In appropriately random fashion, yesterday at the Sala Borsa Library in Bologna, I came across a DVD I had never heard of it before entitled John Cage From Zero. It contains four films by Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver.
The first is 19 Questions, “a chance determined interview” in which we are quickly made aware how important numbers, chance and time were to Cage. He allows a precise number of seconds to each topic , for example 42 seconds on chess, 24 seconds on death and 48 seconds on mathematics. Although it is billed as an interview, we see and hear only a relaxed Cage speaking directly to camera with a stop watch in his hand.
He would have failed miserably if he were a contestant on the BBC radio show Just A Minute as he hesitates a lot, deviates occasionally and sometimes repeats himself.
The pauses in particular are often prolonged – his 26 seconds on Postmodernism is as follows (the dots indicate the pauses): “Postmodernism obviously comes after modernism ………………………… I wonder what the difference is ……………… perhaps it has something to do with refection”
His three seconds on Zen Buddhism is just five words – “The structure of the mind”.
We learn that he liked friends who surprised him and that if he had the choice between going to see a concert of old music and new music he would always choose the new because he wanted to hear something he’d never heard before.
Cage gives obtuse answers, not because he wanted to be deliberately evasive, but because he distrusted the capacity of words to capture thoughts and ideas with any precision.
The second film is of a performance of Fourteen by the Ives Ensemble. For this piece, the instrumentalists are assigned parts which contain mostly single notes, only the piano plays continuously following Cage’s instructions: “an unaccompanied solo…in an anarchic society of sounds.”
The third film is a fairly annoying cut and paste audio-visual collage called Paying Attention.
The best comes last with a visual interpretation of a lecture delivered at Stanford University in Palo Alto California in early 1992, seven months before Cage’s death. It is entitled Overpopulation and Art and is accompanied by music he composed.
The lecture is a fascinating, complex and inspiring piece about the state of the planet which is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first presented. Written in the form of mesostic poem it can be be streamed at Internet Archive.Org.and it is best heard in its entirety (about 30 minutes) rather than summarised here.
What shines through from these films is that John Cage was an anarchist who believed that “the best government is no government”. In his vision, the concept of living anarchism is neither chaotic or violent but entails the practice of liberty and requires both individual responsiblity and creative conduct.
The words and music of John Cage were about transforming conventional perceptions and overcoming repressive structures. He was optimistic in that he believed that humans have a tendency towards good but the essential caveat to this is that progress towards a Utopian society is only possible when we rely on our individual intelligence and not on politicians or lawyers.