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ART : Becoming John Cage

September 05, 1993|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer.

Composer John Cage, who died last year just before his 80th birthday, was born and grew up in Los Angeles. The "grandfather of the avant garde" went to his first opera, "Aida," while still in high school, and he attended Pomona College before dropping out to head for Europe.

In 1987, on the occasion of Cage's 75th birthday, the writer went to New York to talk with the artist about his life and times. During a wide-ranging interview, they discussed his early years in Los Angeles and New York, his definitions of music and noise, and other notions. While a few remarks from their conversation appeared subsequently in The Times, most of the following interview has never been published.

The opening of Cage's "Rolywholyover A Circus," Sept. 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art offers another chance to look at the way Cage experienced the world. The composer's memories and thoughts may provide some insight into the man behind the show.

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Question: Are there professional concerns you have now that you didn't have before?

Answer: I was very impressed by (a thought of) Marcel Duchamp: to reach the impossibility of transferring from one like image to another the memory imprint. So that if you see Coca-Cola bottles, you're supposed to reach the impossibility of remembering the first Coca-Cola bottle when you look at the second one.

You forget the first one so you see everything freshly. And that's a very important thing in our day and age when there's so much repetition. You can stay like a tourist, seeing things you've never seen before.

What I do as I get older is figure I'm here for a shorter time, so this is my chance to become interested in something I've not been interested in before. So my interests multiply rather than diminish.

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Q: What might be an example of a new interest?

A: My early concerns were with the object--that is to say, something that has a beginning, middle and end--and then with process. An object is a table. Or one of us. Something that has parts. A process is something that doesn't have parts. It's like the weather. You can't say when the weather began, and, hopefully, we can't tell when it ends. What is happening now is that I'm making a process that includes objects. In other words, I'm tying things together.

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Q: How does that affect your music?

A: My primary pleasure with my ears is listening to the sounds around me, wherever I happen to be, and so I'm never without what I call music. (Henry David) Thoreau had these same feelings about noise; he considered it to be music. It is in fact the regular beat of your neighbor's music that is so irritating. You're not so annoyed about the rhythm of your music, but if your neighbor's music has rhythm, it's very annoying.

I want in my work not to interrupt that feeling or that experience of silence, and silence is not the absence of sounds but the presence of ambient noise. There always are things to hear, so that you're never without sound. And it's that kind of sound that I don't want my music to alter. I would like my music to have the character of no music.

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Q: Is there a special sound or a special kind of music you notice when you're in Los Angeles? Is the music there different than the music here (in New York)?

A: I think people are impressed by the fact that over the whole world, there's the sound of traffic. You have to go into a very special situation to get away from that, and in almost all cases your escape is insecure. A plane flies over. Something happens.

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Q: Let's talk about your early life in Los Angeles.

A: I'm a college dropout; instead of continuing in college, I went to Europe. While I was in Europe, I began to write music, and when what I was writing didn't seem to me to be musical, I unfortunately threw it away. They were made with some kind of mathematical procedure, and they didn't relate to anything that I was familiar with. So I thought they were no good, and I threw them away.

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Q: Then you came back to L.A., didn't you?

A: Yes. I began to compose and I was very enthusiastic about both modern painting and music. It was in the midst of the Depression. I went to Santa Monica where I got a job gardening in exchange (for housing) and gave lectures there. I had a piano, and I made a survey of modern paintings in my music.

Recordings of modern music were not as available then as they are now, and I had been studying by myself. I would go to the public library and get music and learn to play something even though I never was a great pianist from a technical point of view.

Richard Buhlig was a great pianist. I asked him to teach me composition and he said he wasn't a teacher of composition. I said, "Well, you know much more about it than I do." He finally agreed, and he was my first teacher.

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