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Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage, Conversation with John Cage (1968)


Richard Kostelanetz. The Theatre of Mixed Means. London: Pitman, 1970, pp. 50-63.

Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010

Belgium is Happening


We must get ourselves into a situation where we can use our experience no matter what it is.

—John Cage

For various reasons, John Cage may be considered by historians the putative father of the mixed-means theatre. For over twenty years his ideas have permeated the consciousness of New York's artistic community. It was Cage who put together the first truly mixed-means performance in America—an untitled piece performed at Black Mountain College in 1952. In the mid-fifties participants in his composition classes at The New School included Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Jackson MacLow, and A l Hansen, all of whom later became creators of theatrical works. Since 1943, Cage has also been Musical Director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. However, the tracing of influence must not be pushed too far, for many of the creators of new theatre had been developing their ideas in a mixed-means direction before they encountered Cage.

Cage himself was born in 1912 in Los Angeles, the son of an imaginative and versatile inventor. He grew up on the West Coast and attended Pomona College, but quit before graduation to travel through Europe. After returning to Los Angeles in the early thirties, he studied music with Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and Henry

Cowell. His first revolutionary act as a composer was the invention of a specially prepared piano that introduced strange noises into a musical situation, a stylistic technique he was to continue to explore. In 4' 33", his famous silent piece of 1952, Cage implied that all sounds in the performance situation during the prescribed duration, whether intentionally produced or not, were music; and since then, he has used methods of composition that further reduce the influence of his taste and intention. His recent pieces offer situations designed to make unplanned, "chance" sounds arise, although Cage selects in advance the elements involved, as well as determining how they shall interact. Since his choices are ingenious, such works as Rozart M ix (1965), Variations V (1965), and Variations VII (1966) are immensely intricate theatrical spectacles, full of interesting aural and, usually, visual activity.

A slender man who looks much younger than his years, Cage lives in a small three-room cottage in Stony Point, New York, about forty minutes north of Manhattan in Rockland County. The conversation took place in his bedroom-study; the time was Saturday evening. Cage had finished the work of the day, as well as a dinner he had cooked himself. Aside from occasional touchiness, he was completely charming.

KOSTELANETZ — Would you consider this—now, here—a theatrical situation?

CAGE — Certainly. There are things to hear and things to see, and that's what theatre is.

KOSTELANETZ — If you were blind, would it still be a theatrical situation for you?

CAGE — I imagine so, because I would visualize from what I hear.

KOSTELANETZ — Therefore, the radio is not theatrical.

CAGE — How are you going to separate it from the environment that it's in? That's really the way to get interested in recording—to include the environment. You'll find more and more in one of these situations that nobody closes his eyes as much as he used to.

KOSTELANETZ — Where did you remark that a tuba player looked more interesting than what he played?

CAGE — I said something like that about a horn player. I think it may be in the article on Communication in my book, Silence [1961].

KOSTELANETZ — Would you say then that all life is theatre? That all theatre is life?

CAGE — It could be seen as such, if we change our minds.

KOSTELANETZ—When did this occur to you?

CAGE — I don't know when I gave conscious expression to it. The year 1952 begins to be very . . . if you look in my catalogue, you'll be amazed at the number of things that happened in 1952. The Water Music, for instance, begins then, and then I had already given that happening at Black Mountain College. All these things began to be apparent, and I began to relate them to things that I had observed in my life. This testing of art against life was the result of my attending the lectures of [D. T.] Suzuki for three years. I think it was from 1949 to 1951.

KOSTELANETZ — Did you feel uncomfortable, as an eminent man in his late thirties, taking courses at Columbia?

CAGE — No, I wasn't registered. I still am a student. I'm studying chess now with Marcel Duchamp.

KOSTELANETZ — Is chess theatre?

CAGE — Well, you have to ask yourself "What is theatre?" I would answer that theatre is seeing and hearing. Here's a very good statement by Joe Byrd, a composer now on the West Coast: "What should we expect of these arts? Shouldn't we expect dance today to concern itself with movement in all forms including the kinetic quality of football or stock-car races; music to explore the psycho-physiological potentials of sound, the peculiar rhetoric of machines, the anxieties produced by low-frequency vibrations in sync with one's own nervous system; poetry, to fulfill [Gertrude] Stein's semantic implications to reawaken the sound and sight of a word and their relation to its meaning, to gloriously destroy the context, adjectival, and syntactical inhibitions that make all poetry verbiage; and theatre (!) we might expect to become a catholic, experimental aesthetic extended to functional existence. Here the psychedelic experience is an example, but ultimately, because of its artificiality, a crutch. More, the obligation—the morality, if you wish —of all the arts today is to intensify, alter perceptual awareness and, hence, consciousness. Awareness and consciousness of what? Of the real material world. Of the things we see and hear and taste and touch."

KOSTELANETZ — Do you regard that as the purpose of theatre—to increase our perceptual awareness of the world?

CAGE — Yes.

KOSTELANETZ — Before you came to that recognition about life as theatre, what kind of theatre did you appreciate?

CAGE — I was among those dissatisfied with the arts as they were, and as Europe had given them to us. I infuriated Paul Goodman at Black Mountain by speaking against Beethoven. Paul Goodman, bright in other respects, swallowed European thinking hook, line, and sinker. I just looked at my experience in the theatre, realized I bought a ticket, walked in, and saw this marvelous curtain go up with the possibility of something happening behind it and then nothing happened of any interest whatsoever. The theatre was a great disappointment to anybody interested in the arts. I can count on one hand the performances that struck me as being interesting in my life. They were Much Ado About Nothing, when I was in college; it was done by the Stratfordupon-Avon players. Nazimova in Ghosts. Laurette Taylor in Glass Menagerie. The Habima Theatre's Oedipus Rex in 1950 or thereabouts. [Pause] I run out. . . .

KOSTELANETZ — What qualities animated these performances?

CAGE — That isn't an interesting question. The situation is complex. I was four different people, for those performances were widely spaced in time. It just happened—what can we say? We don't any longer know who I was. They somehow struck me so that I was, as we say, bowled over—really amazed. I'll show you what I mean. In the forties at some point—'43, '44, '45—I heard those short string quartet pieces by Webern. I was sitting on the edge of my seat. I couldn't have been more excited. Play the same music for me now, and I won't even listen to it. If you oblige me to do so, I'll walk out of the hall in fact.

KOSTELANETZ — Do you see any theatre at all now?

CAGE — Never. Well, I go to happenings. That strikes me as the only theatre worth its salt. We aren't having art just to enjoy it. We are having art in order to use it. Those things we once used have been consumed. We have to have fresh food now. You wouldn't ask me, in the case of a steak I ate ten years ago, somehow to regurgitate it and eat it over again, would you?

This concern with the consumption of art and the consumption of ideas is very close to Norman Brown. He sees art as food going right through the body and so forth, and then you can see that you use it up and you need something new. He insists on this in his new book, Love's Body [1966}. I was so glad to see this insistence upon freshness and newness and change in him, because over and over again recently we've had people attacking the avant-garde on the very notion that the new was something we should not want. But it is a necessity now.

KOSTELANETZ — In what sense? Intellectual? Physical? Moral?

CAGE — Consumptual. We must have something else to consume. We have now, we've agreed, the new techniques. We have a grand

power that we're just becoming aware of in our minds.

KOSTELANETZ — Technology—

CAGE — Not only technology, but our minds themselves, which we dimly know are in advance of the technology. And our education has kept our minds stunted, and we are going to change that situation. Our minds are going to be stretched. We are going to stretch ourselves to the breaking point.

Still, a lot of people are going to go on being caretakers of the past. The past has no trouble, no lack of people who are going to make love to it.

KOSTELANETZ — History is on your side, though, because technology is on your side.

CAGE —Bucky Fuller doesn't want Times Square destroyed. He says we should keep it. We should keep everything so that we know what it used to be like.

KOSTELANETZ — Then one of the things you like about happenings, as opposed to old theatre, is that they are so lifelike. Now, is a happening more successful to you if it is lifelike.

CAGE — Not that it should be lifelike but that we should be able to consume it in relation to our lives. So that it would introduce us to the other things in our lives which we consume.

KOSTELANETZ — I assume you agree this is the ultimate educational purpose of the movement.

CAGE — Yes, yes.

KOSTELANETZ — Constance Rourke has the thesis that a prime characteristic of American arts is indefinite identity—they don't particularly fit forms we know, like novel or epic.

CAGE — That could be like breaking down the boundaries, certainly taking away the center of interest, emphasizing the field.

KOSTELANETZ — These are all American characteristics. This would make Charles Ives your ancestor.

CAGE — I'm flattered to say, yes. But I'm inclined to point out that your question is a linear one, which is a Renaissance question, which is a European question, which is a non-electronic question.

KOSTELANETZ — Let me deal, if I may, with the critical questions the new form poses. I saw you at the Cinematheque one Friday night in December [1965]. There were three events—Robert Whitman's, Robert Rauschenberg's, and Claes Oldenburg's. May I ask you to evaluate them?

CAGE — You mean that you want me to criticize them—to say which one I liked the most and so on, or what.

KOSTELANETZ — As you prefer.

CAGE — Well, I liked the Whitman best [Prune. Flat.*], because it was the most complex. Even though he has an idea and was doing something he intended to do—this is true of all three of them—I liked it. They were not doing something I would do, because I am interested in non-intention, and I think that life is essentially nonintentional. Let me put it this way: You can only approach it effectively when you see it as non-intentional. In a sense then, I criticize all three of them, but of the three, the Whitman strikes me as most useful simply because it was the most complex. This connects it with life which is also complex.

KOSTELANETZ — It also struck me as the one which filled its space and time most interestingly.

CAGE — Right. That goes along with it.

KOSTELANETZ — In other words, it was almost as good as life. Would you say, then, that a basic critical comment about a happening stems from whether or not you wish to stay and look at it? If life outside the situation is more interesting than the happening, then the happening has not at all succeeded. This would be a purely subjective criterion.

CAGE — For one thing, I would like the happenings to be arranged in such a way that I could at least see through the happening to something that wasn't it. We'd be out of the La Monte Young fixation ideal. We'd be in the Duchamp-Fuller-Mies van der Rohe business of seeing through.

KOSTELANETZ — Didn't Claes Oldenburg's piece, Moviehouse, impress you in this sense?

CAGE — Yes. But it was a police situation. It was politically bad— telling people not to sit down. I refused, so I sat down and so did Duchamp.

KOSTELANETZ — Were you uncomfortable standing up?

CAGE — No. I refuse to be told what to do.

KOSTELANETZ — When you go to a conventional concert, do you sit in the seat?

CAGE — No one tells me that I can't get up and walk around. They do give me a ticket for a seat, and if I use it that's my own business. That was my objection to the Kaprow [the original 18 Happenings in 6 Parts]—being told to move from one room to the other.

KOSTELANETZ — Are you,at all proud of your influence upon Kaprow and other people?

CAGE — I'd rather agree with Kaprow that I haven't so much influenced these people. They do what they do; I do what I do.

KOSTELANETZ — But they took your courses and probably learned things from you.

CAGE — And I probably learned things from them.

KOSTELANETZ — Have you learned from the new theatre?

CAGE — I think certainly.

KOSTELANETZ — Let me go back to the Black Mountain piece. Could you remember what was in your mind when you did that.

CAGE — It was the making of theatre—to bring all these things together that people could hear and see.

KOSTELANETZ — What kind of intention were you dealing with at that time.

CAGE — Non-intention.

KOSTELANETZ — Once you chose the element everything was improvisatory.

CAGE — No, there were time brackets during which these people were free to do what they were going to do.

KOSTELANETZ — Thus, at minute four someone was instructed to do something.

CAGE — Not at minute four, but between minute four and minute eight, say, someone or a group of people had that time bracket free. What they were going to do I didn't know. I knew roughly, but not specifically. I knew that Merce would be dancing, but I didn't know what he'd be dancing.

KOSTELANETZ — How long did that piece last?

CAGE — Forty-five minutes.

KOSTELANETZ — Did the audience receive it well?

CAGE — Yes, that was a very good situation at Black Mountain College. The cups were introduced [placed upon each seat] so that the audience had something to do. That is, when they encountered cups on their seats, what could that mean? It meant, of course, that they would be served coffee toward the end of the piece.

KOSTELANETZ — Did you give this piece any name?

CAGE — No.

KOSTELANETZ — Why didn't you develop anything in this area yourself?

CAGE — I have been doing nothing else since.

KOSTELANETZ — So all your work since has been theatre in your mind.

CAGE — Surely.

KOSTELANETZ — Are some pieces better theatre than others?

CAGE — Why do you waste your time and mine by trying to get value judgments? Don't you see that when you get a value judgment, that's all you have.

KOSTELANETZ — You don't think that value judgments are particularly relevant in working in this area.

CAGE — They are destructive to our proper business which is curiosity and awareness.

KOSTELANETZ — Yet you can answer the basic question of whether you liked this or didn't like this.

CAGE — You asked me, and I got involved in making critical remarks about that Cinematheque performance. While I'm making them, I'm annoyed that I'm doing so. In playing chess, there's an expression of "losing tempo." If you put your opponent in such a position that he's obliged to move back from where he was, then he loses time. We waste time by focusing upon these questions of value and criticism and so forth and by making negative statements. We must exercise our time positively. When I make these criticisms of other people, I'm not doing my own work, the people and their work may be changing. The big thing to do actually is to get yourself into a situation that you use your experience in, no matter where you are, even if you are at a performance of a work of art which, if you were asked to criticize it, you would criticize out of existence.

KOSTELANETZ — But does that alter the fact that you might have preferred going to a different happening.

CAGE — That's not an interesting question; for you are actually at this one where you are. How are you going to use this situation if you are there? This is the big question. What are you going to do with your time? If you use it negatively, you really are not consuming. You're doing some other kind of thing which, as I've explained just now, loses tempo. You have somehow to use it positively. We have illustrations of how to get at this, and it would be part and parcel of the new ethic or new morality or new aesthetic.

Kierkegaard, for instance, in Either/Or, speaking of conversing with a bore, pointed out that he finally noticed that perspiration was dripping off the fellow's nose and that he could enjoy that. By focusing his attention there, he could ignore all the rest of the business.

I've noticed that I can pick up anything in the way of a periodical or a newspaper—anything—and use it, not in the [William] Burroughs sense but in its content sense—in terms of its relevance to positive action now.

KOSTELANETZ — Are there some happenings you can use better than others.

CAGE — Let's say that that's true. Now let's ask this kind of question: Which is more valuable—to read The New York Times which is a week old or to read Norman Brown's Love's Body? If we face this issue squarely, we'll see that there's no difference.

KOSTELANETZ — Because you can get something out of both.

CAGE — Right. Now a really difficult problem for you, which now brings us back to the question of discipline, would be this: Listen, if you can, to Beethoven and get something out of it that's not what he put in it.

KOSTELANETZ — Is that relevant.

CAGE — We must get ourselves into a situation where we can use our experience no matter what it is. We must take intentional material, like Beethoven, and turn it to non-intention.

KOSTELANETZ — Is it a better way to apportion one's time? Aren't some things a more profitable way to spend one's time than other things.

CAGE — Look what you did. Accepting the notion of non-intention, you then said, "Can you intend to be non-intentional?" That would mean you would go around choosing.

KOSTELANETZ — What you are saying, then, is that any happening is acceptable. I could have two people sit and stare at each other for three hours; but I don't think I could do that and still hold an audience. Do you?

CAGE — Why do you speak of holding an audience? I think that these notions imply dropping the idea of controlling the audience, for one thing. We have spoken of wanting to turn each person into an artist, have we not? We've spoken of individual anarchy, etc. So, in the case of a performance, we would think of it, wouldn't we, as a celebration of some kind; and we certainly would not think of holding those people to us. If sortiehow they weren't enjoying the situation or consuming it, then wouldn't we be more pleased if they left? Not that we want them to go, but we don't want them to stay either. We have a certain freedom at the same time that we question the notion of freedom; this is very curious.

KOSTELANETZ — If you can't say bad and good about theatrical pieces,then there is no basis for criticism at all.

CAGE — The best criticism will be, you see, the doing of your own work. Rather than using your time to denounce what someone else has done you should rather, if your feelings are critical, reply with a work of your own.

KOSTELANETZ — Let's say I'm not a critic and I merely attend a happening and decide that I simply don't like it.

CAGE — Well, use that fact by doing something of your own.

KOSTELANETZ — Criticism, then, must turn into creation.

CAGE — Formerly, we had boundaries between the arts, and you could say then, if you are saying what I am saying now, that the best criticism of a poem is a poem. Now, we have such a marvelous loss of boundaries that your criticism of a happening could be a piece of music or a scientific experiment or a trip to Japan or a trip to your local shopping market.

KOSTELANETZ — So then my criticism is an expression of myself and my milieu.

CAGE — Not an expression of yourself. This is something that is gone too.

KOSTELANETZ — My criticism, then, is to take something I got out of a happening and then do something else.

CAGE — I think it should be. D o you know, for instance, any criticism now which you can use? I find myself more and more questioning the professional function of the critic. I don't find what they have to say is interesting. What they do doesn't seem to change what I do. What I do changes what I do. What artists do changes what I do. I don't know of any instance where what a critic has done has changed what I do.

KOSTELANETZ — You don't, then, consider Marshall McLuhan a critic?

CAGE — If you do, then I'd have to change my mind because I find him very illuminating.

KOSTELANETZ — He used to be a critic. As a younger man, he contributed to literary quarterlies essays that looked and read like criticism.

CAGE — Well, let's say he is a critic. Then he gives us the notion of what a critic really should be. Say that Norman O. Brown is a critic; then, we'll have to say that Fuller is a critic.

KOSTELANETZ — Let me deal with a particular piece, for the moment. May I ask how you composed Rozart Mix [1965] for thirteen tapemachines and six live performers?

CAGE — Did you ever see the score? It's just my correspondence with Alvin Lucier, a composer who teaches at Brandeis University. He wanted a concert of music in the Rose Art Museum. Because of engagements here and there, I had very little time to work on it, and he had purposefully separated me from the pianist David Tudor by engaging him to give a concert the previous month, so that this time I had to go without the usual assistance. I thought to make a tape piece, which I described in my letters to him. It would consist of loops, and we would have at least as many loops as there are keys on the piano—eighty-eight, which would be made by anybody, since I didn't have the time to do it. They could use any materials. We would have at least a dozen machines, and the loops would vary from the shortest viable length to something like forty-five feet long. I had been told that the Museum had a pool of water and a stairway, that it had an interesting architecture. So we would put the machines all over the building. Then the loops would get tangled up with themselves, and that would be part of the performance. Now if the loop broke at any point, it would be first priority to fix it; and once it was fixed, it was to be put back in the reservoir of loops, and another one would be put on that machine. The piece was also to begin without the audience knowing it had begun, and it was to conclude when the last member of the audience had left. When only twelve people were left, we had arranged to serve refreshments; all those people had a party.

KOSTELANETZ — Wasn't there another party the night before?

CAGE — Well, I went up there ahead of time thinking that they might not have made all the loops, which turned out to be the case. They only had about thirty, I think; so I worked like a devil and made the rest of them. What you want, you see, is to get a physically confused situation.

KOSTELANETZ — Why eighty-eight as a minimum.

CAGE — The reason for that multiplicity is that you would not then be able to exercise choice. If you're making eighty-eight loops, you very quickly get uninterested in what it is you are doing.

KOSTELANETZ — What sound was on the loops.

CAGE — It doesn't really matter. That's part of the piece. I don't know what was on those loops.

KOSTELANETZ — If there was nothing on those tapes, would the piece be valid.

CAGE — Well, that would not be the piece that I wrote. In this case I specifically said there should be something on the tape.

KOSTELANETZ — Could you run a tape-recorder for twenty-four hours somewhere, say in the middle of New York City, and then cut it up and make the segments into loops? Would that discount the situation.

CAGE — I don't suppose so. That time, I mostly used material I had around; materials I had made years ago for the library of the Williams Mix [1952].

KOSTELANETZ — How have you and Merce Cunningham worked together.

CAGE — W e collaborate in various ways. H e chooses an existing piece


of music and makes a choreography, or he makes a dance and I either compose for it or choose an existing piece or invite some other composer to write for it. Our collaboration has been such that neither one of us is at a fixed point. W e started at a time when dancers were very proud. They made the dance first, and then a musician came in like a tailor.Withus,fromabout1952 on,themusicwasnolongerfittedto the dance. The music could go on for any length of time, so there no longer needed to be rehearsals of the dance and music together.

KOSTELANETZ — Can someone else perform your role in the concerts or do you have to go on all the tours?

CAGE — I'm not always present.

KOSTELANETZ — Who is the author of Variations V [1965].

CAGE — It is published under my name.

KOSTELANETZ — Did you conceive all the parts or were they written independently.

CAGE — You haven't seen the, score? KOSTELANETZ — No.

CAGE — Well, the score is a posteriori—written after the piece. Do you see the implications of this? KOSTELANETZ — But then that's not the score.

CAGE — Nonsense, that changes our idea of what a score is. We always thought that it was a priori and that the performance was the performance of a score. I switched it completely around so that the score is a report on a performance. These are remarks that would enable one to perform Variations V.

KOSTELANETZ — That would make the score a surrogate for a critical review.

CAGE — No, these are not critical remarks. They are explanatory remarks. Critics never are explanatory. These are remarks that would enable one to perform Variations V.

KOSTELANETZ — Well, how did you produce the score.

CAGE — Well, I tossed coins again, setting as the limit then sixty-four remarks to be written. I got, I think, the number thirty-five—I forget. Then I tossed coins again to see how many words would be in each remark. I got five. Then I was faced with the problem of writing five words on Variations V that would be helpful for someone else if he wished to perform it. It then became what you might call a poetic problem—to think of something infivewords that would be useful to another person if he were going to perform Variations V. Then I wrote them down. Then I did each of thirty-five things like that, and that's the score.

KOSTELANETZ — Did you also choose the media involved—dance, film, sounds?

CAGE — Oh, one of the remarks is that there shall be dancers involved. And then there's a remark saying that at the first performance it was Merce Cunningham. It could be someone else.

KOSTELANETZ — So the selection of the basic elements—sound, dance, and film—is fixed.

CAGE — If you want to say that, yes. There could be other films, though, than those particular ones. Would you say that our talking here this evening is fixed or unfixed?

KOSTELANETZ — It might be fixed because of the notes I have before me here.

CAGE — No, the fact that we're sitting here. It's an extremely realistic situation, terribly fixed. Really, in space, in time, you'll never be able to repeat it. W e don't know precisely what we're going to say, but the moment we've said it you've even got it fixed on your tape. So can we say then that Variations V is fixed, and the score of it is these remarks about these things that happened, which envisage that somebody else might also do this.

KOSTELANETZ — Has anyone else done it.

CAGE — Yes, a group organized by Robert Moran in San Francisco.

KOSTELANETZ — Did you see it.


KOSTELANETZ — Did you hear reports? Was it different.

CAGE — Of course, it was different. How could it not be? Greatly different.

Say we wrote a score where two people come and want to interview a composer and they bring a transistorized tape-recorder. They meet at seven o'clock, etc. W e could give lots of remarks about it. Then they could do this, say, in Ann Arbor, and you know it would be different.

KOSTELANETZ — Would you consider this—now, here—a theatrical situation.

CAGE — Certainly. There are things to hear and things to see, and that's what theatre is.