This really isn't a blog, as it's far too long (and lacking any bells and whistles), but it seemed the best way to publicly share a conversation that took place between John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow in Telluride, Colorado, in 1989. This was in the context of the Composer-to-Composer Institute that year, headed up by Charles Amirkhanian and John Lifton, involving, in addition to Cage and Nancarrow, Morton Subotnick, Joan La Barbara, Trimpin, Anthony Davis, Laurie Spiegel, and many others. Cage and Nancarrow hadn't seen each other in years.
It's posted here today to coincide with the second week of the "Anywhere in Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival" taking place at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Yesterday, co-curators Jay Sanders and Dominic Murcott hosted an afternoon comprising two events -- this recording (in an abbreviated version) enhancing a conversation between the two on the subject of Cage and Nancarrow, which was preceded by a spirited exchange between Murcott and Kyle Gann, author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1996), on the subject of Nancarrow's amazing music for player pianos. Gann also maintains a Nancarrow Webpage, available here. This afternoon, in the same third floor space, Amirkhanian presented "Nancarrow Deconstructed." I've learned a tremendous amount from the proceedings, and have had a marvelous time watching a player piano very much like Nancarrow's own realize a number of his works.
The recording from the John Cage Trust is available in its entirety here, which, because it's old and archival, is not the highest audio quality. To facilitate listening, I'm including a lengthy transcript of their conversation below. You can read as you listen if you like, which might make things inaudible a little more audible. Enjoy!
CONLON NANCARROW & JOHN CAGE
In conversation, moderated by Charles Amirkhanian
Sunday, Aug. 20, 1989
Recorded and transcribed by Laura Kuhn
Questions from the audience (**)
Gift-giving ceremony at end:
John Lifton (JL)
CA:Since John and Conlon really didn't meet
each other until much later in their composing careers -- John working on the
West Coast, Conlon having gone to Spain with the Lincoln Brigade and then to
Mexico -- it would interest me to know how you first met. Did you, Conlon, when
you came back to the U.S.in '47 to build the punching machine, hear about John?
CN:It was before that. John doesn't remember
but I heard the first performance of his prepared piano.
CN:The one in your apartment, remember?
CN:Well, I don't know if you were living
there but Minna Lederman told me to go there and gave me a sort of… It was a
private thing, there was just a few people there. I remember Virgil Thomson was
there, and a few other people.
JC:Was that on the river?
CN:I think so. It was in '39.
JC:'39? Pardon me, but I wasn't there then.
CN:Well, you had to be. In '39? Well, your piano was!
CA:You were in Seattle then?
I was in San Francisco.
CN:All of '39?
JC:Seattle or San Francisco.
CA:When was the first trip to New York? '43?
JC:When I left the West Coast I spent a year
in Chicago, which was in the early '40s. It must have been '42, or '43, that I
settled in New York for the first time.
CA:You did the big concert at the Museum of
JC:In '42, wasn't it?
CA:Was it '42? So, I wonder when that was. It
couldn't have been in '47?
JC:It couldn't have been in '39.
CN:No. Well, wait a minute. Could it have
been? When was the first time you had anything with the prepared piano?
JC:There are some people who think that the
prepared piano wasn't made in '39.
CN:But Charles says… Now, maybe, when I went to New York in '47…
CA:That would be more likely.
CN:Was that, do you think, probably the first time? It wasn't even
public, it was sort of private I think.
I had done it on the West Coast.
CA:In any case, Conlon, did you talk with
CN:Oh, no. He didn't know me.
CA:What about you, John? When do you remember
first encountering Conlon's music?
JC:Well, my knowing of Conlon's work was
through John Edmonds at the New York Public Library, who had tapes.
CA:Reel-to-reel tapes. Was he an old friend
of yours somehow?
CN:Well, yes. I didn't know him too well,
but, yes, he was a friend.
JC:He thought I would be interested in the
work and, as your work just makes us, you know, not just interested but
excited, I was very glad to learn of it and, moreover, I wanted to use it in
relation to Merce Cunningham's work. So we were just then planning a… When did
I first come to see you in Mexico City?
CN:Wasn't it when you went there with Merce
Cunningham? Yes, we were planning a trip to South America. I think that was it.
JC:…and Merce had already made a dance using
CN:But before that, though. It wasn't in
Mexico that he used that music of mine.
JC:No, but we had made it but I hadn't yet
met you. It was exciting not only to have the music but the possibility of
being with you in Mexico City. Not only for me but for David Tudor.
CN:Oh, that's right. Yes.
JC:And I remember the food that we ate
together in your home, which included, didn't it, the huitlacoche?
CN:Huitlacoche! The one mushroom that you
JC:It's a mushroom that grows on corn, and
has the shape of corn but its own color.
CN:Well, it's a fungus on the corn.
CA:They throw it away in this country.
CN:They do. You know, I don't think there's
any word for that mushroom in any part of the world, in any other language,
other than corn. It must appear but they must just throw it out, I'm sure, as a
diseased ear or something.
JC:We have a market, though, now, in Union
Square, with organic food, and when the corn is organic, of course, it grows
the mushroom so that it's possible in Union Square now to get it.
CN:They grow it there?
JC:They grow it organically, you see, in the
area around New York and some of the farmers come to Union Square, and if you
look through their corn you're apt to find huitlacoche.
CN:But in Mexico, this corn is not organic.
It's just the usual commercial corn.
JC:Yes, I know, but it doesn't have
CN:Well, that's true. They don't put it on
JC:If you put pesticides on it the mushroom
won't grow. So, it's possible to get it now in New York.
CN:What do they call it there?
JC:They have a bad name for it.
CA:John, when you went into Conlon's studio
and you were confronted with two pianos and the enormous sound of these pianos,
was it completely different from listening to the tapes of Conlon's music?
CN:Well, in the first place, those were very
JC:They were still very exciting. Oh, good
heavens. I still have that excitement hearing your work. But I think in the
room itself, in the room in Mexico City, with the actual instruments, it is
quite an unforgettable experience. Did I send you or have you read that
fantastic little story that I tell with mesostics in my text about Joyce…
JC:…in which Satie goes to visit with Conlon
Nancarrow in Mexico City and when Conlon puts on the piece for two player
pianos, Satie is absolutely bowled over.
CN:In fact he's attacked by the pianos!
JC:Yes, he lies on the floor and the pianos
are approaching him and in some amazing way they manage to pull themselves up
instead of hurting him as they go over him, and he's delighted not only with
the music but with the behavior of the pianos. And then he says he's going to
write about it in the newspaper. The reason I put that in was because in one of
Satie's texts -- in the Infantines --
the little boy, before he's going to sleep, asks his mother whether he's been a
good boy or not. No! She says, "You’ve been a good boy today," and he
says, "Will grandmother know?" And the mother says, "Yes, she'll
know," and the little boy says, “How?”And the mother says,"In the newspaper. She'll read about it in the
CA:When you listen to Conlon's music, what is
most apparent to you about it structurally?
JC:It’s not so much when I hear it, but when
I read about it, or, yesterday even, when Conlon talked about the piece which
we heard last night, or in the earlier meetings we had, when the String Quartet
was played, which I hope will be repeated now,…
CA:Yes, we’re going to play that. That's the
Third String Quartet.
JC:…the word canon comes up, all the time.
CN:Well, practically all my music is canons.
JC:Well, that’s what's…What did you ask me, Charles?
JC:Yes. In other words, for the purposes of
this conversation, I’d like to know how you came to discover the canon. It's
clearly very important for you. It's useful, isn't it?
CN:Well, more than that. Not strict canon but
the imitation of one voice and so forth.
CA:For instruments, or just player pianos?
CN:But, finally, when I started doing these
things of polytempo -- say, with one voice going at one speed and one going at
another -- you can hear the relationships much easier if it's the same voice,…
CN:…even though it's in another key or
whatever, than if it's a completely different thing. You get not confused but
it's not as clear as when this one and this one’s doing this way. It’s the same
thing. That's the main reason I got more obsessed with the canon.
CA:Conlon, what about other composers who've
used canonic procedures that you might have been interested in? Were there
CN:You mean contemporary?
CN:Oh, well, of course. Bach, all of the
people of that period used canon quite a bit.
JC:I think what you say now, though, makes
it very clear, that in the complex polytempo situation that you were working
in, this what you can call obvious relationship, of two different things, makes
a very clear, makes a musical object that you can perceive. Then you can begin,
after having that problem solved, so to speak, you can then begin to listen.
CN:To other things.
CA:You know, the other day John was talking
to me and the subject of Bach and Mozart came up and you told me that you felt
more aesthetically aligned to Mozart than Bach. Why is that?
JC:Because of his tendency toward
multiplicity, whereas Bach has a tendency toward unity. Do you agree with that,
CN:Yes, well, in fact, I didn't read it, but
Julio Estrada told me about something he read once about Einstein, who said, I
don't know, someone asked him about Bach and Mozart, and he said, "The
universe should be like Bach, but it is like Mozart."
JC:Isn't that great.
CA: Could you elaborate a bit on your ideas
JC:I think I've already stated it, with the
multiplicity. But I think that if Mozart were living now, he would use the
technology and so forth to make his music even more rich in differences than it
is, whereas Bach probably would continue writing his own music.
CN:Of course, Mozart might be doing rock now.
JC:Oh! You know, besides, Conlon and I come
from a period, the '30s and the '40s, particularly in the '30s, in which the world
of music seemed to be limited by the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Wouldn't
JC:They stood out, like the mountains stand
out. How did you feel about that?
CN:Well, actually, you know, Schoenberg and
dodecaphony never appealed to me, aesthetically or musically.
JC:This is very interesting, because it
appealed very much to me.
CN:Really? I didn't know that.
JC:I made a choice. When I saw that there
were these two mountains, I chose Schoenberg. Whereas I wasn't aware from
you…But you found Stravinsky more
CN:Yes, for my own particular aesthetics you
JC:Did you ever have a conversation with
CN:Oh, no. I wouldn't have dreamed of it! (laughter).
JC:Neither would I! (more laughter) But I
had one. (even more laughter)
JC:I'd like to say a little bit about how my
feeling was about the two of them. I lived in Los Angeles and both Stravinsky
and Schoenberg were living there and I had elected to study with Schoenberg.
And Merle Armitage… Did you ever hear his name?
CN:I know the name.
JC:He was an impresario in the Los Angeles
CA:And a brilliant book designer.
JC:…and he advertised a concert of
Stravinsky saying that Stravinsky was the world's greatest composer and that
this concert gave us an opportunity to hear the greatest music. Well, this
infuriated me, because I was very pro-Schoenberg. So I went downtown to his
office and I went right into his office and up to his desk and told him that
that was a wrong thing to have done in the city where Schoenberg was living…
CN:It was an insult.
JC:…and that he should somehow take it back.
Of course he didn't. Later, however, in New York, many years later, there was a
performance of L'Histoire du Soldat,
and I was given the part of the Devil. And Elliott Carter was given the part of
the Soldier, and, it must have been Aaron… No. I don't know who was the
Narrator, but it may have been Lukas Foss, or Lukas was conducting. I'm not
clear about that. Anyway, I had practiced the part of the Devil as much as I
could. Stravinsky was in the audience and he was pleased with my performance. I
changed my voice -- I didn't become a parrot (reference to John Lifton's vocal
antics), but I became "other." And so Stravinsky asked me to come and
see him in his hotel, which I did, and we had a brief conversation and in the
course of it I made clear to him that I had chosen Schoenberg instead of him
and he said, "Why?" And I said because his music was chromatic,
because it used all twelve tones. And Stravinsky said very gently, almost plaintively,
he said, "But my music is chromatic too." And then he added,
"The reason I never liked Schoenberg's work," he said, "was
because it isn't modern." And that struck me, because then I remembered my
two years of study with Schoenberg in which Schoenberg would say, speaking of
four notes, and generally they were the same four notes, C-D-F-E-D-C, he would
say, "Bach did this with these notes, and Beethoven did this, and Brahms
did this, and Schoenberg did this." In other words, he considered himself
part and parcel of the tradition, whereas Stravinsky thought of himself as
separate from it, and in a sense that could be described with the word modern,
or it could be separated from the notion of maintaining tradition. You would
accept that, wouldn't you?
JC:The notion of separating. You wouldn't?
JC:But don't you think your devotion to the
canon exceeds the devotion of tradition of the canon?
CN:Oh, of course.
JC:I mean your music is really
CN:You mean it's traditional?
JC:No, distinguished from tradition.
CN:Oh, distinguished from. Well, for other
reasons. As you say, the canon's been around for a long time.
JC:But your devotion to it is very special.
CN:Well, I guess the use I make of it is
different from most people.
JC:I think so.
CA:But wouldn't you say that Bach did a canon
this way, and so-and-so this way, and Nancarrow this way?
CN:Well, no, the thing is…
CA:So you are part of the tradition.
CN:Of course. The whole thing is that I used
the canon for something that hasn't existed until recently, the polytempo
thing, and that's one of the reasons why the player piano, up until now…Except now, electronics of course…
JC:Wouldn't you say…You're aware of the use by Elliott Carter of
the notion of different tempos at once. But, in his case, the use of different
tempos at the same time is somehow brought into a traditional…
CN:No, into a common denominator, actually.
What does he call it? Tempo modulation?
JC:Yes. In other words, he combines it with
other ideas that come from the traditional. Whereas, if I may so, your use of
the canon is starkly different.
CN:I guess so, yes.
JC:It's very strongly apparent as different
than what we have known of canons before.
CA:I think it would be appropriate to, since
you brought up Elliott Carter's name and since Carter has used this technique
in order to enable performers to play in temporally different relationships, to
listen to Conlon's Third String Quartet now, because that is an attempt by
Conlon to pull back from irrational rhythm relationships that can't possibly be
played to find the limits of what human performers can do. The recording that
we have by the Arditti String Quartet was made at the world premiere in, I
CA:Could you say just a few words about it?
John, would like to say something?
JC:I don't think that what you said…You're not moving toward the limits of
something, are you? Aren't you just…I
mean, say you came to a limit, there would be then, the possibility would
develop, of going beyond it or not. The ability of musicians to play your music
has changed from finding it impossible to finding it possible.
CN:Well, from finding it impossible years
ago. The things they found impossible years ago, musicians today, I mean
performers, is just nothing. Except, again…
JC:But if you continue to work with the
Arditti Quartet, or similar situations, you'll find, I'm sure, that things that
we think are impossible are not impossible.
CN:That's true. Of course, they're unique. I
don't think there's any string quartet in the world that can approach them. But
the limitations there… This Quartet is polytempo, but rational tempos. I can't
imagine any human performers performing, accurately, these irrational
relationships. There's just no way of coordinating, none. This Quartet, at
least, has measures. I mean, the musicians, if they're very good, as the
Arditti is, can handle it.
CA:John was just suggesting that beyond the
Third Quartet maybe there is more that can be done conventionally with…
CA:Yes. What are the tempo relationships in
CN:In the Quartet?
CA:Yes, in what we are going to hear.
CA:In each of three movements?
CA:And is it always the violin in three, the
second violin in four…?
CN:No, no. Each movement is a separate canon.
I mean, it's the same tempo through the whole Quartet, that relationship,
including the final, accelerated canon, at the end, the final coda, where one
instrument starts in, the other voice at one percentage, and it's answered by
the next one, the same voice, at another tempo, 'til finally they all come
together right at the end.
JC:Then what you mean is that even the
Arditti could not do 61 against 60?
CN:Not because of… It would just simply be
too… Yes. I think that I mentioned last night, it's not a 60 against 61, it's a
speed against another speed. And for someone to play accurately… Say, if the
other musician is playing with the metronome set at 60 and the other to play,
without metronome of course, at 61, the beat or whatever. I don't think it's
CA:This piece is about eleven or twelve
minutes long, and I think it's time for us to listen.
(Playing of Conlon
Nancarrow's Third String Quartet)
JC:I find my pleasure in hearing that music
is not in my knowing that it's a canon.
CN:Well, it doesn't depend on that.
JC:No. It gets into an openly mysterious
situation, so that I'm listening, so to speak, wherever I can listen.
CA:Vertically rather than horizontally?
JC:In all the corners.
CA:John asked me earlier today if you would
say something about your work habits when you're in the process of composing.
How do you go about it?
JC:Very simple things, Conlon. Like do you
like to work early in the morning or late at night?
CN:Well, my habits have changed over the
years. At one time I was working most of the time, either reading or working.
CA:Day and night?
CN:Almost, yes. Very late at night. Of course
now with a family…
JC:And you work also early in the morning?
CN:No. Before? You're talking about before?
Now there's a sort of standard life. No, before, I would work usually very late
at night and then get up early but then sleep most of the afternoon and go back
to work at night.How does your system
JC:I also changed.
CN:Excuse me.You told me not too long ago that you did most of your composing in
JC:I did?Now I do most of my sleeping there.No, I’m joking.When I was
younger my energy was with me from the moment I woke up so that I could work
more or less in the morning and work through the day.But I never liked to work at night.
JC:No. David Tudor is the opposite. He would
not work in the morning but he would stay up very late at night and work
through the nocturnal…
CN:Yes, of course.Everyone has a sort of daily rhythm of, well,
energy, and all kinds of things.And it
varies with different people: if you’ve more energy in the morning, some in the
afternoon, some in the night.It really
JC:But the other thing is, did you make all
those rolls?Did you actually do the
work, which, in my case, corresponds to, say, copying music?I now have a copyist.Did you have someone to punch thing?
CN:I should say not.
JC:You did all the punching?
CN:All of it.Of course, people have suggested I could maybe teach someone to punch
but I have to be there watching every note anyhow so what’s the difference?
JC:You still do that?
CN:I still do it.That’s the part that’s the hardest work.
CA:When you’re punching, you’re not exactly
copying from the score?You must make an
adjustment of some sort?
CN:Oh, no.When I punch, I have what I call a punching score, which is something no
one else could read – sort of shorthand.I mean, I write the piece on paper, on manuscript paper.
CA:But it’s not legible to another person?
CN:Well, sort of. It takes quite a bit of
deciphering. I use that to punch and then, later, and also when I do that I
correct maybe some mistakes I made in my own printing of that, and, after that,
I make a legible score that people can read. So it's a whole process, quite
JC:It must be amazingly time consuming.
CN:Oh, it is. Some of those rolls are quite
long and take six or eight months just punching.
CA:What happens if you had made a mistake in
a roll? You put it in the piano and play it and realize something desperately
CN:No, look. Say I punch a wrong note, then I
just put scotch tape over it and punch the right one. Once in awhile, I think only
once that happened, I forget what happened… But a big section was all wrong. I
had to punch that whole section again. But the problem was splicing it back
into the roll. It was a whole operation, but it worked.
CA:We've suggested, Conlon, that your composing
has one major idea, the canon. Is it also possible, John, that your music has
one major idea? Because we think of you as a person who…
JC:…doesn't have any ideas? I think it's
true that each person has, so to speak, his work in life to do and that mine
has come to consist in asking questions rather than in making choices. I had an
experience when I was studying with Schoenberg. It was a class in harmony, at
UCLA. I studied with him both in his home and first at USC and then at UCLA.
This was a class in harmony, but he was giving us a problem in counterpoint, in
the class. There were about thirty people in the class. And he sent us all to
the blackboard, and gave us the problem with the cantus firmus, which I've already mentioned, to which he was always
faithful -- he never let us use another one -- and he gave a problem, and he
said, "When you have it solved, turn around, put up your hand and let me
see it." So I did that and he looked at it and he said, "That's
correct, now another," another solution to the same problem. And I did
that. And others were meanwhile doing the same thing. There came the time,
after about eight solutions of the problem, when it occurred to me that there
weren't any more solutions. So when he said, "Now another," I took
courage and said, "There aren't any more solutions." And he said,
"That's also correct." Then he said something which made me love him
more -- or admire is a better word, or worship -- he said, "What is the
principle underlying all of the solutions?" And I couldn't answer. I just
remained silent, I didn't have anything to say. But now I would say -- and I
think he would agree, I think he would say "That's correct" again. I
would say that the question you ask underlies all of the solutions.
CN:When he asked you that and you said you
didn't know did he say what that would be?
JC:No, no. He would never have done that.
And I didn't say I didn't know. I just remained silent. I had nothing to say.
He would never have answered for me. He said another marvelous thing, in
another class, which determined me to devote my life to music. He said,
"My purpose in teaching you," and he was speaking to forty or fifty
people at USC, he said, "My purpose in teaching you is to make it
impossible for you to write music." And, still worshipping him, I decided
to prove that he was wrong.
CN:I'm sure other people there did too.
JC:Yes. It was best teaching he could give
CA:I wonder if we have questions now from the
audience? Yes, there's a person in back.
**:I was curious about last night, when Study No. 37 was played last night just
on wooden shoes. How did you find listening to the canons just in a rhythmic
context rather than with pitches?
CN:Well, naturally it was more limited,
because it's the pure rhythm, nothing else. What defines a canon is not only
the rhythm, but the melodic structure of it, so it's another version of it.
Naturally someone listening to that, who doesn't know the canon -- never heard
it. It could be sort of meaningless. I don't know.
**:In some places in the piece I found it
actually a little easier to follow the canon.
CA:Because of the spatial relationships you
found it easier? Of the shoes?
**:I think so.
CN:Well, that's possible. Yes, maybe. As a
matter of fact, a canon would be, even with the pitches, I think because it has
twelve voices, all in a different tempo, would be much more accessible to the
ear if it could be… Well, Trimpin is planning to do something about arranging
it for different sounds for the different voices.
CA:Not just wooden shoes but different
CA:Any other questions? Yes.
**:I have two questions. One's for Conlon,
which is a follow-up to Laurie's (Laurie Spiegel) question, which is, where,
for you, does the boundary between noise and music fall? And the second one is
for John, which is: I've noticed that even though you're using chance
operations, there seems always to be a point where you are making decisions,
you're saying "I want it to have so many instruments," or "I
want it to have…." Why have you chosen not to go the full distance with
chance operations? Maybe I'm wrong, but it appears that way.
JC:You mean I should answer that?
CA:Why don't you answer that?
JC:I don't know what you mean by the full
distance. You see, I'm involved in what, in Zen, is called purposeful
purposelessness. I'm not involved in purposelessness.
CA:Your turn, Conlon.
CN:No, I don't think there's for me a sharp
dividing line between as you say noise and music. Noise can be made into music
and vice versa. Does that answer it? John, you taught us all about silence, and
I'd thought about coming here and showing you how well I can do that.
JC:You mean not say anything?
CN:Yes. But then I thought that's a little
CA:There's a question here, in the front.
**:Some questions to the first section of
your speaking: There was no (mention of the) name of Henry Cowell, and both of
you had contact with Henry Cowell in the '30s, is that right? John, you
subscribed to New Music Series, or not, and Conlon, you had an edition of this
New Music Series, in the '30s, so you must have known this music a little bit earlier?
CN:Well, for me, I think John knew him. I
never knew him, but his book, the New Musical Resources, was I suppose one of
the major influences I had in my music. The book.
**:But how did you get this edition?
CN:Of the book?
**:No, of your pieces. How was your music
CA:How was your music published by Cowell?
**:…in Cowell's Series.
CN:Oh. As a matter of fact, I think when it
was published he was already in jail. When I went to Spain, I left some scores
that I'd been working on with Slonimsky (Nicolas Slonimsky) and he gave them, I
guess, to Cowell, or sent them to New Music. I don't remember. They published
them. They published them when I was there. I didn't even know about it. So,
you answer your part of that, John.
CA:About your relationship to Cowell.
JC:Well, it was a very lively influence, the
book and, for me, also his classes at the New School.
CA:When were those classes, John?
**:That was in the '40s?
JC:No, the '30s.
CA:So you were in New York in the '30s.
JC:Yes. But I had not yet made the prepared
CA:The prepared piano was in '38.
CA:The prepared piano was in '38.
JC:Or '39, or '40. At any rate, it was after
my work with Henry Cowell. One of the things in my experience was to hold the
pedal down so that Henry would go around to the back of the piano to strum the
strings, you know, and so forth, in The
CA:But there was, to answer your question, a
major influence that conjoins these two gentlemen. A question in the front row.
**:John, had you been born 60 years later
and were a student today…
JC:Six years later?
**:Sixty years later. Who would you see the
peaks as, and who would you study with today?
JC:I think I would study with James Tenney.
The reason I say that is that all my life I've… Well, when I left Schoenberg, I
left him because he demanded a sense of harmony, a feeling for harmony, and I
had none. And he could see that from my work, that I had no feeling for
harmony. And I simply didn't like that kind of control that harmony had. I
could do it, but I couldn't do it with any enjoyment. I could do it correctly,
but not with any imagination. But it was last December, in Miami at New Music
America, that a piece of James Tenney's was performed, and he has spoken and
taught a new attitude toward harmony which I think, for him, comes through his
study of the work of Varese. And that piece began without the audience's
knowing that it had begun. We thought that the musicians were just fooling
around, or rather tuning, which is… That they weren't really serious about what
they were doing, you know. And it began with the accordion, that very fine
accordionist, what's his name?
JC:Yes. And shortly I realized that we were
hearing the piece. That the audience was not listening but the piece had begun.
So I noticed that the music began with a sort of unison and then it became
microtonal and it went on and on until finally, as the intervals grew larger,
it stretched to the extremes of the instrumental capacities and it was all in
relation to a different theory of harmony than any that I knew. It suggests to
me that harmony could be different for each piece. That each piece, and I'm
inventing this now, and haven't studied it, but I think that one could make a
music in which each piece would have its own harmony.
CN:Well, I think if you describe harmony,
sounds that you hear at the same time… Well, that's not really what you call
harmony. I mean, look. Almost anything that's more than one sound sounds at the
JC:True. But I don't have any feeling for
CN:Well, I don't either. What I'm saying is
that it's not…
JC:But I think Tenney does have a feeling
CN:Well, he has a feeling for the… Well, you
call it harmony. I don't.
JC:Well, he calls it harmony.
CN:I didn't know that.
JC:No, he calls it harmony. He's very
insistent about it.
CA:In any case, would you study with Tenney
in this situation that was just proposed?
CN:Possibly. I never thought of it. I admire
Tenney very much.
JC:I wouldn't mind studying with you either.
CN:I don't teach.
JC:Neither do I.
CA:A question, right here.
**:I was thinking about your reaction to
Anthony Davis yesterday and I was thinking that your early works -- First Construction and Imaginary Landscape -- are aggressive
music. And I was thinking that if the separation you felt from Anthony Davis is
possibly because he reminds you of yourself as a young John Cage.
JC:I would like to say, and I think I've
already said it, not now, but at earlier meetings -- that this week, for me,
has been characterized by a difficulty with Anthony Davis at the beginning and
now no difficulty. So… By no difficulty I mean I can even listen to the ideas
he expresses and try to understand them. Whereas when he first expressed them
this week, I resisted hearing them. I didn't even want to hear them because I
don't enjoy that kind of concern with power. I want a situation, I'll try to
avoid the word anarchy, but I want a situation in which each person is at his
own center and not only the people but the things. This is a Buddhist idea.
CA:There is, John, a kind of contradiction in
wanting to be a modernist and a recognized artist who is an individual and an
individualist, in the context of both your political ideas, Conlon, that tended
toward Socialist-Communist ideas, and yours, John, which tended toward
Futurist-Anarchist, in which everybody has what they need. And the world
situation now is that in Capitalist societies, the gap between those who have
what they need and those who don't is widening, and in Socialist societies,
there is an economic breakdown which is brought about by isolation which the
Capitalist societies impose upon them, but in fact is now being trumpeted
widely by the American press. Right in the face of the situation we have here.
In Japan, where Capitalism is working very smoothly, there is a kind of
conformity that is necessitated by the geographic location, and by the cultural
history. And I wonder how you think about the idea of being an individual and
somebody very different from the masses in that you create something new, viz a viz your wanting everybody to have
at least the minimum of what they need. Did you, Conlon, for instance, when you
were active politically, come under attack by people who were politically
allied with you for your music?
CA:Not at all?
CN:No. Why would they? I don't understand.
CA:Because they might have said you were
CN:Elitist?! Well, it wasn't very elitist. I
wasn't earning any money at it.
CA:So what was your incentive? That's how
Gorbachev is going to solve his problems, by incentive.
CN:That's a bit more complicated, to say the
CA:Any thoughts on that, John?
JC:I haven't had any.
JC:What is the question?
CA:If you're an individualist, how can you
propose that everybody be more or less equal in the way society treats them?
CN:Well, he wants everyone to be an equal
JC:I would like each person to have what he
needs. And I think if we used intelligence instead of politics, if somehow we
saw the world situation that we're in as a problem that needed solution, and if
we put our minds to solving it, that we could, with our technology, we could,
and Bucky Fuller had this view. We could do it. We could make life, as Bucky
used to say, a success for everyone. And we could live, for instance, not in
places that we owned, but in places that we used. We already do that when we go
on vacation. So we could make the world a continual vacation.
CA:Well, I'd like to spend half of mine in
JC:In Boomerang or in Coonskin? (reference
to local tourist housing, Coonskin being where Laurie Spiegel and Laura Kuhn
CA:There's a question over here.
**:I have a question that's similar to what
Charles was asking. The other day you, John Cage, were talking about a
conductor-less orchestra as a leaderless society -- less government. Has that
proposed any personal dilemnas, for you, in, for instance, in accepting N.E.A.
grants? Any compromises in your existence and contact with governments for art,
JC:No. We're living in a transition, if we
get to the place we're transitting. So that we live in a state of inconsistency.
It's only reasonable. We can't have just one idea now. We have to be
**:And has that inconsistency influenced
JC:Yes. I would say it's a principle now.
CA:There's a question very far back.
**:This is a question primarily for John Cage, but Conlon
should feel free to answer too.You’ve pioneered a lot of new ideas or advocated new ideas about the composition
of music. Are there any particular ideas that you’re disappointed, that
you feel have not been fully or properly explored yet, or ground that you see
that you don’t think you’ve explored yet?
JC:I think there are more things to be done
now, more things to explore than ever, and that this… I don't even know what
the unknown is.
CA: But you know
JC:Right. I'm not a student, for instance,
of all the computer possibilities that are going to be discussed later today. I
wouldn't know where to begin, but I'm sure the field is fascinating, enormous,
and so forth.
CA:Any ideas, Conlon, on things you wish
you'd gone into?
CN:No. The thing I mentioned the other day,
which, I think, for the future, is very important, the Global Village, but not
how McLuhan thought of it. Now the Global Village is that only a half a dozen
people are running the world.
JC:But that wouldn't be… Well. How do we
CN:We don't, but we see it coming.
JC:I was going to say we don't know whether
it would be good or bad.
CN:Oh, you seem to think that if there's this
dictatorship up there that you agree with, then it's good. Is that the idea?
JC:No. I would want it to be intelligent.
CN:Oh, it would be very disorganized, no
doubt about that.
JC:I would like, for example, the
environment to be handled in such a way that it wasn't destroyed, as we're
CN:Yes. Well, of course.
CA:And that's being done by both Socialist
and Capitalist societies.
CN:By the whole world.
CA:But what you're saying, John, is that
Nationalism is worse than five corporations?
JC:I think there's a great deal of
unnecessary competition in almost all departments where there should be
problem-solving instead of competition.
CA:And you don't want the five corporations
or the fifteen hundred nations.
CA:There's a question in the back.
**:I'd like to backtrack a little bit and
make a comment, first, that what I've noticed in hearing both of you speak is
that you have a common interest, in, John, with your notion of chance
operations, and, Conlon, with your polytempos. That the center of activity is
with the individual, to a very large extent.
CA:To the listener, do you mean, or to the
**:To the performer. That there's a
tremendous emphasis on plurality within a piece. In other words, that each
performer is generating a lot of energy towards the piece rather than the
emphasis being the central unifying element. I'm wondering if what I'm saying
is really accurate and that is in fact what draws you to each other. Have I
CA:Do you have a response, Conlon,…
CA:…as regards the similarities between your
CN:No. He's mulling it over.
JC:I'm not getting very far.
CA:Let's take one more question.
JC:I was thinking about one of the last
phrases you used, drawing us together. But I don't think we're, so to speak,
drawn together. I think…
CN: Mulling again.
JC:…I think I live in a world with you in
it. And I don't have to be drawn any closer than we actually are.
CA:There's one more question here.
**:This is a question for John Cage. You
mentioned, almost in passing yesterday, that your views on improvisation in
music have changed -- you're less critical, I take it, than you used to be.
Could you talk about that some?
JC:I would still criticize improvisation as
I used to criticize it, but now I think we can imagine an improvisation which
is different, different from just doing what you want. And much more like
improvisation as Anthony Davis seems to think it or do it, that is to say, he
thinks of improvisation as giving the improvisers a problem to solve, and
that's how I find it acceptable, too. That if you can give people freedom in a
situation that they see as a problem then the solutions can be invigorating.
But if improvisation is not seen as a problem, then you just get repetition of
mannerisms, or you get more of what you already know that you like. And what we
want is to extend our enjoyment of life, or extend our enjoyment of music, of
relationships of sounds. We want to live, don't we, in a more Mozartean
situation? Or as Mozartean as we can get? And richer. Various.
CA:Before we conclude we have an announcement
that John Lifton and Pam Zoline would like to make. Please join us.
(Enter John Lifton
and Pam Zoline)
JL:Last year, at the first
"Composer-to-Composer," we gave an award that was invented on the
occasion for Lou Harrison, called "In Tune with The World" award, and
we would like, on this occasion, of having Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage here,
to give them corresponding awards. We're not quite sure "In Tune With the
World" is the right title here. Conlon's should be "In Time with The
World" and John's should be called "Chance Encounters with The World."
Anyway, we are so privileged and honored to have had them here with us this
year and would like to thank them very much for coming and this is a little
gift from us from Telluride for them to take back with them.