How to Write Your Own John Cage Story

Try this one:

My mother used to teach piano, and got her Master’s Degree in music ed. One summer when I came home from Oberlin, I brought her a cassette tape of the music I had had performed during the year. She played it, and didn’t say much right away. Later that day, she suddenly sighed with relief and said, “I’m so glad you’re not writing 12-tone music.”

Now, imagine me reading that slowly, with pauses between the phrases, and with David Tudor making electronic noises in the background. Doesn’t that sound like it could fit in the recording Indeterminacy? Or try this one:

Ben Johnston’s priest advised him to try out Zen meditation, but the closest Zen temple was in Chicago. Ben began driving to Chicago every week, and so I would meet him at the temple for my composition lesson after the Zen services, rather than drive down to Urbana. During lessons, Ben’s colleague Heidi von Gunden would serve us tea in traditional Japanese manner. Finally I began showing up two hours early, to go through the Zen services with Ben. After each session of zazen, my compositional inspiration would suddenly open up, and my head would be flooded with musical ideas. 
Later, when I moved to New York, I attempted to keep up my Zen practice. The monks at the New York temple, however, quite opposite to the ones in Chicago, looked down their nose at meditators who needed pillows to sit on, or who couldn’t make it through a 45-minute session without being struck on the shoulders. Put off by their snobbishness, I never went back.

I’ve never thought of my life as being the kind susceptible to story-telling, but plunging back into the stories that Cage sprinkled liberally throughout his early books has made me rethink. All you have to do is isolate some comment you remember, or event or change of mind, state it flatly with no affect in as few words as possible (or with an optional colorful phrase or two), and – most important of all – without context. By doing so, Cage spread such a Zen flavor around these stories, like they were koans, making his life seem like a series of nonsequiturs in which all the people around him were slightly crazy. Memorized by musicians of my generation and repeated by every biographical commentator for lack of better documented information, these stories stand almost as a smoke-screen against those trying to get insight into Cage’s life. So many of them end in absolutely opaque punchlines that cry out for explication:

“We don’t know anything about her coat. We didn’t take it.”

“You know, I love this washing machine much more than I do your Uncle Walter.”

“You’re too good for us. We’re saving you for Robinson Crusoe.”

Recognize them all, don’t you? And though he didn’t start publishing them until the age of 49, all those enigmatic little stories seemed so perfectly hip for the upcoming ’60s decade whose humor would be defined by nonsense and nonsequiturs like the ones spearheaded by the TV show Laugh-In. It was an amazing anticipation of the ethos of a new era, and reminds you that in his brief career at Pomona College, Cage was known, not as a musician, but as a short-story writer. It strikes me that the stories in Silence had every bit as much to do with Cage’s exploding popularity as the actual lectures and essays did. His sense of style was elegant and irresistible, but, as it turns out, entirely imitable. I’ll try one more:

In college I had a tremendous crush on a student actress I’ll call Leona. To say the crush was unrequited would be an understatement. One day in the library I ran across her kissing another woman, and decided that was the reason. Almost twenty years later, however, I was talking to my college friend Bill Hogeland, and Leona came up. Bill admitted that he had had an affair with Leona after graduation, but added that she made him uncomfortable because she worked in a strip club.

UPDATE: All right, maybe that last one is a Morton Feldman story. I’ll try another, though one you’ve heard here before:

It was the dress rehearsal for the opening night of New Music America. At Orchestra Hall, Dennis Russell Davies was rehearsing members of the Chicago Symphony, who were having a difficult time negotiating the constant meter changes of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The rehearsal was to end at 5, and as the hour approached, Reich stood up and announced that the piece wasn’t ready, that another hour’s rehearsal would be required. Maestro Davies looked out into the hall for a representative of the festival, and found only myself, administrative assistant, aged 26. He asked for permission to keep the orchestra onstage another hour. I ran out into the lobby and tried, without success, to locate the festival directors by phone. Not knowing what else to do, I walked back in and, as though someone with authority had told me to do so, shouted, “Go right ahead!” The performance went fine, and no one ever mentioned, on that day or any other, the extra $15,000 that my “go-ahead” cost the festival.


  1. PKB says

    Nice try, but neither the style nor content is quite right. Your anecdote stems from the emotional side of your biography (which Cage was always discrete about), may be considered lascivious (which Cage never was), and uses phrases (“…would be an understatement”, “Bill admitted”) which are alien to Cage’s deliberately naive and matter of fact style.
    KG replies: Admittedly, coming from me the content will be different – the heterosexual version, if you will. But the first anecdote almost exactly mirrors some of Cage’s, and I don’t see that my being “put off” by the monks is any more emotional than Cage being “put off” by the psychoanalyst.

  2. says

    Actually, I think the first one works perfectly. The third doesn’t at all, though. And the second, to be truly Cageian, would need to end: “Put off by their snobbishness I left, vowing never to go back. Just then my compositional inspiration suddenly opened up, and my head flooded with musical ideas.”

  3. Samuel Vriezen says

    Your stories should be submitted to the Turing Test!
    (For some reason the spamfilter wants me to write “in- ARNOLD”. No getting away from serialism here!)

  4. says

    When I read these stories, I hear Cage’s voice telling them.
    KG replies: That’s how I write them, imagining them in his voice. But I have to admit, it makes me aware how different the content of my life is from the content of Cage’s life. He was infinitely more social.