From Musician, sometime in 1985, by Rob Tannenbaum, kindly provided by Jeffrey Morgan
Brian Eno is waiting in the calm, green courtyard between his apartment and studio, just a short distance from London's trend-setting King's Road. Under the bright spring sunshine, we chat about a variety of his former projects, from Roxy Music and the Portsmouth Sinfonia to "King's Lead Hat," and about the strange notions that motivate him. He chuckles a bit self-consciously and blushes, as he often does when discussing his own work, then falls silent. "I guess these are things most musicians don't think about," he shrugs. As if on cue, a taxi door slams outside the courtyard and John Cage enters.
Aside from mutual interests in macrobiotics, gardening and modern art, Brian Eno and John Cage share a fascination with musical theories and methods; "things most musicians don't really think about."
A native New Yorker, Cage was in London in late May as the musical advisor to roommate Merce Cunningham's esteemed dance company. "Some call Cage the greatest living composer, others America's finest poet and others one of the top three philosophers of this century," the Institute of Contemporary Arts proclaimed when he delivered a lecture there that week. At seventy-four he is still composing, still giving encouragement to young artists, still abandoning methods as quickly as he invents them. "When I've found that what I'm doing has become pleasing, even to one person," he has said, "I have redoubled my efforts to find the next step."
John Milton Cage Jr. began piano lessons in grade school and graduated as the valedictorian of Los Angeles High at fifteen. After discovering the non-narrative writing of Gertrude Stein at Pomona College, he made a pilgrimage to Europe to explore modern art.
When he decided upon a life in music in 1935, he presented himself to Arnold Schönberg, the most revolutionary composer of the early twentieth century.
Cage's early compositions were in the style of Schönberg's twelvetone system, but the pupil sought a method that more completely rejected the western tradition of harmony. A jury had once dismissed a Schönberg composition as sounding "as if one had smeared over a still moist score," and this randomness was just what Cage wanted. He composed for percussion ensembles and for prepared piano, altering the tone of the instrument by jamming objects between the strings. He also gave lectures and wrote articles that explained his techniques, using these addresses as another opportunity for experimentation.
In the mid-40s, after moving to New York, Cage began to apply Zen Buddhist principles to composing, trying "to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expression of human sentiments." His goal was to accurately notate life, including all the disruptions and disharmonies. On the epochal Music Of Changes (1951) he tossed coins, divided yarrow stalks and consulted the Confucian oracle book I Ching to make decisions on tempo, sounds or rests, durations and dynamics. "That's noise!" some shrieked. "That's life," Cage shrugged.
His purest embrace of chaos came with the notorious 4'33" (1952), in which a musician sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note. The music results from the actions of the audience, effectively putting them on-stage and making their lives inseparable from the performance.
In the company of other New York artists, Cage ventured into multimedia projects and his compositions grew wilder. Suddenly the chaos which skulked in the background of our daily lives was being flaunted and amplified. The music was difficult for most to listen to. "I love John's mind, but I hate what it thinks," said Pierre Boulez. For Imaginary Landscape No. 4, Cage tuned twelve radios according to chance. Living Room Music utilized household furniture, a TV set and a telephone book, while Water Walk used a bathtub of water, a pressure cooker, a siphon, a bottle of Campari bitters, a bucket of ice, a Waring blender, five radios, a piano, a tape machine, bells, whistles, party poppers, a large vase of roses, a garden sprinkler and a rubber fish for just three minutes of music.
In 1961, Cage collected several speeches and articles into an anthology called Silence, which has since become the Das Kapital of avant-garde composing. Silence urged musicians to ignore the most basic rules of western composition and doubted the very notion of what was or wasn't music. "Why do they call me a composer, then, if all I do is ask questions?" Cage wrote. What could Cage possibly be asked that he hadn't asked himself?
Eno was enlisted to help, breaking his recent reluctance to do interviews for the opportunity to meet Cage. One conjures up an image of the adolescent Eno locked in his bedroom in the early 60s with tape recorder and a copy of Silence :
Eno: (reading aloud) "Where none of these (musical) goals is present, silence becomes something else - not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds." Hmm... What if I made tapes of background music that were really ambient...
Mrs. Eno: Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, you put that book down right now and come eat your steak and kidney pie! Why can't that boy listen to Beatles records, like all his friends.
Well, that wasn't exactly how it happened, but Eno once described Cage as "the most influential theorist at one time ... a completely liberating factor." And although he hastened to add, "I now disagree with nearly everything he said," much of what Eno expressed in their encounter betrays Cage's lingering influence. And just as Cage's vitality has formed a historical viaduct from Schönberg, Cowell and Satie to Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Fred Frith (to name but a few), Eno has passed the heritage on to a new generation of pop-oriented artists, where it has disseminated for years.
While at the Winchester School of Art, Eno explored experimental methods of painting and sculpting. His fascination with new systems led him to the synthesizer, and to membership in Roxy Music. Eno's solos on "Remake/Remodel" and "Do The Strand" have an aleatoric abandon that's still startling all these years later (eat that, Howard Jones): A self-described "non-musician," Eno's solo career proved him a creative provocateur, coaxing new sounds from David Bowie and John Cale, as well as himself. While most British veterans sneered at the punk revolution (and were spat at right back), Eno produced the debuts of Devo and Ultravox and the influential No New York collection. With Cageian contrariness, he turned his back on synth-punk just when it began to trickle down to the mainstream, limiting his production ventures to Talking Heads and U2.
Dressed in black clothes and red socks, a week after his thirty-seventh birthday, Eno blushes when the photographer recalls a Roxy photo session where feathers, leopard skin and mascara were the styles of the day. He seems reluctant to quiz Cage on anything other than gardening. Ever the inquisitor, Cage takes the meeting as a chance to learn about Eno. He is courteous and gentle, almost patriarchal, with a delicate voice that recalls Truman Capote. Perhaps because of his sly sense of humor, he seems as unassuming as a living legend can be. And when he finds something very funny - this is just too amazing - Cage tilts his head back, opens his mouth, and laughs absolutely silently. We go inside Eno's studio, sitting among some very modest, rented recording equipment. They begin comparing notes on macrobiotic diets while I go across the courtyard to bring over some tea. When the tea and I return, they're discussing the pantheon of modern painters.
ENO: Painting is my background. And I can remember when I was at art school, there was a whole echelon of painters that were considered terribly important, who actually really aren't anymore. Some of the quieter painters who didn't appear to be so dramatically far out are reckoned rather well now. Like Ron Kitaj. He's a painter who's just solidly done good work for thirty or forty years and has always failed to attract attention because he's never occupied a very extreme position [laughs]. And he's been hammering away at this for years and years, and now people are starting to say, "This is really a good painter." Of course, other painters have been looking at him for a long, long time.
MUSICIAN: I wonder whether either of you, as members of a musical pantheon, feel any discomfort with the legendary status you've gained. It's almost like being labeled before you've finished.
CAGE: I try not to think of any particular notion of myself, or of my work, so that I can write the next one....
ENO: I find it rather uncomfortable sometimes, I must say, because I think it creates a momentum for what you have been. It's as if there's a historical you, which is of course the you that people are generally seeing or responding to. But then there's a me at the present time, which isn't quite as confident of a position as I am of that (historical) position. So it's difficult to disregard the approval and encouragement you get for a past position in favor of the uncertainty of a contemporary one.
I pretty much always have the same feeling about what I'm doing, which is, "What am I doing? [laughs] I don't know where this is going." And I only need someone to come along and say, "Why don't you do some more of those other type of records." So it does make me uncomfortable. I don't like to hear about it too much.
MUSICIAN: John, do you manage to stay away from hearing about your reputation?
CAGE: I had a difficult time recently. I was commissioned to write a piece for organ, and I was sent half the commission in advance. And then a correspondence developed that explained that the piece that they really liked, I had written in 1948 (Dream), and would I please write something like that [laughter]. And so I sent the check back and said that I was not interested in repeating some past work and that I wanted to write something completely new. And then they said, "Oh, please..." They sent the check back, it kept bouncing back and forth from the west coast to the east. And they said, "You can do anything you want. You have carte blanche." Then when I had carte blanche, I felt obliged to do what they wished [laughs]. And so I wrote a piece that will be played here in London shortly called Souvenir. And the title is obvious.
MUSICIAN: That brings up a quote of yours, Brian. "The idea is to produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard."
CAGE: That's beautiful.
ENO: [blushing] Thank you.
MUSICIAN: Can each of you recall the first thing you heard that seemed strange and mysterious enough to make you want to create music?
ENO: One of the early things I was impressed by was a record by the Silhouettes called "Get A Job." [to Cage] I don't know if you've ever heard this. It was a doo-wop record that came out in 1955, and the reason I heard this was because I lived in a part of England which has two big American air bases. And I can remember the sensation of first hearing a cappella music. And that was the most fantastic thing. My parents remember how I used to... I managed to get a copy of this record when I was seven, and we had one of those autorepeat record players and I used to leave it on all day, every day. That was a big experience for me.
And then another one I heard was, funnily enough, the Ray Conniff Singers. Because I had an uncle who had to leave the place he was living, and he parked his record collection with my parents for a while. And his taste was 40s big-band jazz. The sound of those voices on the Ray Conniff records I thought was superb. I was about nine or ten at this point. And every morning, before I went to school, I'd put one of those records on. I remember these winter mornings, hearing these amazingly lush, soft, silky voices, and I thought it was a beautiful sound.
CAGE: I went to Paris instead of continuing my third year of college, and in Paris I was struck first of all by the Gothic architecture. And I spent a number of months studying Gothic flamboyant architecture at the Bibliothèque Mazarin. A professor I had had in college was furious with me for not being involved in modern architecture. He got me working with a modern architect. And then I heard that architect one day say that to be an architect, you'd have to devote your life to architecture. And I realized I wasn't willing to do that. I loved a number of things - poetry was one, and also music.
So I went to him and explained that I was leaving, that I couldn't give myself to architecture. At almost the same time. I heard a concert of modern piano music played by John Kirkpatrick. It included a piece by Stravinsky and several pieces by Scriabin. And I saw modern painting. My reaction to both was that I could do that too [laughter].
CAGE: So I began both painting and writing music. I continued for about two years, and then I presented myself to Schönberg. I wanted to study with him. He said, "Will you devote your life to music?" And I didn't hesitate, I said yes. There are people who would think I haven't been faithful [laughs]. But it seems to me that music has been generous to me, and allowed me to do these other things.
CAGE: [to Eno] I've unfortunately only heard one record of yours, and I'd like to know more about your work. The one I heard was the airport thing...
ENO: Right, Music For Airports.
CAGE: And the way I heard it was by coming into a situation where there was a sound system and a large record collection at the Crown Point Press in (Oakland) California, where most of the [visual] artists work while records are being played. And the only other composer, as far as I know, who was asked to make etchings was Steve Reich. Anyway, as you know I like silence very much [laughs]. So I never asked to hear anything. But one January at Crown Point I said, "Do you have any Brian Eno?" And they played this record. I was struck, of course, as anyone hearing it for the first time would be, by the structure, which is sound... and silence. And on my way here this afternoon, it seemed to me that you must work with some rhythmic structure. I would enjoy knowing how you work.
ENO: It's quite interesting actually that you mentioned Steve Reich, because if I had continued this list of pieces of music that influenced me, there was a piece by Steve Reich that was probably, as a working composer, the most important piece that I heard, in that it gave me an idea I've never ceased being fascinated with - how variety can be generated by very, very simple systems. The piece I'm talking about is called It's Gonna Rain, the tape piece. It's a loop of tape of a preacher saying, "It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain." And at the same time, on another recording, the same loop is being played at a slightly different speed. So that gradually, the two tapes are sliding out of sync. And a very interesting thing happens to your brain, which is that any information which is common, after several repetitions, you cease to hear. You reject the common information, rather like if you gaze at something for a long time, you'll cease to really see it. You'll see any aspect of it that's changing, but the static elements you won't see. And what fascinated me with that piece was that it generated a kind of audible difference and patterns. The amount of material there is extremely limited, but the amount of activity it triggers in you is very rich and complex.
So this impressed me as a way of composing. I heard this in the early 70s, which was just at the time that most of the people that I was involved with [could he mean Roxy Music?] were doing exactly the opposite thing. Twenty-four track recorders had just become current, and the idea was to make more and more grotesque, Gothic pieces of music, filling up every space and every corner of the canvas. And to hear something that was as alive as this Reich piece, and so simple, was a real shock to me. And I had that experience that John said. I thought, "I can do this. It's not hard." [laughs]
And so I started doing it. In fact, Reich sort of abandoned that system as a way of working, which is rather fortunate because that meant I could carry on with it [laughs]. And Music For Airports is one of the products of that. What happens with that piece is that... well, I'll take one of the four pieces there. There's one piece that is just groups of voices singing long notes. And each long note was actually a very long loop of tape, so each single note repeats at a regular cycle. But each of the cycles of repetition is of a different and complexly related length. The relationships between the lengths aren't simple, they're not six to four. They're like 127 to 79, or something like that. Numbers that mean they would constantly be falling in different relationships to one another.
MUSICIAN: Were the relationships determined before you began recording?
ENO: [laughs] Actually, they were determined like most of the things I do. First of all, all the notes lasted for a different length, because the people singing them could hold some of the notes longer than others. And so I would just find the end of the note and then leave what I thought was a reasonable amount of tape at the end, because I wanted a silence at least twice as long as the sound. So I'd spin off a whole lot of extra tape and then cut the loops. It wasn't measured. And I didn't want to measure it, because I did want to arrive at complicated rather than simple relationships. And then I started all the loops running, and let them configure in the way they chose to configure. So sometimes you get dense clusters and fairly long silences, and then you get a sequence of notes that make a kind of melody. [stops suddenly]
I hope I'm not talking too much; I tend to talk a lot.
So then, listening to this piece I thought, "Well now, what I'm going to do is apply the way of listening to this that I apply to pop records," isolating particular sections and taking those out and trying to make another piece with those. It's rather like a kind of distilling process. So the first piece on the second side is a more interesting piece to me in a way, because it's saying, Okay, this establishes the technique, now let's use it to make a tune you can whistle. It's like trying to do something that my mother would like. She did, in fact. My mother likes that record.
MUSICIAN: [to Cage] Brian did a series of albums not meant to be listened to attentively, but rather as background music when you play them at a low volume, they merge with the environment. This is similar in effect to some of your pieces.
CAGE: There's a piece called Instances Of Silence, which Merce (Cunningham) uses for Trails. And people frequently ask me afterward why there wasn't any music. Or they think the sound is coming from the environment.
ENO: That's very close to what I would like to be doing as well. I've been doing video installations quite a lot recently, which are in themselves a little hard to explain so I won't bother talking about what they do [laughs]. But the musical side of those uses four stereo pairs - that's to say eight discrete channels of sound. What I like to do with the music is first of all inspect the place where the show is going to be, and then try to make a piece which completely sinks into that environment somewhere. So that many of the sounds are indistinguishable from the traffic outside, the general hum of the city.
I like to have this feeling that people could sit there and think that the music continued out of earshot. I like the notion that you're sitting in this field of sound, and you don't necesarily hear all of it. If you move to a different place you will hear a different version of it. So this is actually why I'm interested in recorded music now, because I suddenly start to realize that you can use recordings as a way to generate unpredictability rather than repetition. I have four cassette recorders running at once, always out of sync. So that any moment is a unique moment acoustically, just like it is in the real world. I've suddenly gotten excited about tape recorders again, because I'd gotten bored with them for a while. It's not so interesting to have something repeating, exactly the same.
MUSICIAN: Both of you make music that has a relationship with a live audience, so how does that affect your view on recordings of your music?
CAGE: I have never used records in my life. Now and then I come into contact with them. I guess I follow what the Musicians' Union asks for about live music [laughter]. I'm involved so much with it and I've come to enjoy environmental sounds so much that I don't really need records. I have no way of playing them.
ENO: Actually I don't either. I haven't had for quite a long time. There's a record player in the studio, but I don't come here to listen to records. There are two things I listen to with any regularity: I have some tapes of Arabic popular music that I like very much and I listen to gospel music. Those are the only two things. And I listen to them usually when I'm cleaning the house.
MUSICIAN: John, is it the predictability of a record that you're not attracted to?
CAGE: It may be that. [pause] I think though now, that music is being practised in at least three different ways that I can distinguish. One is live music and the writing of it, as I do, to bring that live music about. Generally the notations are like letters either to friends or strangers.
Then there's music such as you are making, which is actually the making of a record, as far as I can see. So that the music becomes something not written, but something that can be held, either put on a turntable or not.
And then there's a third way, which is more and more popular now. And in my mind, this resembles the troubadours - the connection of a musician with an instrument, often of his own making. That's what I think David Tudor is doing. He designs his own circuitry. And he performs an instrument, or a collection of them. He doesn't write a score, the way I do. He simply makes something that...
ENO: Does something...
CAGE: That can be used to produce sounds. Or I know a young Canadian composer, Andrew Culver, who makes tensegrity structures [based on a system developed by Buckminster Fuller] and then connects them into the sound system and plays the instrument with a variety of beaters.
ENO: That's right, so the piece of music is really vested in that particular structure.
CAGE: And he doesn't write down the music. But he insists he's a composer.
ENO: I would say he's right.
CAGE: Oh, obviously he's right. It's just a very different way from writing music.
ENO: Well writing music is so far from anything I'm capable of doing, it's a very foreign form to me. But I like this third area very much; the idea of making a piece or a thing which is a piece of music and from which a piece will continually issue, as it were.
CAGE: And could change from time to time.
ENO: That's right. And the notion of these installations is a little bit - I think of them in that way. Because that version of the piece exists only in that place, and then either I make a piece of music for the next place or I dramatically change it to suit the new place. So that's a unique piece for that circumstance. But the connection I haven't made yet is that within the tapes, the piece doesn't change. Each tape just soldiers on and does its work. So that the whole combination is constantly different, but the elements are not in any way responding to the environment. If something dramatically different happened in the environment, nothing different would happen in the music. That's kind of unsatisfactory to me.
MUSICIAN: Is there a way of getting the audience involved in the composition?
ENO: I never really think about that. I don't think of my pieces as things they particularly want to get involved in [laughs].
MUSICIAN: I was thinking of John's 4'33", where the actions of the audience construct the piece.
ENO: I wonder what the difference is between those two, actually. It's a rather interesting distinction. I must say I wouldn't really encourage a situation where people came in thinking this was a piece of music they were supposed to participate in. "Oh, let's bring some flutes" [laughter].
In the same way, I wouldn't want them to go and start pulling apart the structures that I've built. I wouldn't want them to decide that they could rearrange them [laughs]. 'I don't like this one." I have kind of a hands-off thing.
MUSICIAN: Both of you have defended the idea that you can be a good composer whether you're trained or untrained, but this creates a certain problem. There seem to be a lot of Enoesque or Cageian composers who think that because they have no training, they're automatically daring. So what is it that separates untrained composers who aren't worth listening to from untrained composers who are?
CAGE: I think the term "worth listening to" depends on who s listening. I think it would be right to say that no matter what, if it is sounds, one could listen to it. I haven't yet heard sounds that I didn't enjoy, except when they became too musical. I have trouble, I think, when music attempts to control me. I have trouble, for instance, with the Hallelujah Chorus. But if the sound is unintentional, then I have no problem.
ENO: That's right. Some sound comes so heavily laden with intention that you can't hear it for the intentions. This is the great problem of lyrics, as far as I'm concerned. It's notable that if you read the way critics write about pop music, they'll always write about lyrics because it happens to be their medium. It's much easier to talk about lyrics than to talk about... music. But I have the same feeling about lyrics. I just don't want to hear them most of the time. They always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music they debase the music for me, in most cases.
But the question you asked about trained and untrained musicians... In fact, I must say that [to Cage] you're the reason, or you're the excuse for why I became a composer. The alibi, I should say. Because I never learned to play an instrument, and still haven't. But I had always been very fascinated by music, and when I was in art college, I was shown your book Silence. And in fact, I saw several concerts of your music, came to London to hear you speak, and so on. And it was that same thing again - there's a lot of space here, a lot of new territory. It's a territory that nobody had yet had the time to say you couldn't do something.
CAGE: You were able to work in a field with new means that really didn't require being studied.
ENO: That's exactly what was happening. The first materials I used were tape recorders, and I just collected them. I was fascinated by them and I collected them in any condition, whether they were not working properly or had a big wobble or could only run at one-and-7/8 inches per second. Each one had its character. I had several of these, and very few people had ever thought of using them as musical devices. So there was no one to tell you the rules for that. I feel the same way about video. There's a background for video, which is anarchic. It has to do with theater and film. And there's a future for video which is tremendously exciting.
CAGE: And is that the digital business?
ENO: Before you leave I'll show you some of the things I've been doing. They're hard to explain because they're not videos in the image sense. You don't look at the screen. I'm using the video system as a way of generating a controlling light. Because light is one thing that you can really do with video, it's something that people really haven't explored.
The video tapes themselves are also cut the same way as the audio tapes: they're all different lengths so the structures as well as the sound don't repeat during the course of the show. So nothing happens again. And there's a feeling to that that I like very much. Nothing happens twice, but nothing very different ever happens. It doesn't dramatically, suddenly change. And so it has a kind of evenness of texture over time.
MUSICIAN: Brian, on Music For Airplay (a promotional compilation of his more accessible solo work, released in 1981) you wrote: "On re-listening to this material I find that rather than it having become dated, many of the stylistic innovations which initially appeared rather odd have since become the currency of what is now vaguely referred to as 'new wave music.' Since my interest has shifted away from this area of music, any pride I might feel in this contribution is mingled with considerable consternation." It seemed like it would be a while before you worked with another rock band. [Eno nods in agreement.] So what got you to produce U2?
ENO: I've been listening to a lot of gospel music, and part of that is re-evaluating traditional musics. This started with a book I read, The Unknown Craftsman, by Soetsu Yanagi, who was the director of the Museum of Folkcraft in Tokyo. He talks about the two different ways of making things. There's the hard way and the easy way. [mutters] Why should anyone bother with the hard way, I wonder.
The hard way is the way of the individual artist who establishes his own terrain, as it were. The easy way is the way of grace and the way of tradition, where you don't even consider the possibility that you are there to make major innovations - you're there to make 200 parts today. And one of the things I like about gospel music is that it has that same kind of humility, that the people who are singing it are not puckered-brow artists. There's the same freshness and thrill that you see in all kinds of folk arts. People doing something that is shaped by a whole lot of quite unconscious factors, like the limitations of their own vocal range. All sorts of factors which seem very interesting.
So I was thinking at that time a lot about whether you could reconcile these two ideas: the easy way, which you could compare to a ship being blown by the wind, and the hard way, which is trudging across a rocky path somewhere. And I thought about Matisse, who is somebody who took the hard way to end up the easy way. Because I'm sure at the end of his life, he was in a situation of being a folk artist in a tradition that he invented, really. And he worked for so long in a particular approach to making things that toward the end, I believe he really did that with a kind of innocence that you have to work at long to get to.
So I thought, "Now I wonder if this is true of popular music as well." And as a band, U2 are the closest thing that you're likely to find in this part of the hemisphere to a soul band. They're people for whom the spiritual aspect of what they do is very important. I thought they would be a band worth working with, from that point of view.
These video installations I've been doing are very exciting because they have a very definite ending. I know that by the time a show opens, I will have gotten something good finished. But I don't know what it is now. So it's exciting to be in a situation where you know there's a distinct point in time where you say, "Right, that's how the piece is." I don't feel that way about making records anymore.
CAGE: If you have the permutations you spoke of, what one hears will change all the time. And you have them in this video situation?
ENO: That's right, I will [laughs]. The only thing is, I went to one of my exhibitions after it had been up for a couple of weeks and discovered that some keen person had been diligently rewinding all the tapes and cueing them up again. They thought I didn't realize it was all running out of sync.
MUSICIAN: Do you find that people have set notions of how they should respond to music, John?
CAGE: [slowly] I don't think so. The problem I find is that if an audience is in the presence of something they're not familiar with, they generally begin to talk. I went to an exhibition here of the Saatchi collection (a sterling modern art collection in London), and apparently a group going to see that show made graffiti on some of the paintings and on a sculpture by Donald Judd. So there's now people protecting the work. But it seems to me that making graffiti on a work of art is very similar to in any way making sound...
ENO: Talking at a concert...
CAGE: Or laughter or any way making sounds, unless the concert is like one of the things we've been talking about. Like Satie's Furniture Music (Musique D'Ameublement), where he wanted the audience to talk. But then they were very quiet. In Zagreb recently, there were two ladies sitting in front of me at a concert, and they were perfectly quiet until the music began, and then they started to talk [laughter]. Then there was another time at a concert where this young boy and his father were in front of me. Stravinsky was conducting. This was some time ago. And the son turned to his father and said, "Dad, that isn't the way it goes." [laughs] He was unable to listen because of his memory.
MUSICIAN: Memory being something you've made a life out of trying to avoid.
CAGE: I like the Marcel Duchamp directive. The way he expressed it, if I can remember correctly, is "To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like image to another the memory imprint." In other words, to come to the point of living like a tourist.
MUSICIAN: A recent quote of yours that I liked was, "Everything I see is something I haven't memorized." Whether you're a composer or a writer or a builder, it's hard to make a familiar thing fresh each time you do it.
CAGE: It's only hard if one takes a lot of baggage...
ENO: That goes back to momentum, the first thing we talked about. One of the things that makes it hard is that there's always a tremendous amount of encouragement for you to...
CAGE: For you to think it's hard.
ENO: Yes, that's right. And for you to repeat a past success.
CAGE: Someone asked me recently when I was inspired. And I said I used to be inspired when I took laundry to the laundromat, but that now I have my own washing machine [laughter]. A good friend said about the care of plants, "First things first, each day." And I find as I take care of the plants, that any ideas I need for the work I'm doing will come to me.
MUSICIAN: Would you talk a bit about your most recent methods of composition?
CAGE: If it's a small group, I write in individual parts. By small I mean up to twenty. I would write single parts and not have a conductor. I arrange the parts in such a way that a conductor wouldn't be necessary, but that each time it was played, it would be different. One of the ways I do that is to, in a section, have the beginning take place between zero and forty-five seconds, and end within another particular time (thirty seconds and one minute fifteen seconds). And then, with a chronometer, the player would figure out whether he's doing it fast or slow, and make himself a kind of schedule. My advice is that each person make his own schedule. That's pretty much the structure of a piece called Music For. It's either Music For Two or For Three, For Four, Five, Six, Seven and I think now it's up to Eight or Nine.
If it gets to a larger number than twenty, then it's a question of an orchestra. And then I would divide the orchestra into groups, and have several conductors. What I want is an unpredictable relationship of events and time such as one hears in traffic. And I would do that, too, with a large orchestra, from forty to eighty.
MUSICIAN: The basic message of Silence seems to be that everything is permitted.
CAGE: Everything is permitted if zero is taken as the basis. That's the part that isn't often understood. If you're non-intentional, then everything is permitted. If you're intentional, for instance if you want to murder someone, then it's not permitted. The same thing can be true musically. As I was saying before, I don't enjoy being pushed while I'm listening. I like music which lets me do my own listening.
MUSICIAN: It's been suggested that the options that were so wide open twenty-five years ago just haven't been explored.
CAGE: You mean that composers are conservative?
MUSICIAN: Yes, that rather than taking advantage of your spirit to discover new things, they've merely imitated the end product you arrived at.
CAGE: I think the musical world is in a very different situation than it was when I was young. When I was just beginning there were only two things you could do: one was to follow Schönberg and the other was to follow Stravinsky. If you want to be a modern composer now, there are so many things to do, and people do them. Some of them don't even know who I am. And yet all that freedom exists. It comes about through a great change in technology and through a really changed world in which people who were formerly in cultures that were separate are now fully aware of each other. And it comes about through a greater number of people, so that there is, as Marshall McLuhan once said, there is a brushing of more information today than there was fifty years ago. It's a changed world. It's not a world in which we are obliged to follow a mainstream, represented by X or Y.
ENO: That's right, you don't have to belong to a pantheon or even know about it.
CAGE: No. It's independent of Schönberg's notion that German music is supreme. It has nothing to do with Bach or Beethoven.
ENO: The first statement of your question assumed something which I would query. You said that John had opened up all these options, but you thought now people were being conservative, or had retreated from those. What I would say actually is that retreat is also a choice you can make. The extremes aren't the only interesting places to be.
CAGE: Except for me [laughter]. I'm happy to be... extreme.
ENO: Well you're a polar explorer.
CAGE: I wouldn't be happy otherwise.
ENO: But not everyone wants to live at the south pole.
CAGE: And there's no need for it.
ENO: No. It's nice to know that it exists and you want to hear about it from somebody else. But you might first live in the South of France and have a very useful, happy life there too. There are artists who make another choice. They know those boundaries, and they think, "Right, I'll be there."
CAGE: But don't you think it's more subjective, finally, than being at the pole or being in the South of France. It's actually being at one with oneself. And one's own means.
ENO: So it doesn't any longer relate to the rest of the field of activity, yes. And then having found that place you might look around you and say, "Oh look. I'm in the South of France." I agree with you that the choice is not predicated on a comparison with what other people are doing. Of course it's thrilling to do something for the first time, but it's equally thrilling for somebody to do it well, taking advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of what you did and mixing it with other approaches. I have different circles of friends, and some of the people I know come from so-called serious music backgrounds and others are from popular music backgrounds. And whenever I'm with one group, I'm always defending the other.
MUSICIAN: As somebody who is so frequently "borrowed from," I would think you'd have mixed feelings about new artists doing something that really isn't new art.
ENO: I think of it as compost. If you think of culture as a great big garden, it has to have its compost as well. And lots of people are doing things that are... not dramatic or radical or not even particularly interesting; they're just digestive processes. It's places where a number of little things are being combined and tried out. It's like members of a population. We're all little different turns of the same genetic dice. If you think about music in that way, it makes it much easier to accept that there might be lots of things you might rlot want to hear again. They happen and they pass and they become the compost for something else to grow from [laughs]. Gardening is such a good lesson for all sorts of things.
MUSICIAN: If the most important thing is being satisfied with your own work, John, do you bother to read reviews?
CAGE: I've been reading the reviews here of the Cunningham Dance Company. They've been very favorable. Most of the enthusiasm is for the dancing. One of the critics, in fact, complained about the music, just as he said he would have complained twenty years ago.
ENO: [laughs] It's nice to be consistent.
CAGE: The problem for some critics and for some audiences is that the music and the dance are independent of each other. Most people find coincidences [to Eno] which certainly exist with your work in the installations - and when they see the coincidences, they think it's been made that way.
ENO: It's very hard not to think that, actually. It's in the nature of your perceptual mechanism to want to connect things.
CAGE: Except when we see two things on the street, one is physical and one is audible, we know that we're making the connection and that it didn't make it. And then we speak of being in the right place at the right time.
ENO: [laughs] As if you could ever be anywhere else.
MUSICIAN: It's difficult to listen to experimental music without placing it in a traditional frame of reference. Maybe that's why people still have the reaction that you both had years ago - "Oh, I could do that."
ENO: [laughs] It's funny that more people don't think that. But actually I constantly evaluate things, I must say. I don't think I'm past evaluating at all. I was talking to somebody about this last night, that one thing I find continually interesting is to find out where I am by what I do. So I look at the things I've done as if somebody else did them, as if they're separate things that now exist in the world. And then I see that they stand in relationship to other things. And it's always extremely interesting to me to see what they're close to. I mentioned the Ray Conniff Singers, as a matter of fact. But it's also not very far from Steve Reich. So I keep looking at myself as seen through that particular thing or this particular thing. And I find myself standing in lots of strange places.
MUSICIAN: Aside from specific techniques, the most obvious thing you two share is a continuous personal joy in making music. After all these years, can you still get that sense of mystery that we started talking about?
ENO: [to Cage] You first.
CAGE: I think it's not all joy. It's something more like an unpredictable gift.
ENO: It's a practice of some kind. And I think one thing we have in common is we're both interested in what procedures we're going through, that is the day-to-day nature of our lives, as in coming up with a wonderful new piece, a new rhythm. If you're doing that, it quite frequently happens that you're just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. It's not terribly miserable. It is occasionally for me, but not very often. And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It's like a crystallization point where you can't detect any single element having changed, but suddenly things have locked. There's a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly.
CAGE: That's beautiful.
ENO: And that seems to be the process.
CAGE: So that you can't speak of it being continually good. [pause] But there's no other life.
ENO: Yeah. That says it all.