Merce Cunningham and John Cage discuss music and dance
BROADCAST: Jan. 14, 1971 | DURATION: 00:53:41
Merce Cunningham, choreographer and John Cage musician and composer speak about music and dance. The two gentlemen discuss with Studs how music and dance come together to create the avant-garde of art in both worlds (music and dance).
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Studs Terkel Merce Cunningham is certainly, you know there's a phrase that's used every once in a while, it's a fancy phrase but it's right, "sui generis," he is his own artist, his own man, and as Rob Baker said recently in the, in one of the local papers, Rob is now in New York, says "Merce Cunningham, he dances to his very own drummer." And, of course, for a certain kind of exhilaration, a certain kind of joy in seeing an artist at work, it's Merce Cunningham and his group at the Civic Theatre, part of the Dance Festival. Three more nights: that is, tonight, Friday night, Saturday night and at eight-thirty each, and Sunday matinee at two-thirty and Sunday evening at seven-thirty. And I was thinking with his colleague John Cage, who also is ob-quite obviously an orig- an original, it was a conversation we had about three years ago, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Suppose we hear. I remember, well, we'll hear it. I think, I think John Cage was telling a story. This in -- this involved his storytelling, Cage's storytelling, and Merce Cunningham and his company dancing. You know, the, the, the double, the double dimension, both going on at the same time, and I think John was talking. One of my favorites as is one you told to as Merce Cunningham and his colleagues were dancing.
John Cage The vaccination?
Studs Terkel The vaccination. Now this is, how does that--was this, are these actual experiences of yours?
John Cage Yes, that was. It was in 1949 and I was on my way from Syracuse to Tunis. I'd taken the cheapest passage on an English boat. When I got on discovered that no food was served in my class and that I was put in the lowest part of the boat. Most of the people there were seasick. There was quite a storm at the sea, so I wrote to the captain and asked whether I might change my class. And he wrote back and said that I couldn't change my class. And then he inquired in his note whether I'd been vaccinated. And I was angry that I couldn't change the class, so I wrote back and said I hadn't been vaccinated and I didn't intend to be vaccinated, and he wrote back and said that if I wasn't vaccinated he wouldn't let me off the boat at Tunis. And I said, I wrote back that I refused to be vaccinated and that I was not only going to get off the boat at Tunis, but that I was going to get off before if possible, you know. [laughing] And the storm had increased by this time and you, you couldn't walk on the deck. The waves were going right over the boat, and we corresponded a bit more and more or less in deadlock, and finally the captain sent me a note saying that I had been vaccinated and he sent along a certificate with his signature proving it.
Studs Terkel And as you were telling the story, [laughing] as you were telling the story, Cunningham and the group were doing some dance, what, reflecting what--did you and Cunningham work togeth -- when he choreographed this
John Cage No, no, the choreography is quite independent. There was an excellent review of the program, I'm sorry I don't remember the reviewer's name, but following their first performance here at the Harper Theatre, the reviewer began something like this, saying that the dance had been danced to my stories and then said that isn't quite accurate. The dancers dance to the dance. The stories were told to the stories. Two things went on at the same time, and the, this brings us to--
Studs Terkel John Cage is talking. Merce, Merce Cunningham, your thoughts come to mind as that particular scene was being described. You recall the circumstance.
Merce Cunningham Oh, well, the dance that he's speaking of is how to pass, kick, fall and run. And I made the dance quite separate from any music or in this case stories. And then I asked Mr. Cage if he would put some music with it, as we had worked before so often, and he decided to try telling stories with it. So the dance has a structure to it of so many minutes and it continues its way along this, and Mr. Cage then proceeds within that structure to tell his stories, but he makes his time structure not to fit the dancing but to fit the time, so as he says the stories are telling about the stories, and the dancing is dancing about the dance. And he tells a st -- roughly tells a story a minute, and I think the dance is 24 minutes long, so he tells within that context of 24 minutes he tells, say, 15 stories. So some minutes there is silence as far as the sound goes. And sometimes if a story has a few words in it, then the tempo is slow, and if the story has lots of words in it, then the tempo is fast, so the sound varies its speed. In the meantime the dance is varying its speed in its own way back and forth across the stage. And with that dance we decided that, to open the stage completely so that we lifted the wings, and we lifted the back curtain, we lifted everything so that, so that primarily to have more space. But one, what is revealed then is what the stage looked like when it's undressed, so that you have a back wall and you have the light booms and all the ropes and things on the side, and then we simply use that as a field of action and run back and forth doing the
Studs Terkel So it's time and space.
Merce Cunningham Yes, yes that's mo-mostly what dancing consists of anyway, but particularly that one.
Studs Terkel Particularly Merce Cunningham's whole--this one too, we'll come back to this as, as a symbol when we go into speak of the other dances, too in your chor--but always there you find, even when some dances may have an aspect of terror to it, some do, there's always an aspect of humor. I mean, humor really is one of the--aside from your own discipline and artistic elegance, the humor is there, isn't it? Very often.
Merce Cunningham Well, I don't, I don't attempt to make things humorous necessarily in each piece, but I think that life is full of humorous things that happen, and you don't have to
Studs Terkel That, that -- now we come to today, 1971. About three years ago Merce Cunningham and John Cage, guests in the studio. Listening to this, what has happened in these three years since then as far as you and the dance?
Merce Cunningham Well [laughing] you mean, you mean am I less humorous or more humorous? Well, as far as the works go, there are a number of more pieces, different pieces including one that I, I think of as spoken of there with the fans in front
Merce Cunningham "Tread", yes. Yes. It's curious to me that I set out to make a piece which wasn't necessarily humorous but which was relaxed in its construction and in its makeup. At the same time in working it out I attempt to make it precise, which seems to me are two, almost two things that never go together but that's what I was interested in in the piece, it's like a little problem. I think it has though in its makeup a kind of humor.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I was thinking, John, you can enter the conversation concerning Merce's, Cunningham's dancing, of course, and your own thoughts. In this case six industrial fans, electric fans are used, are they not?
John Cage Yes.
Studs Terkel And one of the critics, this is very funny, one of the critics says, "I wonder if he's not trying to blow us, the critics, out". [laughing] The comment.
Merce Cunningham Well, I heard one complaint about getting sniffles, but I thought that they might be pleased because the theater was so hot. [laughing]
Studs Terkel But we're talk--by the way, it's at the Civic Theatre, and by the way, it's a very good little theater where you are, it's a, it's an intimate, intimate house, it's good for the dance group that you have. I was thinking we can keep this conversation open just as your dances are and as John your music is, obviously nonconventional. I'm thinking about three years, so much has happened in the world, that you're--some of the viewers, and many are very young I'm happy to note. We think of--let's talk about that first, the audience. Do you find a young audience is attracted pretty much?
Merce Cunningham Well, what was that audience today? It was primarily--
Merce Cunningham High school and college.
Merce Cunningham Students.
John Cage And I thought they were all very interested. And between the two dances there was a question period, and the questions that we received were very intelligent.
Studs Terkel Is something happening, this is the point, that older people are bewildered by that the young are not bewildered by who have been born in this technological age?
John Cage Well, but don't you think, Studs, that older people are getting younger?
Studs Terkel I hope so. [laughing] Well, obviously, obviously John Cage and Merce Cunningham are forever young. Can we talk--Merce, John, the nature of your whole approach. Someone was saying, this is interesting, your use of the body, the fantastic manner in which you use the body, someone was saying nothing is sacred to you, not the body. I, I imagine the contrary is the case, the body is quite sacred to you, or am I wrong?
Merce Cunningham Oh yes, yes, yes. Nothing is sacred to me in the terms of what one might think of as, as possible in a dance or, or whatever in that kind of situation or in the theater. But on the other, on the opposite end, it's how the dancer, the individual dancer trains himself to be able to do that so that he can say repeat it without fear or without fear of hazard or of injury, you know, which as far as being said, that's the one thing that I am nervous about. But other than that, I don't--anything is possible.
Studs Terkel Anything is possible. That's probably as--you say anything is possible. Isn't this maybe what both John Cage and Merce Cunningham are saying about music and dance, about the nature of life itself? Am I assuming too much here?
John Cage Well, I would like the -- our, our minds to change so that we are open at least to things that might happen rather than closing the door before they happen and before we know what they are. Our, our business, I believe, is to explore.
Merce Cunningham Yes, I, yes, I agree very much with that. I think one of the things that happens sometimes is one begins to somehow by some means decide what should take place. And I, I'm basically not interested in that. I would prefer to take a chance on what might take place or what it might appear like in the theater or, if it's not a theater, someplace else that is not really to know exactly what something is, and in a sense the way that these pieces are put together. I don't mean just my part, I mean the music and the visual thing. I don't know what will happen until it's put in the theater, until it's put, I'd say, in the first performance. I don't know what the--all of those things combined in that particular moment will appear like to any one person in the audience.
Merce Cunningham And I prefer that. I, I, that rather than knowing or having some very clear idea ahead of time, oh this is going to affect somebody some particular way. I prefer to risk, so to speak, to, to chance that this combination of things, some of which I don't know about, may produce something else.
Studs Terkel So the audience, this is by, this is a question addressed to both of you of course, and so the audience, then, plays an active role rather than a passive role.
Merce Cunningham Oh, I hope so. [laughing] Yes, I hope so, yes, very much that they complete the situation, but not an audience for me, not an audience as a bunch or a thing like this, but that each person in the audience has a chance to act in relation to this, not necessarily like anyone else in the audience does.
John Cage We like in the music, too, to have, oh, the loudspeakers for the live electronic music, to have them around the audience or at several points in the space at least, so that there it becomes physically clear that, that a person near one loudspeaker will hear something quite different than what another one far away from that speaker hears, because this--that kind of situation is the situation that we live in. And I think finally I'm more interested in what goes on outside of art than inside of art, or that if we are interested in art, as we obviously are because we spend our lives making it, that we would like it to lead to the enjoyment of our everyday lives and those of others.
Studs Terkel So this, this is, this is then, there's no line of demarcation, then, between this is art and this is life. In a sense you're fusing the two.
Merce Cunningham I think that's why, for me, I, I have always been interested in having whatever sound or music that went with the dance that took place at the same time to be of some kind of contemporary nature rather than something that was familiar to an audience upon which they can peg themselves. I never li -- I never found that interesting as a point of view.
Studs Terkel This raises about three questions, about three phrases came out, and one is, well, chance. We'll start with chance. And I think John Cage and chance and random aspects and perhaps later come to discipline within this framework. There's a random aspect to life we know today, and I think John
John Cage Well, if you, if one uses chance in his work he's actually using a discipline, because--don't you agree that a discipline is something that goes beyond our likes and dislikes, and where we are obliged to do something that we wouldn't have oh, done just off the, because of our taste? Through the discipline of chance all sorts of things arise that, that are not in your head. And so that head, our way of thinking changes and becomes open to possibilities that it didn't perceive before.
Merce Cunningham Yes, I think, yes
John Cage People, people have often defended art on the grounds that it was more organized than life, and that life was a mess and that therefore we needed art in order to escape from life. I would like to have an art that was so bewildering, so complex, and, and so to speak, illogical that we would return to everyday life with great pleasure. [laughing]
Studs Terkel You were going to say something there.
Merce Cunningham Well, he is speaking about the chance, how it opens possibilities. When I sometimes give workshops and students ask me about this work with chance and I explain it to them and then they ask further very often do I, if I don't like what comes up with the chance procedures, do I then throw it away? In other words, do I let my taste enter this thing, and I don't. I prefer to find a way to deal with what has come up within the operation
Studs Terkel Oh
Merce Cunningham Rather than, rather than say I don't like that or it cannot, or very often what comes up is something which seems impossible to do in terms of physical behavior, but rather even than, than accept that as a mental block or whatever, I try it out and very often then something else results.
Studs Terkel So it isn't a question of editing. It's not a question of editing, deleting, on the contrary it's using that accident--
Merce Cunningham It's acceptance
Studs Terkel A happy accident, let's say, but
Merce Cunningham Or sometimes unhappy.
Studs Terkel Unhappy accident, but therefore of making that part of your discipline, part of, if I may use this, of your art that which seemingly is fat, you know, and should be, it's extraneous. You, you're saying the fact that it happened.
Merce Cunningham Well, then you have to, in my work you have to find a way then how to physically do that as a, as a physical act, as a, as a--if you like, a technical thing in the, in the discipline itself. So that what comes up in terms of discipline is quite a different operation than simply accepting a traditional discipline within which you might work. I don't, I think--and in those terms I think it's very applicable to, so to speak, to contemporary life because you can't apply traditional discipline to our everyday life any longer. Look at it. As John says, it's a mess or it's so mixed up that to try to do that is hopeless.
Studs Terkel But therefore you, you don't--but--this is the point that probably can be, might be raised by someone questioning Cunningham and Cage, is you don't accept the mess as a mess. Out of the mess you see a kind of--is order the right word? Something or--out of the mess something
Merce Cunningham No, I accept the mess. At least that's what I attempt to do. But say that in, in this working out of something, I'm speaking now in dance terms of course, that is, that a physical, physical continuity comes up which seems impossible to do, but rather than, than my saying oh, I don't like that, or I cannot do it, I try it out.
John Cage I think for instance that
Merce Cunningham And out of that very often then my experience is enlarged. I find a way to do it, and it's something that I had thought was impossible to do I find now is possible.
John Cage I've been reading Thoreau's journal a great deal in the last years and think of the difference between an organized, cultivated garden and, what do you call an untouched forest, a virgin forest. Entering the forest one is aware of what Thoreau called "wildness," and he said in this wildness, or we could say in the language we've been using, in this mess, is our salvation.
Studs Terkel Yeah. In this, and perhaps even a better word than mess is the wildness. John used the word "wildness". And now we're talking about a certain aspect of man's nature, possibilities for good and for evil of course. But you're saying that out of this chaos or the area of, if I interpret you correctly, wildness is something which man can find a new dimension that is, you're talking about possibilities, really, aren't you?
Merce Cunningham Yes, and rather than, rather than as you, as in a cultivated garden making lines and so on and trying to straighten it out so to speak, within the wildness try to see what that is.
John Cage If, if one were interested, not in wildness but just in order, the thought that occurred that we should get rid of thunderstorms. Don't you think? And yet all you have to do is remember the last one you were in to realize how refreshing it
Studs Terkel Yeah. Of course this, this is, we can ent -- we can enter the realm of politics, by the way, very easily here, [laughing] question of law and order as, as is, is, as it is expressed by some. This, you're talking about the very nature of, like the thunderstorm. Yeah. At the same time man says I'd like to control that's out of, out of, out of it evolves electricity, that, that came out of the fact that there was a thunderstorm. That [occurred?] in fact there was lightning.
Merce Cunningham Yes, but perhaps if they hadn't thought so much of controlling in only one way or as few ways, they might have discovered that there were many other ways to deal with that.
Studs Terkel When you are using some of the results of it, though, you're not, and the elec--with the electric fans.
Merce Cunningham That, this thing of the mess or the chaos or whatever you like, that in the, in this term, the what you're speaking of in relation to the dance, that, that comes out that I make the dance and then I ask the musicians to do something about the music. In this case they have used a piece of Christian Wolff's, then beyond that Jasper Johns, who helps us with our artistic decor things, asked Bruce Nauman to make a set, who's a young painter from California.
John Cage This is for "Tread".
Merce Cunningham For "Tread", yes, and, and --with the
Studs Terkel Which is, by the way, will "Tread" be on tonight, Friday night?
Merce Cunningham I can't remember. It will be on one night. We're doing it several nights. But he simply suggested fans and then Mr. Jasper asked him, well, did he have any particular place in mind where they should be? And, and he said to Bruce, just remember that the dancers do need space, so that that's the only problem. Other than that, it's not a problem, and Bruce said he'd like to have them across the front of the stage. So we thought, well, that's an interesting idea, let's do it. So it comes to that. Then one gets the fans [laughing] and puts them, and then, and curiously enough at least I, I have not seen the dance of course from the front, but I did go out the first time we did it in Brooklyn Academy to look at, through with the fans, and the visual thing is--
John Cage Very--
Merce Cunningham I thought would be restricted, but not in the least. It's not restricted at all. You see right through these fans, through these structures, and you see the operation of the dance going on.
Studs Terkel You
Merce Cunningham Yet this is not something, again you see that I said, "Oh, this is what we must do" in any way. The three elements simply combined and this is the result of it.
Studs Terkel In a way it's not removed from the approach of a good jazz artist, is it? In that improvisation. The, the air of, the improvisatory air.
Merce Cunningham With, within some kind of, of a structure, yes. In a way it is, yes. The dance, of course, is set. That is, we, we rehearse it in the way we rehearse and we do it the same every time. The music is not fixed quite the same, is it?
John Cage Well, at first we used the recordings that David Tudor had made of the, of the piece by Christian Wolff called for one, two, or three players. And he made a recording using organ. When Christian Wolff heard this, he asked us to perform live with the record. So the music varies a good deal from one performance to another according to how many of us are performing and what instruments we are playing and so forth.
Studs Terkel This is very challenging, this is strange that--Merce Cunningham eventually after, say, the first performance is structured, tightly structured. At the same time, the sound, the music is improvised to a great extent.
John Cage Well--
Merce Cunningham Within a certain frame.
John Cage There are many--there's--you see, music doesn't have--the--it isn't made with, with human bodies, but rather with the playing of instruments and the sounds in the air when they, when they occur at the same time don't hurt one another. Let's say, if two thumbs--
Merce Cunningham Collide, [laughing] it's not the same as two bodies.
John Cage No one, no one is hurt. So that there enters into dancing oh, an aspect such as enters into architecture. Something must be done in architecture so that the building holds, stands up. Something must be done in dancing so that the dancers don't hurt themselves so that they could never dance again. They, they must not bump unless it's been arranged that they should bump.
Merce Cunningham Yes. [laughing]
John Cage It's like a story of Erik Satie's, or a statement of his. He said, "Don't do this unless someone tells you especially to do it." [laughing]
Studs Terkel I think so, Merce Cunningham, then, and John Cage, and John Cage talking about instruments that create sound and if they collide no one's really hurt, a piece of property may be hurt, you know, but not a human being. Whereas the dancer, we come to him, so therefore the structure is to allow as much as possible the use of the human body. But at the same time, a certain discipline is needed so that he will not be hurt.
Merce Cunningham Yes, well, that involves the more disciplined or more complex the dance is in terms of technical activity, the movement, the more complex the movement, the more one has to take care of that problem because the more chance there is of accident. But where a dance is not so rigidly and so thickly textured, say to speak, and so rigidly set as in some pieces we have, then there are other freedoms. We have in one of the pieces we do called "Canfield", which we will do this weekend, there are very strict parts in it and yet then there are also in-between parts where the dancers are quite free to go in any direction because the movement is simpler and so they can take care of the movement and the direction at the same time. They are freer there at those points.
John Cage This question of freedom and absence of freedom is very--comes to another point, say in, in the hunting of wild mushrooms for use in the kitchen. It would be absurd to use chance operations and because that way one could easily gather--
Studs Terkel Poison.
John Cage A poisoned mushroom which would kill you and you'd never get to eat another. Dancing is, doesn't go quite that far, but, but it goes in
Merce Cunningham It gets to -- [laughing] it can get near it.
Studs Terkel Well you say it can get near it, this is interesting, that's why I need a copy of R.D. Laing's book, Knots. R.D. Laing the psychiatrist, the British psychiatrist, I know is someone both of you will like very much, 'cause this is his approach, too, that that which people call schizophrenia, he's testing it and testing it, it's because the [nots?] of people, but also of possibilities. In a sense, it's possibilities we're talking about, aren't we?
John Cage Yes, you could say of music that the beauty of it is that it permits an experience of chaos without doing us any harm, hmmm? Dance permits us something different than that. There can be a great deal of freedom in dancing, but there has to be an observance of the, of the physicality of the--
Merce Cunningham It's also like the territory, all of this thing with animals and territory. Dancers have a certain sense of that on the stage and if their territory so to speak is being taken over by someone else, there is a hazard there, which frightens them, that you know this yourself if you're in the street where there's a hazard about, about running into somebody there or running into an automobile or anything like that. Well, it's the same kind of hazard on the stage and often worse because it's smaller, and I'm sure that's why, in so much of dancing, the lines are set very clearly so that everybody knows where they're going, but that isn't very interesting to me. I prefer to, to think of that another way as everybody being a separate individual and it's conceivable they could all go their own ways.
Studs Terkel This is interesting what Merce just said because earlier in the program you were saying something about affecting the audience as individuals you notice rather than as a crowd, a -- use the word "mob." As a crowd. Individuals. So, too, would the performers.
Merce Cunningham Yes, I, I, it's really what's, I think, the basic thing behind my work in terms of the dancers, whether it looks like that or not is something else, but that I think of them all as individual dancers, never as a group.
Studs Terkel At the same time--
John Cage And he makes the choreography where each dancer is at the center or the possible center of one's focus.
Merce Cunningham Well, that's about the space, yes, but even, my feeling is even when they dance together, as we do sometimes ensemble, it's simply that that, those particular individuals happen to come together at that moment.
Studs Terkel So there is the ensemble.
Merce Cunningham Yes, but at any moment that could break up into something else. As it is, as, as very often happens in life on the street, you have to stop and everybody walks across the street together because the light happens [laughing] to be going that way, on the other hand there may be someone over here who doesn't pay any attention to that, you see, and you can have that in the
Studs Terkel But there's something, something we may call social responsibility. You know, social responsibility, too. That is, we do--we are together on this one planet, on this one little, very little spaceship, close when we--at the same time, you want the individual to be free but without--
Merce Cunningham Without inflicting--
Studs Terkel Hurting.
Merce Cunningham Hurting anyone else, and that's really the basic thing about this, I think. And we, as dancers we have toured many places in many theaters big and small, and they, we find this quite astonishing as we go from one size stage to another. Where the space is large then this thing we're talking about is far less complicated, but where the space is small, it's terribly, it's gets a very severe problem, and one has to watch [laughing] carefully that you don't inadvertently knock several people down.
Studs Terkel So it's really contradiction we're talking about, too, and paradox, both. We're talking now about, about freedom, wildness, at the same time--
Merce Cunningham Discipline. Some kind of discip--well, I don't think of -- myself, I don't think of discipline as, like, rules or like that. I think of discipline as being something private, which in the case of a dancer he comes to and that he realizes that the discipline, say, of going to class is part of his life, and it isn't just the fact that he has to be in a class with other people because dancers can do it by themselves, they don't have to go there, but that he arrives at this point within himself. And that's a kind of devotion.
John Cage You're now preparing a new lecture on discipline, aren't you?
Merce Cunningham Oh, well, I'm attempting to, yes, a lecture demonstration on this, because I, I, I think that so much of a dancer's life is spent with this, with you have to, to practice every day one way or another, whether you go to class with other people or whether you do it yourself, but this kind of, the ideas about discipline get so mixed up with doing something--doing something so many times every day, which isn't what it's about. It's more like yoga, it's more like meditation, I think, than anything else. So I've been reading about this, but I even have a quotation for W.C. Fields.
Studs Terkel Do
Merce Cunningham [laughing] Yes.
Merce Cunningham Oh, it's about how he practiced juggling 14 hours a day when he must have been about eight years old. It's amazing. Or it never connects him with anything like that and yet that's what it's all about. It was something that he decided he did, and he just went ahead and did
Studs Terkel He became the Master Juggler by
Merce Cunningham Absolutely. As well as some other things. [laughing]
Studs Terkel But there again in, in, you're using W.C. Fields if we could as a metaphor for a moment, this great clown.
Merce Cunningham Oh
Studs Terkel This incredible clown at the same time was, if we use the word as I do about John Cage and Merce Cunningham, artist, because he also had the discipline, but a wildness was there, too.
Merce Cunningham Oh yes, oh yes, yes. His discipline was, I think, was absolutely amazing, because it was, it was a discipline to be against everybody else. [laughing]
Studs Terkel And also against, against this, this goes back to Cage and Cunningham, he was against things, objects were defying him, the hatrack, the picket
Merce Cunningham Yes, yes, any order, any kind of order, anything that anyone had set up as that, as something one should do or how it should be done, then he hit it. [laughing] He just-
Studs Terkel He hit not only babies and old women--
Merce Cunningham Yes,
Studs Terkel But picket fences--
Merce Cunningham Oh, anything.
Merce Cunningham Oh, it was marvelous.
Studs Terkel That were completely disturbing him, and having trouble with canes and different things. This is chaotic. At the same time, while it's also humorous, and can't evade the fact you spoke earlier at the beginning in this three years ago conversation, the humor, if there is the humor, it's the humor of life itself, or the--or to use a phrase, the absurdity of, of life itself.
Merce Cunningham Well, it's like you set out to walk down the street and you're very carefully done up and you're going someplace very fancy and you're thinking about that and then you fall off the curb in the gutter, it happens all the time. It's some kind of, of, of inadvertence that is continually happening in life, it's that--well, it's absurd. It's the absurdity.
Studs Terkel There's something else here, and that involves gambling. You call your dance "Canfield", and that's where the dancers are allowed to improvise at times and take chances, and there's a, there was Ace Canfield,
Merce Cunningham Oh, yes, yes it's named after him. It
Merce Cunningham It's named after the card game which is named after him. The dance is made from playing the game; that is, the construction of it is made, was made from playing the game "Canfield" several times. [laughing]
Studs Terkel So gambling then. You, you're, then John Cage and Merce Cunningham are gamblers in a way.
John Cage But not, not just to win. [laughing]
Merce Cunningham Well, no, but, but Duchamp had said to you, "Don't you ever want to win?"
John Cage Well, he also told me--this was not about card games, but about chess, [match striking] which I studied with him in the last years of his life. One of the most marvelous things he said was, "You must play both sides of the game," which if we come back to gambling, we must both win and lose.
Studs Terkel This, you know, there's something that both of you are touching on and I think is terribly important. John just said, "Not to win." Not simply to win. The competitive aspect that is driving us all crazy and may destroy the world is this, "We've got to be number one." You know I'm referring, of course to everything. In our society, all of sudden number one. And you're saying we don't really have to be.
Merce Cunningham We can all be number one.
John Cage Because we must, we must do as Buckminster Fuller. And when you said spaceship a moment ago, I thought of his expression, "spaceship earth."
Studs Terkel I thought of him as I was saying
John Cage And, and he has, he thinks of the history of civilization as a history of failure. And he looks forward to a future in which we could all live successfully together. Now if everyone wins, then of course we don't have to speak of losing. We could, perhaps, individually lose, but what we need is a society that, that works for everyone.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, John Cage just said this and he was quoting Buckminster Fuller, there's no wonder so many of the young and those who would be youthful in spirit, see the i--that is there's an--of course you sense this obviously in your audience, probably in the young dancers, too, this lack of sharp, mean competitiveness. I'm sure it's there in life, but this is--you're seeing something--again we talk about possibilities, don't we? A new kind of society in a way.
John Cage Right.
Merce Cunningham Oh, yes. in, with the young you're speaking about. Oh, yes. When one encounters that, it's such a absolutely refreshing--more than refreshing--it's like a revelation into, to if you meet the young kids who have, with that feeling. Every once in a while in the studio in New York in the teaching in the class I get that sense from the students and it's absolutely extraordinary.
John Cage I picked up three teenagers in California when I was driving there last fall. One was a girl from a commune in New Mexico. The other two were boys studying at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and they were asking her about her life in the commune, and she said a beautiful thing, she said, "We have homes, but we don't have keep out."
Studs Terkel Oh, yeah. Well, in a way, this is--we come back to the artistry of Merce Cunningham and of John Cage and in your world, this is what you're really saying, aren't you? In the world of your, of the dance.
Merce Cunningham Well, it's what I'm involved with, not, not only in the dancing but in the--I myself never liked that competitive thing that so much of dancing seemed to me to have or by, whether by its nature or whether it was fostered. So I never tried to do that in my own situation. I went on the assumption that each dancer was a person who had certain abilities, dance abilities, and I would attempt to find out what those were, not that one was like this one or not like that one or so on, but that each person was quite separate. So that I've tried to foster that in the classes, also in the teaching and all of it as much as that seemed possible for me to do. To really find what each to--not, not so much for me to find, but to find a way to let each of the dancers find out for himself what, how he danced, what kind of a person he was in that situation. Because it's not, it's not politics, it's not something else. It was dancing, but that's, that's as reasonable a place to do that as any other situation, and it happened to be also what I'm interested in.
Studs Terkel So we're talking about freedom, aren't we, in a way? Freedom in, in the, in the core sense almost.
John Cage And other things. Individual experience, social experience, et cetera.
Studs Terkel What were you going to say John? You were just about to say something. I thought you were, John Cage.
John Cage Well, I don't know what it was. Maybe you know better than
Studs Terkel No I was thinking there was something--we're talking now about dance and what has happened in the years and how sometimes an artist bewilders and is attacked because he bewilders, of course it's, I guess, or something anew, a new approach is very often terrifying to people, isn't it? The challenge of freedom is, it's quite terrifying
Merce Cunningham Well, I think, too, audiences or people who come to things are, are put off, or terrified if you like, if there's nothing in the situation they can hold on to. Where they have to sink or swim, so to speak. And I remember a student coming to study with me and she'd been there about three years and she said, "I'm"--one day she said, "You know, when I first came to study with you I was absolutely paralyzed." She said, "There was no way for me to, to get into what you were doing. There was no demonstration." That is, I, that I as the teacher would demonstrate the exercises, but then there was, they would then have to do it themselves. They had to, in other words, sink or swim, and she said, "It took me a year before I could begin to realize this, to sense this, that I had to do it, and in doing it that way," she said, "I, I've, have been able to continue." Well, I have a feeling very often with what we do, I don't, I don't think it's myself, but with, with the music and with the dancing and with the, the visual thing, you know, these elements combine this way, there is often nothing for a spectator that--nothing familiar, even if the, say that they looks like electric fans but they're placed in an unfamiliar situation and there are that many of them, so that they really have to accept this situation or reject it. And they c-- and there's no way fo--no, noth--no guidelines or no ropes or no anchors or anything.
John Cage After the performance this afternoon, one of the students, I don't know high school or college, said to me, a girl, she said that "This is very difficult to see for the first time." But she said, "I love it."
Studs Terkel Yeah. See, she's young and so open to challenge. The fear of strangeness. Of course, this has so many implications, quite obviously, you know, this is as John was implying earlier, dance, music and other things, life itself, the fear of the stranger or the fear of the strange idea or the fear of newness, the fear of the unfamiliar, and a sense you present this, therefore it has to astonish, astonish is a good word, by the way, isn't that the phrase used, "art must always astonish." You know the great story of Diaghilev and Nijinsky was it, you know, he was doing something quite remarkable, and it was real --and Diaghilev was unhappy, and finally he gave up. He said, "What do you want of me, master?" And he says, "Astonish me." So does, but I'm thinking about the years since Merce Cunningham first became known. Martha Graham helped free the body. Before her, Isadora Duncan, and you were Martha Graham, remember the Martha Graham Company. At the time though, there was a theme that we understood, even though she was shocking and astonishing. But it was Emily Dickinson's theme or American document dealing with American rebels and freedom of thought. Now, you've gone beyond that.
Merce Cunningham Well, I, I never was interested in dancing that referred. By that I mean that where, where the, where you looked at the dancing at the same time realized, either by a program note or whatever, that this referred to, and you speaking of Emily Dickinson, too, in some way, or it referred to a mood or a feeling or in a sense expressed the music that is, was held together by the music as say in the Balancine ballets where he uses the musical structure as the, as the plot, if you like, of that. That never interested me. And from the time that, that Mr. Cage and I started to work together, there was a separation in the music between the music and the dance. We felt they could be independent things, and then as the possibilities of visual things came in, we thought, well, it seemed no reason why that couldn't be independent, too. And so that the dancing does not refer, it is what it is. But that I realize is, is very difficult, often, for people who, who don't--I don't think it's so difficult for young. For the young. That's my impression. I mean, that may be basing it on a too small a survey, but I don't think it is, because I think that they're so used to visual things now, they see so much through the television to anything else, and it's, and I don't think that they, they see so many different things, not just one thing which they see a lot, but they see so many different things that they can look at something visual and that is its meaning if you like. It doesn't have to be referred to something else. Whereas we used to be, the society used to be, entirely built on some kind of literary connection. All that, and Lord knows the dancing that I grew up with was some way or another explicit or non-explicit, but I don't think that exists any, so much anymore, I don't think that they have to have that.
Studs Terkel You feel that, John, the comment that Merce made, that's a perceptive one, you see, a rock concert for example, there is light, the costumes, their sound that to my ear is, you know, overwhelming, and I don't quite catch every--do I catch the words, or do they catch the words?
Merce Cunningham Well, further than that, one only has to look at the photographs of Woodstock to see that that, you don't have--there's something about, nothing about a literary meaning in any of that. It's this extraordinary visual experience that you see. You don't need anything else with that. As that writer said, he said, "Wouldn't Cecil B. DeMille have been envious?" [laughing]
Studs Terkel You mean the crowd?
Merce Cunningham Yes! [laughing]
Studs Terkel And no money for the extras, either.
Merce Cunningham Yes. [laughing]
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, Woodstock is a good case in point, isn't it? The audience there were participants.
Studs Terkel The audience, weren't they? No
Merce Cunningham They didn't even hear the sound half the time. They couldn't. But, but the immensity of the, if you like, the meaning of that thing, was--is visual. It isn't, it isn't really, it isn't really anything else, it's that whole visual experience, and that quite different from it, from that having to refer to something else.
Studs Terkel Talking to Merce Cunningham and John Cage and the Cunningham Company, part of the Dance Festival at the Civic Theatre tonight, Saturday, both at eight-thirty, Sunday matinee at two-thirty and seven-thirty Sunday evening, and among the dances we spoke of "Tread", "Objects", too.
Merce Cunningham "Objects", yes, yeah I guess. And "Canfield".
Studs Terkel "Canfield".
Merce Cunningham Yes. And we also have a, a piece--oh, we should speak about "Second Hand". We have a piece where we dance to the music.
Studs Terkel Well, suppose you talk about that.
Merce Cunningham Well, I think that Mr. Cage should tell you about the music so
John Cage Well, in the, oh in the late '40s, I had made a two-piano arrangement of the first movement of Erik Satie's "Socrate", a, a work that he originally made for orchestra and which is in three movements, and it's a, it's a piece of music that I've always loved, and I told Merce that if he would ever choreograph the other two movements that I would complete the two-piano arrangement. And a year ago last summer he said that he was doing that. And, so, in collaboration with Arthur Maddox at the University of Illinois, I finished the two-piano arrangement and then belatedly asked the copyright holder for permission to make it. That was refused. And meanwhile Merce had finished the dance and the performance was a month off. So I said, "Don't worry, since I know the piece so well, I'll make a cheap imitation of it." And then I made the mistake of growing so fond of this piano solo I then wrote that now I'm, I've been busy now for a year orchestrating it. It'll take me another year to copy the parts.
Studs Terkel This is a perfect example, isn't it, of what we've been talking about all this morning, and that's out of accident, out of unhappy in this case human whatever it might be, perversity is what it might be, but nonetheless, out of an accident, John Cage made something that is to him quite exhilarating and I would imagine to the audience. Isn't this, this is what you're
Merce Cunningham Well yes, instead of saying, "Oh, isn't this too bad we can't do it," John said--
Studs Terkel Instead of deleting it or editing it out.
Merce Cunningham Accepted the situation and dealt with it in another way.
John Cage I made this whole cheap imitation with chance operations so maybe I can be forgiven to say that, if I say that, sometimes I even like my imitation of the "Socrate" more than I like the original.
Studs Terkel You know, I think in the little time left we should hear a John Cage, as sort of a postscript to this conversation, a John Cage story that we'll
John Cage You want a new story?
Studs Terkel Oh, you have a new one?
John Cage Oh, I have, I always have a story.
Studs Terkel All right, oh, of course. [laughing] Well, of course.
John Cage Well, there was the man who only had one shirt, and he was asked how he managed to live with just one shirt. I heard this story, by the way, from a microbiologist. And the man said, "Well, each night before I go to bed I take a shower with my shirt still on, and then I scrub the collar and the cuffs with my electric toothbrush, [laughing] and then I hang it on the TV. That's where it dries." [laughing]
Studs Terkel Now, will that story be, will that story be an adjunct, possibly, sometimes, that very brief story an adjunct to a Cunningham piece of choreography?
John Cage Yes.
Merce Cunningham Well, well you--
John Cage I, I use it sometimes with the dance "How to pass, kick, fall and run."
Studs Terkel So here again--oh, you say sometimes on "How to pass,
John Cage Oh, I always tell different stories.
Studs Terkel And what happens to the dance?
Merce Cunningham Oh, we just go on dancing. [laughing]
Studs Terkel Suppose we have a, a last go-around. This is open. This is chance now. Indeed this conversation is, there's a theme of course. But at the same time it's also random, and yet not random. So perhaps thoughts, John Cage, for about five minutes. Not to worry. There is a clock, that's true. And this is time and space, this time, but we're not slave to the clock, but a thought that comes to your mind now as, we just to remind the audience of vital statistics. The Merce Cunningham Company with very excellent ensemble, Carolyn Brown is a member as you of course, will be tonight at the Civic Theatre at eight-thirty, Saturday eight-thirty, Sunday matinee at two-thirty and at seven-thirty Sunday night.
John Cage You're marvelous the way you can keep repeating that vital information. [laughing]
Studs Terkel And now, and now perhaps, a sort of a random and chance ending.
John Cage Yes.
Studs Terkel We'll keep this open end. So what were you, what, what, what's on your mind, John Cage?
John Cage Well, it's a very curious thing, Studs, I remembered years ago that there had been published here in Chicago around the turn of the century a, a transliteration, not a translation, but a transliteration of Lao Tse's Dao de Ching, and I have grown interested in language which is free of syntax because if the words are free of one another the way our music and dance is, then they can have many more meanings. For instance, the Japanese poem [Japanese] that means transliterated, mushroom, ignorance, leaf of tree, adhesiveness. One translation is, "the leaf of some unknown tree sticking on the mushroom." Another translation is "mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking on it." Another one "dot that's unknown brings mushroom and leaf together," and a fourth "What leaf? What mushroom?" In other words, if we can free things of the way they're stuck together, then we can have many more meanings from just a few words. And so now I'm hoping to learn something more than I know now of the Chinese language in which words are free of one another, and I am going to keep at it.
Studs Terkel Merce Cunningham, this, listening very thrilling by the way, and then John's approach, this is your approach in dance,
Merce Cunningham Well, yes, except that I also deal with the dancers, and I would just like to say that I, I'm, how do I say this? Very grateful for the dancers in my company and the way they have put up with me and [laughing] all the things that we have done together. I think they have responded marvelously.
Studs Terkel By the way, do they--since you spoke of the company, and the taskmaster--
John Cage It's quite a large company now. Aren't
Merce Cunningham Yes, oh yes, we've increased.
Merce Cunningham No, no, there are about a dozen
Studs Terkel Do they, now, there's Merce Cunningham's imagination at work, his improvisatory facility, his sense of seeking freedom, do the individual dancers contribute their thoughts, too?
Merce Cunningham On occasion. Not very much, but sometimes in certain situations where that, that seems to be a very lively thing to do, then we do it. Most of the dances, actually, I probably make mys--I choreograph myself and set them on, on the particular dancers and, and it roughly stays that way, but there are passages where they have a kind of freedom.
Studs Terkel If someone comes up with an idea, say, you may--
Merce Cunningham Oh yes, or yes, or in working something out, I, I think that must happen with all dancers anyway, working something out, something doesn't quite work but you see something else that happens that they have done by accident or by whatever it may be. Oh no, that's the same like.
Studs Terkel And so to audience and to listeners. Anything else you want to say, John or Merce Cunningham?
John Cage Well, I just want to say that it's always a pleasure to be
Merce Cunningham Yes, we've enjoyed it very much.
Studs Terkel Well, I've found this very enjoyable but also more than that, challenging. And I imagine listeners would, too, and it's always, it seems to me that this unfamiliar, the strange, always an air of excitement to it and that in itself is exhilarating. That to me is art. Thank you very much.