John Cage Stories

It seems that everyone who knew John Cage has a story about him. Myself included: I had seen him perform several times in New York City — including one memorable evening in a SoHo loft, where he played a symphony on electrified cactus spines — but I finally met him in person on the opening day of a gallery show of Robert Rauschenberg’s art. The party would happen that evening, and when I walked in, the gallery was totally empty — except for John Cage. He came over, probably to determine whether I might be an ally. I said something flip (I was a bit of a youngster). Without shifting his expression, Cage looked at me with the total presence of mind and awareness that I now associate with fully realized Zen teachers. He seemed to absorb my whole being in one glance. I don’t think I passed muster — not well enough, at least — but I never forgot those eyes of his, and their ability to see the heart of things.

As I was preparing this book, people told me their own stories of indelible Cageian moments. Here is a selection of the best.

John Cage was a Writer

A reminiscence by Sparrow

John Cage was a writer. We speak of all composers as “writing music,” though we never say that a choreographer “writes a dance.” But if you look at the sheet music for 4′33″, it is precisely written. It consists entirely of words. I mostly knew John Cage as a writer. In 1975, I began working at a natural foods store in Gainesville, Florida called Mother Earth. On my lunch break, I would sometimes read the books from the small book section of the store. One of the books was Silence by John Cage. It was a square book with a beige cover. Inside was dense writing. Only a great writer could have written the title 4′33″. If the piece were entitled Silence, it would be worthless. 4′33″ is perfectly specific, and a beautiful number, yet it has no meaning. The title contains three mutually dependent jokes: 1) That silence should have a name; 2) That the name should be a number; 3) That the number doesn’t describe anything at all. I remember the personality of John Cage, as he read at St. Mark’s Church in New York: light and gentle, with an immutable private joke within. I am like a citizen who saw Abraham Lincoln three times in Washington, DC, and later wrote obsessively about him.

John Cage Teaching

She told me this

Painter and printmaker Pat Steir adored John Cage so much that she arranged her printmaking sessions at Crown Point Press in California to be there at the same time as Cage, who had discovered his own gift for art-making some years earlier. One day Steir was making self-portraits, scrutinizing the results, and tossing the rejects in the trash. When Cage walked in, he reached into the trash bin and spread all the rejects out on the table. “Self portraits are so touching,” he said. Steir asked herself: What am I rejecting? Why?

Prepared Piano Today

Eliza’s tale

Rockin’ pianist Eliza McCarthy, who hails from Normandy and London, has adored Cage since early in her brilliant musical life, and now celebrates the prepared piano and its voice in the new-young-European music avant-garde. She just sent me Cageian meditations that perfectly express the quiet of the mind of this moment, going nowhere.

She told me: “I’ve just finished rehearsing a couple of beautiful early violin and piano pieces that John Cage wrote in the 40s. I’m planning to perform them with a friend of mine at a new music evening I’m hoping will take off in London and change the world.” She did change the world. She played Cage’s marvelous piano meditations, in live performance, all the way through the dazzling exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp, Barbican Art Gallery, London, Feb. 14 through June 9, 2013. —KL

Listen to Eliza McCarthy Prepared Piano performances online.

John Cage Fan Speaks Out

Street wisdom

I’m in a cab headed from O’Hare airport to downtown Chicago. I get in a conversation with the scruffy-looking cab driver (jeans and dirty tee-shirt; droopy hair and a beard shadow). “Why are you in Chicago?” he asked. I told him I was researching a book on John Cage. I expected to hear “Who’s that?” Not at all.

“Oh! John Cage!” said the cabbie. “He’s wonderful! He’s such a model for me! His courage, his willingness to go all the way for his art, his absolute dedication to his work. I think about him all the time!”

Be Where You Are

Someone who knew him

John Cage was sitting at a long dinner table with other guests at a white-tablecloth event. A waiter came up with bottles of red wine in his hands and began pouring into empty wineglasses. Cage put his hand over his glass and the waiter passed him by. A friend sitting next to him said, “John, you love red wine. Why did you refuse it?” Cage said, “My doctor told me not to drink.” The friend said, “But don’t you miss wine? You must be very unhappy.” Cage said, “Not at all. I look at this table and I see double rows of beautiful red roses.”