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.
Steve Hicken says
Thanks for this.
Susan Scheid says
So many tantalizing recollections here, I want to say, “don’t stop,” as I’m certain there are many more where these came from, and who better than you to make those intervening years vanish “like an immaterial mist.” I enjoyed reading the transcript of the talk, too. So much that seems paradoxical (like your post title), yet to Cage seems utterly clear. Particularly given where he starts, with complaints about Eastman’s performance and other tales of performance woes, his last statement, about Greta Sultan’s performance of one of his works, is so poignant: “When she played, all my feelings disappeared.” I love the idea of that.
KG replies: Oh I know. I picked that line for a headline precisely because it doesn’t seem to make as much sense as it seems to – if you know what I mean. When I was 19 I thought I knew exactly what Cage was saying because I assumed he knew and he could do no wrong. But I’ve thought back to that session many times over the years and wondered if what he was asking of his performers was really clear. Thanks for sharing some of my childhood.
Joe Kubera says
Thanks for posting this, Kyle. Like you, I was in the room. I was one of the Creative Associates at that time. I didn’t play in that Song Books performance, but I was in the audience. Of course, what I and others remember most about next day’s class was seeing Cage visibly angry, something very rarely seen.
It’s so helpful to have a record of the insights Cage brings forth about his music and how to approach it, even where it only concerns Song Books in particular.
I find I remembered very little of that class until I read the transcription. One thing I do remember that did not make it into the transcription (during one of those tape gaps?) is that Cage was asked if there had been any performances of Song Books that he WAS happy with, and he mentioned he very much liked a performance by the San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble a year or two before. I was actually part of that performance, manipulating electronics (I lived in SF at the time, playing in the ensemble and teaching at the Conservatory). It was quite an affair! We took over the central courtyard of the deYoung Museum; performers were on the main floor and around the second-floor perimeter. Cage was there, visibly enjoying everything. It was happening-like.
KG replies: Thanks, Joe, I knew someone else who was there would weigh in.
Matt Sargent says
The record store is still there! It’s called Record Theatre now and it still has a great LP section.
KG replies: Really! I thought when I was there once someone told me it was long gone.
Matt Sargent says
I just did some internet digging to be sure. Based on some spotty mentions on vinyl forums, my best guess is that Record Theatre opened in its place in 1976. (I found mention that Record Theatre also took over a Record Runner in Syracuse that year as well.)
Record Theatre also absorbed MusicPlus in the 90s farther down Main Street (Main/Ferry), which has quite a large back room of records. They are still going strong and primarily driven by LP sales – I just picked up few used records while I was back there last week.
Anyway, I immediately thought of you when I saw that this lecture had surfaced! So glad to finally hear it.