Tag Archives: John Cage

Peter Greenaway, “Four American Composers: John Cage” (1983)

Peter Greenaway. John Cage. Indeterminacy. What more could you want? Not the greatest video quality here in YouTube video form, but still. Not easy (impossible) to find this film series of films on an American format DVD, so this will have to do. Enjoy.

Sweet and sour: Orwellian sugar ads of the 1960s

vintage sugar ad diet hint

This was a 1970 ad that appeared in National Geographic magazine. We have come a long since the days when the sugar industry could so blatantly advertise the lie of sugar’s “nutritional value,” yet most people still consume way too much of this stuff, often without even being aware of it.

Here’s another great vintage sugar ad, from 1966, where sugar is being marketed as legalized speed — Mary “needs energyless, artificially sweetened foods and beverages like a turtle needs a seat belt”:

vintage sugar ad - energy

The “Note to Mothers” in the box is especially disturbing, as it plays on a mother’s desire to protect her children from harm (the “bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait”) by suggesting they feed their tots a substance that could kill them in the long run:

Note to Mothers:
Exhaustion may be dangerous — especially to children who haven’t learned to avoid it by pacing themselves. Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast — offsets exhaustion. Synthetic sweetners put nothing back. Energy is the first requirement of life. Play safe with your young ones — make sure they get sugar every day.

Such is the legacy of the “Mad Men” celebrated today. Here are more vintage sugar ads, from which I’ve excerpted the following grains of pure, Orwellian gold:

  • Are you getting enough sugar to keep your weight down?
  • Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat.
  • Lisa needs a sugarless, energy-less soft drink like a kangaroo needs a baby buggy.
  • SUGAR — a Builder of the West
  • Tommy needs a sugarless, powerless soft drink like a moose needs a hatrack.
  • Sugar puts the musclepower in sweetness.
  • Judy needs a sugarless, go-less soft drink like a kangaroo… [you already know the rest — this copywriter got lazy]
  • How sugar helps the weight you lose stay lost
  • Why do they put sugar in the pickle jar? It’s not just to sweeten the pickles. Recent experiments show that sugar brings out the natural flavor. Pickles taste “picklier,” fruit tastes “fruitier,” even soup tastes brighter. Next time you make vegetable soup, add a little sugar and see for yourself.

I like that, “recent experiments show,” like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. These ads, by the way, were “Published in the interest of better nutrition by SUGAR INFORMATION, INC. a non-profit organization.” The copywriting is priceless, and I find especially fascinating all the strange, mash-up word coinages: energyless (which is “energy-less” in another ad), undereat, musclepower, and the especially awkward hyphenate, “go-less.” The ads feel as though their creators were definitely hopped-up (“hoppedup”) on a superpowerful, energypacked magicalnectar — i.e. sugary soft drinks.

As a counter example, Sami Inkinen and Meredith Loring are currently rowing across the Pacific Ocean to raise money and awareness in the fight against sugar. They call their project, brilliantly, Fat Chance Row, which both mocks the hubris required to row all the way across the ocean, as well as being a forum for “chewing the fat” about obesity-causing sugar. Brilliant. It recalls for me another use of “fat chance” in a title, this time playing off the word “chance” and the indeterminacy of John Cage: Bruce Nauman’s installations, Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) and Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001.

Poetry allows musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words

“As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words”
~John Cage, Foreword to Silence

Describing the color white to a blind person

Einstein and white swan

I have been searching online for years for this story that’s been half-submerged in my memory, with no luck; I finally found it in an old journal entry dated June 8, 1985. It was cut out of a newspaper, but I have no idea which one, and I can’t find this exact version of the story anywhere:

One day Einstein was asked by a pesky reporter to describe his theory of relativity in a few simple words. He responded with the following story:

“A man was asked by a blind man to describe the color white. The man said, ‘White is the color of a swan.’ The blind man said, ‘What is a swan?’ The man said, ‘A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.’

“The blind man asked, ‘What is crooked?’ The man was becoming impatient. He grabbed the blind man’s arm, straightened it and said, ‘This is straight.’ Then he bent it and said, ‘And this is crooked.’

“Whereupon the blind man quickly said, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. Now I know what white is.'”

So there’s the first clue why I could never find this story online — I had thought it was one of John Cage’s zen stories, but it’s actually a story told by Einstein. This in itself is a good illustration of the fallibility of memory. Here is another version I found, and this fits the pattern of all the references I found to this story:

Einstein and his blindfriend. This story shows how complex Einstein could be. Not long after his arrival in Princeton he was invited, by the wife of one of the professors of mathematics at Princeton, to be guest of honor at a tea.-Reluctantly, Einstein consented. After the tea had progressed for a time, the excited hostess, thrilled to have such an eminent guest of honor, fluttered out into the center of activity and with raised arms silenced the group. Bubbling out some words expressing her thrill and pleasure, she turned to Einstein and said: “I wonder, Dr. Einstein, if you would be so kind as to explain to my guests in a few words, just what is relativity theory?”

Without any hesitation Einstein rose to his feet and told a story. He said he was reminded of a walk he one day had with his blind friend. The day was hot and he turned to the blind friend and said, “I wish I had a glass of milk.”

“Glass,” replied the blind friend, “I know what that is. But what do you mean by milk?”

“Why, milk is a white fluid,” explained Einstein.

“Now fluid, I know what that is,” said the blind man. “but what is white ?”

“Oh, white is the color of a swan’s feathers.”

“Feathers, now I know what they are, but what is a swan?”

“A swan is a bird with a crooked neck.”

“Neck, I know what that is, but what do you mean by crooked?”

At this point Einstein said he lost his patience. He seized his blind friend’s arm and pulled it straight. “There, now your arm is straight,” he said. Then he bent the blind friend’s arm at the elbow. “Now it is crooked.”

“Ah,” said the blind friend. “Now I know what milk is.”

And Einstein, at the tea, sat down.

Now the plot thickens. Here is a similar version of the milk story, but with Einstein now completely out of the picture, as told by the Hungarian-British writer George Mikes, in one of his books, which I found quoted in a post to the Pakistan Gardening Forum, of all places:

A blind man asks a young girl to describe milk. The young girl is astonished that he doesn’t even know what milk is. “Milk is white,” she tells him. The old man tells her that he is blind and doesn’t know what white means. The young girl tells him that this is very easy to explain and tells him that a swan is white. The old man tells her that a swan may be white, but he has never seen a swan. “It has a curved neck,” she tells him. The blind man says that he has no idea what ‘curved’ is. She lifts her arm, bends her wrists forward like a swan’s neck. “Feel it,” she says, “that’s curved.” The old man feels the girl’s arm, touches the girl’s wrist and exclaims joyfully: “Thank God. Now at last I know what milk is.”

What of this strange connection between the “white” things called “milk” and “swans”? Turns out that goes back to Hinduism and Sanskrit, according to the swan page on Wikipedia:

Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by this Sanskrit verse:

Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!

(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them? With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)

I guess the ancients required empirical evidence to distinguish a swan from a duck, a task that many modern humans can perform with relative ease.

Of all the versions of this story that might be floating around the universe, I like the original one I clipped from an unknown newspaper all those years ago, because to me the idea of describing the color white to a blind person is much more abstract and interesting than describing what milk is, since milk, after all, is a substance that can be discerned by other senses. But how can you possibly describe “white” without referencing other things? Such is relativity.

The life we’re living is so excellent (once we get our minds and desires out of the way)

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.”
~John Cage

Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen show, 1963, playing music on bicycles

This a great. A young, unknown Frank Zappa (Allen and the announcer keep pronouncing his name “Zoppa”) on the Steve Allen show creating an interactive music happening with two bicycles, the studio band (playing “non-musically”), and recorded electronic music. Obviously inspired by John Cage, but very funny. Steve Allen makes some funny jokes, but has adds a nice, respectful coda, and Zappa cracks up repeatedly.

Zappa takes the opportunity to promote his new album, How’s Your Bird, due for release one week later, and the “world’s worst move” — The Worlds Greatest Sinner — for which he composed the score. The movie, by iconoclastic “grindhouse” actor/writer/director Timothy Carey, was not released, and would not be seen by the public for 50 years. So of course we’ll have to hunt it down and see it. Carey’s biography is very interesting, and among his many strange appearances on the fringes of popular culture, he is on the iconic Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, album, in a still from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, though all but a small part of the back of his shirt (seen directly behind George) is obscured in the final version released with the album. Check out “The Sgt Pepper Album Cover Shoot Dissected” for more fascinating details about the murkier aspects of this most famous of album covers.

See also:

Give Change A Chance: A New Year’s Resolution

john cage, paris 1981

“John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. Nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by their adaptation to change.” ~Robert Rauschenberg

Alec Baldwin shares this quote from an episode of his radio show Here’s the Thing on NPR. I believe the passage is from Rauschenburg’s obituary and can be heard at 29:20 of this podcast. I have almost worked my way through the entire series of very thoughtful interviews.  Other shows have featured interviews with Kristen Wiig, Dick Cavett, Herb Alpert, Chris Rock, Lorne Michaels, Erica and Molly Jong, David Letterman and Michael Douglas.

“You’re too good for us.”

One day while I was composing,           the telephone
 rang.                A  lady's  voice  said,
   "Is  this  John  Cage,            the  percussion
 composer?"      I  said,  "Yes."      She  said,
         "This  is  the  J.  Walter  Thompson  
Company."      I  didn't  know  what  that  was,
        but  she  explained  that  their  business
 was  advertising.                She  said,
   "Hold  on.                One  of  our  directors
 wants  to  speak  to  you."      During  a  pause
my  mind  went  back  to  my  composition.
       Then  suddenly  a  man's  voice  said,
     "Mr.  Cage,            are  you  willing  to  
prostitute  your  art?"      I  said,  "Yes."      He
 said,  "Well,            bring  us  some  samples
Friday  at  two."      I  did.                After
hearing  a  few  recordings,            one  of  the
 directors  said  to  me,            "Wait  a  minute."
     Then  seven  directors  formed  what  looked
like  a  football  huddle.                 From  this
     one  of  them  finally  emerged,             came
 over  to  me,              and  said,              
"You're  too  good  for  us.                    We're
 going  to   save   you   for   Robinson   Crusoe."

~John Cage, Indeterminacy No. 53

Boredom and beauty, why and why not?

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
~John Cage

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I feel it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover there is no reason.”
~John Cage

Covers story: The Black Mountain Review

Black Mountain Review -- all seven issues / covers

Covers of all seven issues of The Black Mountain Review, 1954-1957. Click to enlarge.

Jed Birmingham wrote a great article a couple years ago, Black Mountain Review: Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker, about William S. Burroughs and his appearance in The Black Mountain Review in the late 1950s. The Review was the art and literary journal of Black Mountain College, the experimental liberal arts college that existed in North Carolina from 1933–1957. Here is Birmingham’s description:

Founded by progressive educator John Rice in 1933 near Asheville, North Carolina, by the late 1940s, Black Mountain College attracted key figures (or soon to be) in the experimental arts: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, David Tudor, Clement Greenberg, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Buckminster Fuller. By 1954, the College was on its last legs. In fact, the winter of 1953/1954 was arguably the lowest point in the College’s history. Out of this winter of discontent grew the idea of a literary magazine. Olson had turned Black Mountain into his own classroom and writers like Ed Dorn, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, and Fielding Dawson attended the college. Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley along with Olson would teach at the College in its closing years.

There were only seven issues of The Black Mountain Review published, as seen in the seven cover images above. I love these covers, and how the publishers began with the idea of a consistent design template with minimal differentiation, perhaps to create an identifiable “brand,” but by issue five their own artistic and experimental inclinations took over, obviously under the influence of John Cage and Franz Kline, and overthrew the rigid structure. It like a visual representation of a mind expanding. Beautiful.

For large version of each Review cover, and more, see Black Mountain Review: Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker.

Is a bird as free as a bird?

“Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression “free as a bird,” Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.”
~John Cage

A Purposeful Purposeless or a Purposeless Play

“What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
~John Cage

Kerouac’s On the Road Scroll & Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print

Jack Kerouac - On the Road manuscript scroll

Robert Rauschenberg - Automobile Tire Print

Two significant artifacts or two-lane blacktop events that came to mind immediately after posting our piece, Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip”: Plotting a motorized city, paper route style the other day was the similarity between Jack Kerouac’s (1951) 120-foot-long rant, Robert Rauschenberg’s (1953) 23-foot-long tire track, and Ed Ruscha’s (1966) 25-foot-long survey.

First a brief history of the Kerouac manuscript for On the Road. Kerouac produced the single-spaced text without commas or paragraph breaks on one massive continuous scroll in only three weeks. The 120-foot-long player-piano-like (Jelly) roll (Morton) was created by taping semi-translucent paper together and feeding it through his “That’s not writing, it’s typing” 1928 Underwood Portable typewriter. But oh what a typist he was; according to legend (or Allen Ginsberg), Kerouac was clocked at speeds approaching 110-120 words per minute on the straightaways and perhaps those speeds can be attributed to the “nearness” of Kerouac to the subject matter.

“His subject was himself and his method was to write as spontaneously as possible…What resulted he would later transcribe for forwarding to his publisher, but never revise, in principle he regarded revision as a form of lying.”
~The New York Times

“I’m just reading what I wrote all night. There are better things coming than what I wrote all night. Straight from the mind to the voice”.
~An excerpt from On The Road, Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road, Rykodisc (1999)

Straight from the mind to the voice. This desire or act of accepting /embracing things for what they are, flaws, flies in the ointment, warts and all, is a reoccurring aspect to Robert Rauschenberg’s work as well. Rauschenberg is perhaps best known for his late 1950s, early 1960s Combines. But for me Rauschenberg’s most significant work besides Erased de Kooning (1953), is his 1953 collaboration with his ‘printer and press’ John Cage entitled “Automobile Tire Print. This 23-foot-long “print” was executed with black house paint, twenty sheets of typewriter paper, and a Model A Ford one weekend on a semi-deserted street in in Lower Manhattan.

Unfortunately it rained. Fortunately it rained. Thankfully it rained. Just by chance it rained and everything was salvaged. Or as Rauschenberg explains in this wonderful 1999 interview at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: ‘And I just poured the paint on the… it rained… and the paste didn’t really hold up too well… yeah I salvaged it all, but anyway it didn’t have to rain… and so I pored it in front and I told John to really… I poured it in front and I told John to drive just as straight as he could you know, be careful, keep going straight you know and John was fascinated by the fact we were doing this and he did a good job.’ Yes a lovely effort indeed.

Additional Video:

Unrolling the On The Road scroll:
“On the Road Again with Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank”
Indianapolis Museum of Art – IMA

Additional Audio:

Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again
National Public Radio: All Things Considered
by Andrea Shea
July 5, 2007

See also: “Tire,” by Roy Lichtenstein, which arrived in 1962, nine years after the Rauschenberg/Cage tire track print.

Timing Is Everything

In the 1930s the composer John Cage learned a valuable lesson the importance of time in the structure of music. In art, as in life, timing is everything:

Yet of all the things in Cage’s Los Angeles years that “set [him] on fire” and shaped his life in fundamental ways, the most far-reaching was his decision, and good fortune, to work as a student with the composers Richard Bühlig and Arnold Schoenberg…. “Bühlig was a wonderful, cultivated man, and he taught me a great deal,” Cage confessed. “The first thing he said, after seeing my music was that I had to learn something about structure.” Bühlig also impressed upon Cage the crucial significance of time and timing: “One day when I arrived at his house half and hour early he slammed the door in my face and told me to come back at the proper time. I had some library books with me which I decided to return, and thus I arrived at his house a half hour late. He was simply furious. He lectured me for two hours on the importance of time–how it was essential to music and must always be carefully observed by everyone devoted to the art.

(Source: John Cage: composed in America, p. 91. By Marjorie Perloff, Charles Junkerman, University of Chicago)