on...

John Cage 1972

Caption: John Cage, 1972 © Philippe Gras (Cathy Berberian in the background)

For sure it did! Daniele Poletti, the guy who had passed me the tv program by Berio, and I became friends. Later on, in August 2010 we, together with mutual friend Walter Catalano, formed the editorial project [dia•foria. The magazine, besides being another trampoline for new exciting and unexpected encounters outside the Cagean realm, served as a means to celebrate this year's Cage centennial. Most of the people who I had reached through the mysterious clip search in fact, became part of the [dia•foria project 1000 e una nota per John Cage (A thousand and one note for John Cage) which gathers 100 contributions from 100 personalities of the Italian culture and arts. Some examples: Maurizio Comandini from All About Jazz Italy, asked me whether I was interested in homaging Cage through the website he writes for, so here I am! Renato Marengo was the one who let [dia•foria reach Alfred Tisocco of Cramps Records, the executive producer of our Cage tribute. Off topic: one day I was in Rome with Alfred to delve into the RAI archives for some Cage footage. Later on I accompanied him to a meeting with other people I had nothing to do with. When we left one of the guys in the room, who had been glancing at me every now and then with a curious expression, asked me: Pleased to meet you, what are you doing here? The best and only answer I could find was: Nice to meet you too, I am a fan of John Cage.

Finally, last summer I met a person from Estonia who was really amazed by the way I have been stubbornly seeking for this mythic clip. Without knowing John Cage at all, she pronounced the words You are living without goals, you should teach me how because I can't do it. That sentence made me think of Cage's purposeful purposelessness. Even if it is true I have a goal – the clip – since I am not sure whether it exists or not, I feel as if I am groping in the dark with no goal expect the bumping into a mass of people all tied by a Cagean thread. Therefore my talk in April 2012 about Cage in Tallinn at Ptarmigan is no longer a coincidence, but almost a due fact! It is like a puzzle: at the beginning you cannot see the whole picture, as the single pieces are too distant to form a clear image, but slowly they begin to form a definite shape that becomes clearer and clearer. My picture.

In other words, an overlapping of casual (or maybe not) acquaintances, rebounds, meetings under the mark of John Cage. At this point, I felt that the site I had in mind for so much time, had to be eventually launched.

Stefano Pocci