S.E.M. Ensemble

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A Visit with John Cage

November 16, 1990


            For the past few weeks, I wanted to talk with John Cage.  Lately, this has not been an easy task.  It may sound silly but for a combination of reasons, I feel increasingly inhibited about calling John.  It has never been a problem me to see him; quite the contrary, every time I call, he has time for me right away.  And he has never discouraged me from coming or calling back.  Maybe because of this easy access to him, I always imagine how many people must be constantly bothering him and what a nuisance it must be for him to pick up the phone all the time.  So when I get to the point that I need to see him, I make sure that I am perfectly clear about what I want to talk about and that I have a good reason to do it.  There were two things I wanted to talk to him about this time: one had to do with our plans to put on a series of concerts in Brooklyn; the other was to ask him to be involved in an educational project I proposed to Prague.

            The concerts in Brooklyn had to do with a new situation in which the S.E.M. Ensemble found itself after gaining a facility in Brooklyn Heights.  In August we moved into part of a building with spaces to work and perform and wanted to make an opening presentation of the place with a series of four concerts in February and March.

            The educational project was a result of my visit to Prague last July.  It was suggested to me by Milan Knizak that I seek the directorship of the Prague Conservatory.  I regarded the idea as a joke, but he was very insistent, and I sensed that he was serious about it.  Milan Knizak is the Rector of the Visual Arts Academy and presently a big time wheeler-dealer in Czech cultural affairs.  Becoming a director of the Conservatory would be a truly absurd idea as I see it.  I proposed instead to start a completely new school, a new music institution, bi-lingual (Czech and English), with one group of composers residing in Prague and another group of composers outside of Czechoslovakia, loosely connected with the project and consulting students long distance.

            Two things finally pushed me to call John - a positive letter from Knizak and the approaching deadline to finalize the program for our Brooklyn concerts.  I started my day with several stops in Manhattan, and at noon I arrived at the Paula Cooper Gallery to talk with Paula about our Brooklyn concerts.  From there I finally called John.  He said: "When do you want to come?  If you can, come right over."  Half an hour later I was riding the elevator to John's loft.

            We sat down at his small writing desk, facing each other.  I told him that I was offered the directorship of the Prague Conservatory, to which he said how marvelous and smiled with a wide grin.  "I am not interested in running a conservatory," I said  "But I made a proposal for something else and I would like you to read it" I gave Cage a copy of my initial letter to Knizak.

            Cage read the letter carefully and said,  "This is nice."  He was waiting for me to explain why I was showing it to him.

            I said, "I would very much like you to be in some way involved with it." 

            He looked at me, shook his head as if to say no, and said, "I don't believe in education.  I don't believe in government and I don't believe in education.  Educational institutions are like the government.  I am an anarchist and educational institutions are something that I wouldn't get involved in.  You are writing in your letter that you need the government to support it.  You are right.  You see, this is nothing for me.  A lot of people come and ask me to teach them, but I cannot do that.  It is really not necessary.  It also costs a lot of time.  To get oneself involved with a student's work costs as much time as it does to make a new piece of music.  I'd rather do that."

            "The other day," he continued, "a composition student came here.  I don't know how he managed to get to the elevator or pass the locked gate downstairs, but here he was, upstairs, standing in front of my door.  He asked me to teach him and I told him that that is not what I do.  I was afraid that you might say that, he said.  He was from the Manhattan School of Music.  I asked him if he had brought any of his music.  He had some scores and the pieces were very good.  I asked what do you need me for.  I told him he should continue composing and learn from his own work.  This way he will get where he is going.  You don't really need me, I said.  After he left, I got a letter from him - it is somewhere here, I cannot find it now - he thanked me for my time and he wanted to come back to continue."  John started to laugh.

            "The major value in studying at a school as I see it," I replied, "is the environment of working for a stretch of time with a group of people of the same age, who do similar things.  One can exchange ideas and receive feedback from colleagues of the same age and direction.  There is nothing that can substitute for such an experience.  One cannot find that in any other situation."

            John nodded his head.

            "I am envisioning a situation in which music composition is taught in the same manner as it is in visual art - a large studio where people work together, along with a so called teacher, who is just a more experienced colleague.  Everyone in that environment should be more or less free to work on anything he or she desires.

            "Yes," John replied, "but there you have the teacher - the authority who constantly imposes his will on the students.  This desire to control the students or even to guide them, that is what I don't like."

            I answered that the students have the choice of not letting themselves be controlled.  "I myself, I have actually never studied composition.  It is impossible to really study composition."  John nodded his head.  "What I studied," I continued, "was the flute.  In Vienna, I took composition classes, but they were only disciplines: Harmony, Counterpoint, Dodecaphony, and Electronic Music.  When I finished with these classes and entered the phase when one is expected to actually study composition, I dropped out."

            "This business of being controlled by the teacher," I continued, "I don't think that it is such a negative thing.  In Prague, I studied the flute with Frantisek Czech, someone I very much respect - he was one of the best flutists in his time, the first flutist of the Czech Philharmonic.  He was a conservative conventional musician.  When I brought new music pieces, at first he made fun of the music and of me as well.  I had fierce arguments with him, about the music and about the way to play it.  But soon he discovered my stubbornness and gradually he gave me a free hand in deciding what music to study.  I have, for instance, never played the whole body of French flute music from the turn of the century and later, music I think is a complete garbage.  He understood that I had quite a clear idea of what I wanted to do and left me alone.  In the end, he completely changed, and often joined our ensemble, the Musica Viva Pragensis.  I remember a concert with him conducting Autumn 60 by Cornelius Cardew.  That was in 1961.  I don't think that the pressure from the teacher or the school is something inherently wrong.  After all, in life one has to deal with that kind of pressure all the time.  The pressures in school are relatively tame in comparison with what comes later.  One should learn to deal with them early on."

            John nodded his head.

            "In my proposal to Prague," I continued, "I envisioned a situation with a group of resident composers to whom the students will have access all the time as well as some composers scattered around the world who would consult the students (say, one or two) long distance.  They would get the student's work through the mail and comment on it.  It may be also possible to have the student come for a few days to meet with the "mentor" directly.  Would you be interested in getting involved with this project in this way?"

            "No", Cage answered.  "I am neither interested in such a thing, nor do I have time for it.  You should get other people who are interested in teaching, for example Philip Corner, Christian Wolff and others, like our dead friend Morty Feldman."

            "I don't think that Feldman was very interested in teaching," I replied.  "I think that he suffered greatly at the University of Buffalo.  I was in Buffalo at the University for a number of years and actually I must say, they did two things for me which were among the most important in my life: they got me out of Czechoslovakia at a critical time, by inviting me to join the Creative Associates, and later they fired me, which was equally beneficial.  When I imagine that I could still today be teaching at the Music Department in Buffalo, I get goose bumps.  The one thing I am proud of is that in my seven years at the University, I never attended a faculty meeting.  I also gave all students A's.  That's maybe the reason why they got rid of me."  

            "Schools are difficult things," Cage remarked.  "When I was a student, I was hoping, like everybody else, to get approval for my work, something I never got.  You know what they told me - you are not a musician."  He laughed.

            "I know what you mean," I said.  "It was not so long ago that I read something by Donal Henahan in the New York Times.  He referred to your music with a question: But is this music?"

            At this moment John's black cat jumped on the desk.  John turned to the cat saying, "You surely approve of me" and petted his shiny coat.

            We both had a good laugh.

            I changed the subject to the Brooklyn concerts.  I explained to John that we now have a facility in Brooklyn Heights.

            "You mean the S.E.M. Ensemble?" he asked

            "Yes," I answered, "and we are planning a series of four performances this season.  The first one should be rather festive, and we would like to ask you to perform on it."

            He nodded and said yes, he could do his new piece, called One7.  It is a solo piece and it lasts 30 minutes.

            I asked whether it has been published.  He said no - it would be difficult to publish it.  This piece belongs to a group of pieces which are all called One.  They have no organizing idea.  One 7 is the seventh piece in this group; the first one was for solo piano.  They are all recent pieces.  They are quite different from the series of pieces called Music for... which are based on one organizing idea.

            On one of my morning stops, I made my first computer laser printout of a score of my piece Integrated Solos III.  I showed Cage some pages.  "It looks beautiful," he said.  "Look at this" - and we walked to another table.  There was a newly printed Freeman Etude XXV for solo violin.  I admired the precise look of the score.  "Is Paul Sadowski still doing the engraving," I asked?  "Yes," he replied.  "I give him this" - and he showed me a small stray piece of paper covered with letters and numbers - it looked more like a scientific note than music.  "Paul feeds it into the computer and this comes out of it."  He pointed to the printed score.  "I never thought that I would finish the piece because it is so difficult to perform.  I didn't think that anybody would ever play it, but Arditti is playing it now.  And also Neggesy."

            Our meeting was ending.  John walked me to the elevator.  He looked frail and had difficulty walking.  He explained that he has a pinched nerve; something very painful that hurts from toe to head.  "My disks in the lower spine are disintegrating," he said and laughed.  I reacted with a wish that this must be temporary and he may soon feel better.  He laughed it off.  The elevator door closed and I descended to the street.

Petr Kotik

November 16, 1990