The Lady Beltham [maîtresse de Fantômas] interviews Geoffrey King about the work of John Cage.
Lady B: What is your opinion of John Cage?
G.K: Well, I’m surprised to see you here.
A spirit can roam about, to some extent.
Apparently. Anyway, I’ll have to rephrase your question in order to answer it. I don’t have much of an opinion about Cage, but I do have some feelings and thoughts.
Ok, your feelings and thoughts on this topic then.
I am interested in the man’s writings and also in his music. The mesostics don’t interest me but I have seen some art work that I enjoyed. I met Cage twice. The first time was in Edinburgh and the second time was in The Hague where I was studying in the late 80s. I remember also a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where he appeared with some other performers. I walked out of that.
That was impolite and also “avoiding the topic”. Why did you walk out?
Cage and the other performer were fiddling around making noises with transistor radios. There was a big audience and I noticed a young man dressed in hippy style swaying to and fro as if transported into some state of enjoyment. I walked out after that in a state of indignation.
Because I thought the event was pretentious.
Have you something against hippies?
Nothing I could formulate. But I can say that any discussion of marijuana and recreational drugs in general is extremely tedious to me. Say, as tedious as hearing about the inner workings of a car.
We did not have hippies in my day, but they are not just about drugs are they? I regard the automobile as a quite remarkable invention by the way.
Cars in your day were worth looking at. I feel sure you’re right about hippies and drugs. What are these people about actually?
I don’t know, nor even if they exist anymore. I move in entirely different circles.
Yes, your boyfriend’s a murderer and a thief. Quite a special circle that.
You do not know how appealing he is.
I can imagine. Anyway hippies are just one of the many issues I feel I ought to know about, but don’t, and probably never will.
Back to Cage. Any other thoughts or feelings about him?
Yes, I remember a concert in Edinburgh that included a work of his. I was very struck by that.
Well you have to know the context. It was just one item in a concert of contemporary music. The other pieces did not involve the performers in chance procedures. But for me the random juxtapositions in the Cage made for the most interesting harmony of the night That’s when the penny dropped. It was a large penny and it dropped a long way.
Oh I adore large pennies. But what do you mean precisely?
Well, think about it. One composer spends days and weeks and months trying to write “the right vertical note combinations” whilst another sets up some method whereby you get random juxtapositions, but his harmonic results are better. If this were science, I would say that was a pretty conclusive experiment.
And your conclusion?
Don’t waste time and effort organizing something that works better when done randomly. Birtwistle describes somewhere exactly this phenomenon. He talks about a group of actors walking on stage and how if you just let that happen randomly it looks much more convincing than if you direct them where to stand. Random numbers are important in Birtwistle’s music and I think that may have had a big impact on me from about 1990. I think the large ensemble work of mine: Magritte Weather is the first piece that resorts to these methods of creation. As the title perhaps indicates, the randomness cultivated by the surrealists had also had an impact on me.
I still want to nail you down regarding Cage. Is he a great influence on you? Is he of great importance in the history of our times?
What I know is that if you hand me some of his writings I’m going to find them interesting. My impression of the man is that he knows his own mind and can speak it. How many of us can say that? Most of us are too scared to poke our noses out of our mouse holes. But also I simply like some of his music. It refreshes me. He does the things other people don’t think of doing, or dare to do. He dares to be simple and dares not to attempt all that flashy whooshing around we go in for.
Any other memories?
Yes a very odd one. At the Royal College of Music in the early 70s there was a concert of music conducted by Ferneyhough. Somewhere in that there was a Cage piece. It was “realized” for a little chamber ensemble, maybe 5 or 6 musicians – I forget. Anyway, at the College there was a Cage-ian composer called Malcolm Fox. With his background as a connoisseur, he had arrived at the opinion that this particular performance was somehow against the spirit of Cage and decided to make a protest. Shortly after the performance began, in he came, carrying a wooden step ladder which he set up behind the conductor. He mounted to the top and waved his arms about in a clownish imitation of beating time. He was carrying a double bass bow. He climbed down and lay on the floor, placing the bow between his legs just by his balls, pointing upwards. He started to “masturbate”. This was a moment of considerable embarrassment as you can imagine. John Lambert walked out looking very indignant. I myself was unsure whether this was how the piece was meant to be – you never know, do you..
The sight of a man simulating masturbation on a concert platform is certainly an image to be reckoned with. How did you feel?
Is that all?
Well it was “scandalicious” AFTER the event, but DURING, it was excruciating. By the way, I really don’t care for people miming sexual acts on stage (though I’d make at least one exception for the brilliant Danse Sacrale of Béjart, but that’s a whole different story). And stage nudity is generally irksome. I don’t even like dance companies (you know who you are) whose posters regularly feature semi naked dancers.
By the way, Malcolm Fox was then (or shortly before, or shortly after, I forget) my roommate. On the one hand he wrote very good academic exercises and his theory teacher was pleased with him. On the other hand he wrote these Cage-ian works. That struck me as weirdly polarized. Later on I found a similar polarity in quite a few composers – for example an interest in big fat juicy music from the late 19th century combined with an inclination to write thin bloodless music when it came to creating their own stuff. I’ve always wondered why these “Mahler fans” don’t put the “Mahler” into their own pieces. Probably naïve of me.
I find your musings about psychology of interest. But let’s stick to something concrete. Give me your opinion of Cage. Is he a great man? A great creative artist?
Well he’s a famous man, that’s clear, and he’s someone I admire. I’m looking forward to learning more about him and his work. I am very interested in his use of chance processes in creating music. Possibly this came about, as I say, because of my interest in surrealism and in Birtwistle. But certainly I’ve been struck by the odd parallel with Cage in my own recent work – he is after all a person for whom I had absolutely no respect when I was a student.
You haven’t given me what I was looking for. Is it so hard for you to come up with a clear statement about the worth of this composer?
Shut your mouth.