her work |
Interview of John Cage
Eighty-year-old John Cage seems more clearly than ever to be
the single indispensable figure in the experimental culture of the
postwar era. As philosopher and provocateur, multidisciplinary artist
and father of contemporary chance-determined music, Cage has inspired
generations of artists East and West to bridge the gaps between Art
and Life. The prime catalyst of this "Cagean revolution" was Zen
Buddhism, specifically Cage's attendance (from 1949 to 1951) at
D.T. Suzuki's classes at Columbia University. Suzuki's first class in
New York, the reigning cultural capital, concerned itself with the
Buddha's final teachings, emphasizing the interdependence of all
things in a world of phenomenal abundance. This was the world and
sensibility that Cage embraced in all his subsequent writings and
works, doing as much to introduce a deliberately Buddhist view into
the cultural discourse of the West as any artist alive.
Laurie Anderson is even less conventionally Buddhist than
John Cage. Her engagement with Buddhism, emerging from the SoHo art
world of the seventies, has continued to be a strong personal interest
two decades later. Widely identified as the artist who brought
performance art into the cultural mainstream, Anderson works today as
an activist, composer, filmmaker, photographer, raconteur,
philosopher, and comic. Her newest project, a performace-opera
entitledHalcyon Days: Stories from the Nerve Bible, is scheduled to
open the Seville Festival this summer. Anderson initiated a discussion
with Cage forTricycle early in March 1992; I came for a second session
not long afterward, joining them in his comfortable, sky-lit New York
City loft, surrounded by abundant houseplants, paintings, and books,
and drinking his Cafix-a fig and grain beverage that Laurie also
drinks at home. The common ground was wide: irreverent, funny, and
terrific company, both epitomize ideals of cultural leadership and the
phenomenon of the avant-garde.
Robert Coe's book Post-Shock: The Emergence of the American
Avant-gardewill be published by W.W. Norton this year.
Anderson: You seem like such a hopeful person, do you think human
beings are getting better?
Cage: What can we say but yes. There's no other answer.
A: To go on? To be able to go on?
C: Not to be able to go on, but to go on. As D.T. Suzuki said once,
"There seems to be a tendency toward the good." Isn't that beautiful?
There seems to be a tendency toward the good. He never explained what
he meant. And we never asked him.
A: What led you to study with him?
C: I was very fortunate. I had readThe Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.I
became interested, in other words, in Oriental thought. And I read
also a short book by Aldous Huxley, calledThe Perennial Philosophy,and
from that I got the idea that all the various religions were saying
the same thing but had different flavors. For instance, Ramakrishna
spoke of God as a lake of people coming to the shores because they
were thirsty. So I browsed, as it were, and found a flavor I liked and
it was that of Zen Buddhism. It was then that Suzuki came to New York,
and I was able to go to Columbia once a week for two years to attend
his classes, which were, if I remember correctly, at 4:30 in the
A: Pleasant time of day.
C: Suzuki was not very talkative. He would frequently say nothing that
you could put your finger on. Now and then he would. When I say now
and then I mean one Friday or another, but on any given day, nothing
that you could remember would remain.
A: Did you ask questions?
C: I don't remember doing that.
C: Once in Hawaii, at a meeting of philosophers sitting around a table
discussing reality, several days passed and Suzuki said nothing. And
finally the chairman said, "You've been silent all this time. Would
you say something about reality." And Suzuki didn't say anything. I
think he may have looked up. Finally the man said, "Well, is this
table real?" And Suzuki said "Yes." And then the man said, "In what
sense is it real?" And Suzuki said, "In every sense."
A: When the Dalai Lama was at Madison Square Garden [for the
Kalachakra initiation in October, 1991] a lot of people asked him
questions but they were not questions. They were really things to show
him what they knew. So you'd listen to these questions and the people
asking them didn't want to know anything. Then came the last
question. The Dalai Lama was on a big stage with all the lamas and
there was a big golden pagoda on the stage, closed. All these people
were asking questions, very esoteric questions about Buddhism, and he
was being very generous about answering them. But the best question
was, "What's in the yellow pagoda?" It was such an obvious
question. This big thing was sitting there and no one would ask what
was inside of it. He just described what the sand painting was like
that they were working on inside. And it changed everything. It was
the only honest question at the Kalachakra....The teachings were
tricky. They would almost trick people into taking vows. I took one. I
promised to be kind for the rest of my life. I walked out the door and
said what does this mean? Then a friend got a hold of a monk, and she
said, "Did I promise too much, too little?" He told her, "You know,
the mind is a wild white horse, and when you build a corral for it,
make sure it's not too small." He was so practical. The Dalai Lama was
saying that he felt very fortunate to have earned so many merits in
his past live, and that was the reason he was having such an enjoyable
life....Do you feel that someone before you gathered merits so that
you could have an enjoyable life or that you're gathering ones so that
someone, your descendants, can have one too?
C: I don't have any knowledge of that.
A: So you're not curious?
C: I'm not curious.
A: In using chance operations, did you ever feel that something didn't
work as well as you wanted?
C: No. In such circumstances I thought the thing that needs changing
is me-you know-the thinking through. If it was something I didn't
like, it was clearly a situation in which I could change toward the
liking rather than getting rid of it.
A: Would you think of it as a kind of design whose rules you just
C: I was already thinking of one rather than two, so that I wasn't
involved in that relationship. And that what was actually annoying me
was the cropping up of an old relationship, which seemed at first to
be out of place. But then, once it was accepted, it was
extraordinarily productive of space. A kind of emptiness that invites,
not what you are doing, but all that you're not doing into your
awareness and your enjoyment.
A: So you did, in fact, make a kind of judgment on yourself.
C: Yes, instead of wiping out what I didn't like, I tried to change
myself so I could use it.
C: The big difference between the city and the country is the sound of
traffic and the sound of birds. Actually, I find the sound of traffic
not as intruding, really, as the sound of birds. I was amazed when I
moved to the country to discover how emphatic the birds were for the
A: You mean they range in melody?
C: No. Because they were so loud. And they really compete with the
sirens when they fly around and come close...
C: I keep manuscripts that are clearly no good because they must have
some reason for existing too.
A: In what sense do you mean no good?
C: Not interesting. Where the ideas aren't radical, where they don't
have likeliness or-what Bob Rauschenberg says-"they don't change you."
And I think that the idea of change, or the ego itself changing
direction, is implicit in Suzuki's understanding of the effect of
Buddhism on the structure of the mind. I use chance operations instead
of operating according to my likes and dislikes. I use my work to
change myself and I accept what the chance operations say. The I
Chingsays that if you don't accept the chance operations you have no
right to use them. Which is very clear, so that's what I do.
A: How has the response to your work changed over the years?
C: Well, I don't have to persuade people to be interested. So many
people are interested now that it keeps me from continuing really. I
asked a former assistant a few days ago how I should behave about my
mail that is so extensive and takes so much time to answer? If I don't
answer it honorably, I mean to say, paying attention to it, then I'm
not being very Buddhist. It seems to me I have to give as much honor
to one letter as to another. Or at least I should pay attention to all
the things that happen.
A: What did you decide to do about it?
C: To consider that one function in life to answer the mail.
A: But it could take the whole day.
C: But you see, in the meanwhile, I've found a way of writing music
which is very fast. So that if we take all things as though they were
Buddha, they're not to be sneezed at but they're to be enjoyed and
A: But this is a huge challenge.
C: It's a great challenge. The telephone, for instance, is not just a
telephone. It's as if it were Creation calling or Buddha calling. You
don't know who's on the other end of the line.
C: The question of social activism is a large question because it has
so many different kind of actions. I prefer to do what I'm doing for
itself rather than to do what I'm doing for another reason. If I want
to help say, getting rid of AIDS, it would seem to me more effective
to support the research than to change the music.
A: Yeah, although a lot of artists say the opposite. They say, "Well,
I'm going to work on it in my own way in my work." How does that
convince people or help them? I think giving money to research is so
C: That's how I do it. Rather than complaining about the politics, I
think that we should become actively disinterested in government. It
seems to be the most active thing to do now.
A: It's been so confusing to me the last few months trying to get
involved in politics and going "I don't know....really I'm not very
good at is." And yet, I can't say I should just do it in my work.
C: No, I think you can. I think your work is very, very important and
very much used by society. This is the marvelous thing. Because you
can perform and be seen, you see. I mean, the flow is taking place and
you can increase it.
A: For me, being in a political group, particularly a women's group,
is sort of like answering mail. I feel that I should do this-I should
C: It gives you a sense of responsibility.
C: But your real responsibility is the one that you discover. However
you work. Your best work is what you yourself discover.
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