Richard Fleming is a philosophy professor at Bucknell University, where I used to teach, and thus an old friend. Beneath his cynical sense of humor, he’s a wonderfully clear, wonderfully articulate thinker, capable of tracing lines of logic in such a translucent way that even the nonprofessional memory can easily recall them afterward. The philosophy of music is his special passion, and, with composer William Duckworth, Fleming was editor of the books John Cage at Seventy-Five and Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, as well as author of several books about Wittgenstein, Cavell, and others. Richard knew both Cage and Leonard Bernstein, and – crazy as this sounds – he used to teach a course comparing their respective Harvard lectures. (Bernstein’s set, The Unanswered Question, relies on Chomsky to argue that there is a universal grammar for music; Cage’s lectures are randomly written and non-informative.) In short, Richard has an amazing and a surprising mind.
Richard’s and my erstwhile common student, Tony DeRitis, who is music department chair at Northeastern University and an incredible character in his own very different way, brought both me and Fleming together last week to teach a group of 19 international students (from Mali, Ireland, India, Brazil, South Africa, and the U.S.) in a program called Fusion Arts Exchange, bringing American music to those of other cultures. Fleming gave the lecture on Cage, and, to end it, told a story, never before in print, that he’s kindly given me permission to pass on to you:
Fleming visited Cage late in his life, and asked how he was doing. “Well, I’m just fine,” Cage replied, “but all my neighbors in my apartment building are very upset.” “Why is that?” “The fire alarm broke last night,” Cage explained, “and rang all night. No one would come to fix it, and none of my neighbors got any sleep.” “Then why are you all right?,” Fleming asked. “Well,” replied Cage, “I just lay there and worked the sound of the fire alarm into my thoughts and into my dreams, and I slept just fine.”
The story is coming out in a book by Fleming called Evil and Silence: Philosophical Exercses, Socrates to Cage. I’ll let you know when it appears; I’ll be reading it immediately.