Wow – speaking of Julius Eastman and Morton Feldman, the SUNY Buffalo Music Library has made available the tape and a transcript of the speech John Cage made at June in Buffalo in 1975, when he was angry with Julius for having undressed a young man during a performance of Cage’s Songbooks the previous evening. I was in the room, a 19-year-old Oberlin student between my sophomore and junior years of college. Some of the details I now realize I had misremembered. I have recounted elsewhere (“No Escape from Heaven: John Cage as Father Figure,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, 2002) the story of how there were too many students for Cage to look at everyone’s work, so he assigned us random numbers and used the I Ching to decide who would get to present something. One young woman protested vehemently against this randomness – Cage refers to her here as Sue, I had transposed her name to Mary – and on Thursday of the week, as he says here, he dropped the system and let anyone who wanted to, speak. George Cisneros, a composer from Austin who asks a couple of questions, was a Texas friend of mine (he had hitchhiked to get there). Peter Gena was there; I didn’t meet him, and he had missed the performance, but I would study composition with him two years later at Northwestern. It was my only time to see the great musicologist Peter Yates. Other student composers from Oberlin, Sam Magrill and Michael Manion, were present with me.
Some SUNY grads may remember that there was, at the time, a fabulous record store across the street from the university, called Record Runner, the best record store I’d ever seen. Incredible avant-garde import section – those words meant something back then. My parents had sent me with $200 spending money and I spent almost all of it on records (which cost only $4 to $6 at the time), getting my food expenses down to about $1.50 a day by having only one meal, a shrimp basket and a Coke. I first read Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism in the SUNY library there. What a kick in the head!
Other memories, while I’ve got them stirred up: The students had arrived the evening before the conference started, and so on Monday morning we were all enthusiastically talking to people we’d just met. Feldman came into the hall and went to the podium and grandly announced, “I’m Morton Feldman.” Almost no one stopped talking, we were enjoying ourselves so much, and he looked a little crestfallen. More than one person, independently, drew caricatures of Feldman as a frog. At one lecture Cage brought in (as he often did, apparently) some edible wild plants he had found on campus, and passed them around so we could see what to look for; a friend of mine, misunderstanding the purpose, said, “Oh thank you,” and ate them. I had a talk with Christian Wolff about Buckminster Fuller, whom, to my disappointment, he seemed to think was brilliant but politically naive. Feldman took several of us for a couple of group lessons; his eyesight was so bad that he looked at people’s manuscripts from three inches away, and his cigarettes (which he went through so fast that he would sometimes absent-mindedly light one when another was only half-smoked) left many a burn mark on the page. Nearly all of his suggestions were about timbre, suggesting more exotic instruments than the ones we’d used. One student told a story about having had a lesson with Toru Takemitsu in which the latter said nothing for an hour, then closed all the scores and said only, “Pay more attention to tone color.” Feldman loved it.
We were all discussing articles from the serialist magazine Die Reihe back then, and when we had a disagreement about Stockhausen, several of us stayed up half the night trying to connect with a German operator who spoke English to get Stockhausen’s phone number. Luckily for him, we failed. During the Friday session I showed Cage my piece Satie, a chamber piece with texts by Satie that I now consider my opus one, all in the C-major scale; Cage kindly said “It makes me want to hear it.” Other stories I’ve told elsewhere. I was such a neurotic, sheltered, immature kid from Texas that I blush to remember it. It was a formative three weeks for me, obviously: Cage, Feldman, Brown, and Wolff, all of whom I would see many times again over the years, but never again in such a concentrated dose. The amount of scholarship that’s been focused on that event blows my mind, and to hear a recording of what I heard at the time makes forty intervening years vanish like an immaterial mist.