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My whole background is quite conventional. I studied the piano and started to compose music from an early age. When I was sixteen, my teacher was Wallingford Riegger. And then we have a high school in NYC called Music and Art. It had the best of both possible worlds. And there I met some classmates who wanted to be composers; we formed a composer's workshop. This had no supervision from any kind of teachers. It was a marvellous thing, we made our own scene, and realised the need to take music out of the classroom into practical experience. Thank God we did it so early.
Then, when I was 24, I met John Cage quite by accident. I was at a performance of a Webern symphony at Carnegie Hall - Mitropoulos conducting with the Philharmonic - and it was just a shattering experience for me. I was standing in the hall all alone and out comes this man who I recognise, and I walked over to him, something I never did before and never did since, I just looked at him and I said "Wasn't that extraordinary?"
He was just shaking with, how shall I put, well that's what he was actually shaking with, excitement ... actually shaking ... not little shaking ... with this music.
He asked me what I did. John is a generation older than I am. (I'm 40). John's 54 now. I told him I wrote music, he said he would love to see it and I said "I would love to show it to you", and we made an appointment for me to go down to his apartment.
It was an unusual experience for me because I was brought up in a wonderfully middle class environment. It had the best elements of the middle class which are laissez-faire in terms of my own life. John was a Bohemian, a West Coast Bohemian. I went into this tenement.
I had to walk five flights up to the top, and into this magnificent room. Actually it was two rooms made into one with windows on three sides, with a magnificent view of the East River. You have all the beauties of New York and you look over to Brooklyn and it's really a wonderful view. And there it was right on top of it.
There were little mobiles on the wall. No furniture, just a bare straw mat, very unusual straw, it probably came from San Francisco or some place, it wasn't the kind of straw mats you buy in department stores, John wouldn't have anything like that ... and you had this wonderful straw mat and some magnificent potted plants, and a long, long marble table with Japanese cushions around it. To one side of the room a Steinway with nothing on it. Then there was another room with a bed and a desk, a kind of drafting table with a fluorescent light, which I immediately imitated, and a little kitchen. I went out the next day and bought myself a drafting table and a fluorescent light. I am very happy to say that is the only thing I have ever taken from John. No, there was one other, a rapidograph pen.
I dwell on how he lived because it opened up a certain alternative that was completely unknown to me. We lived in the suburbs in a very conventional apartment, conventional furniture. It was very important, the fact that Cage's room was so ascetic.
It wasn't like walking into the room of someone I know and looking at this beautiful Chippendale, his Picasso and his beautiful side table ... you know, getting involved in the world of things. With Cage I had the world of non-things ... I also entered a non-thing world in music as well.
Up until this point my music was personal. It was vaguely modernistic. It had the sound world of a Schoenberg or a Berg, but I wasn't a 12-tone composer. I wrote important things before I entered into this ascetic world. I think the ascetic world reinforced my feeling that they were important.
Let us say this was my last interview, that I'll be leaving this world soon and someone says to me, "What debt do you owe John Cage?" I think I would say that I owe him everything and I owe him nothing. He liberated me in terms of self-permission to go on with what I had decided I was going to do.
There is another, perhaps more important thing that I understood because of my relationship with John - he is a man who always wanted to go out into the world. He was always creating situations where the world could enter into him, where he couldn't distinguish which was the centre, life or him. At the same time I was leaving it, I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn't see what he saw in it. You get all excited about the environment and entering into it and the environment was just a big bore, you see.
By definition, the environment has no definition; the environment is what is passing by at that moment. I remember I was having a lesson with Wolpe and he had a studio on 14th Street. It's the proletarian's 5th Avenue and so Wolpe liked it. He was very socially oriented and he was talking about the man in the street and I was getting a scolding, and I was looking out of the window and there I saw crossing the street Jackson Pollock. I didn't say a word to Wolpe and he went on talking about the man in the street. But there was that crazy almost surrealistic contradiction. It was almost as if Jackson just came by just to get me out of this particular dilemma.
I don't think of myself as a composer, at the same time I am composing music, but you see that's my delusion. We don't remember when we came into the world and we don't remember when we die, that at both ends, and within is our structure, it's open the structure we feel that it's in Einsteinian terms, infinite yet limited ... well that's my whole attitude to work. On the one hand I can't say I want it to be infinite, that's too sentimental for me. At the same time I don't want to create a finite thing, I don't want to make monuments to things or about things or about myself or combinations of both. I want it almost the way I live within this structure. I am the play within the structure. How to do it without metaphors, you see this is for me the important thing.
And so for me the real is not the object, the real for me is not the compositional system, the real for me is to what degree, almost in Kierkegaardian terms, I can exist, I can plunge, I can leap into this thing which I call life, which I call the environment.
Here I am in London, it's Saturday night, I go to a dinner party everybody there is from New York. I go to Paris. I just meet New Yorkers. I mean when I think about the world I think about Marco Polo taking a trip to China. He got into the world, you see.
And so, in a sense, getting into the world is a very interesting thing now, because if the artist doesn't get into the world immediately, he'll be out of it in two years. I think it's just self-evident that for example, say the art of Egypt lasted for how many thousands years, and as we come into modern times each ethnic or person or contribution ... two decades, one decade. Now it's one season - that's the world.
I'm trying to get back from hell. The environment. This world. Can we take it that seriously? We don't realise that you don't have to cope with things in hell. I would say that in my music too I had the same struggle, how to get out of this hell back to what I would want to call the real world of being involved with the moment. The French mind, say, the mind of Baudelaire, would call it the tyranny of the moment. I would call it the ecstasy. You see it's awfully hard for me to talk about music because, let's put it this way, in the Talmud they had an angel and his or her name was "Forgetfulness". I was blessed by this blessed angel, so when I work I forget.
There is still an incredible difference between Europe and America. In Europe what is presented is really a machine, and the human being who is doing it is left out of it, because he's surrendered to a conceptual, artistic life. Now, in New York, with myself, and much of the painting of the fifties, the man himself, his learning, his background, his perceptions, let's say that he is the machine. He gets rid of the machine in himself and then he gives you this art without this dialectical justification.
What it really amounts to is whether you want to be in the work, in the medium, or outside it, that's what it amounts to. I feel that Cage and myself are in the work. I feel that Stockhausen and Boulez are out of it. And it just becomes a question of temperament; I would like to go even further and say that if you want to be out of the work you want to be out of life. I remember the theories that first taught us to be out of the work were the Greeks, and Kierkegaard said they didn't know what life really was because they had no guilt.
I think I realised I was thrown out of Eden ... And by the sweat of thy brow thou shalt earn thy art, and I think Boulez and Stockhausen think they're in Paradise. Because evidently, the great idea, the great system, is analogous to Paradise, an intellectual Utopia. I know I was thrown out because I ate the apple - Stockhausen's just eating Wienerschnitzel. I don't know what Boulez eats.
So I can't relate or identify with any system whatsoever, not even that which I make myself. Even that which I make myself is a playback. Even if I invent something completely new, it's only because I want to return to Paradise, I want to cop out.
Oriental and Zen culture?
My whole debt to Oriental culture is Chinese food. Other than that, the whole philosophy is not different from any philosophy or any system of thinking - each tries to find a justification for living in his hell and understanding it. A technical device is not a technical device - it's always really a philosophical excuse for living in the chosen hell of the artist that relates to this particular technical device. When a man talks to me about technique in music, I'm sorry to say I think of him as a fool. Obviously, if you settle for a system, which is like settling for a form of government, you cannot go farther than that system allows, you cannot go out of it, so you are also immediately back where we began. You could be someone like Stockhausen who would use many particular systems, many particular stances in the same piece, but they are all denying themselves immediately.
In my own artistic thinking I also have this dilemma about art and life. Also, I'm trying to bridge that but there is this something about art that aroused me to understand this whole business about loss of nerve.
I have a very dear friend, a great painter, called me up very upset, the work wasn't going well ... he asked me to come to his studio - which I did - I looked around at the work, saw some sketches, drawings, large pictures, and I was very close to his work, intensely involved with his work, and he asked me, "What's wrong?". And I said, "Simply - a loss of nerve." And he was so relieved, he says is that all?
So don't talk to me about systems, don't talk to me about aesthetics, don't talk to me about life, in fact don't even talk to me about art, and let's end it with this thought: That it all has to do with nerve, nothing else, that's what it's all about; so in a sense it's a character problem.
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