During his nearly four-decade relationship with the Walker Art Center, composer John Cage visited Minneapolis numerous times. As Walker director emeritus Martin Friedman recalls, these visits often veered toward the unexpected–fitting for an artist whose name is closely associated with the musical concept of Indeterminacy—from Sunday-morning mushroom hunting on a church lawn to a late-night reading of James Joyce with sculptor Tony Smith.
I first met John Cage in the late 1950s, when he and the painter Robert Rauschenberg were early stalwarts of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. As music director from the company’s founding in 1953 until his death in 1992, John Cage toured with Cunningham nationally and internationally, including to the Twin Cities, where the company would perform at the Walker, the Guthrie Theater, and elsewhere. (He also toured as a solo performer, reading from his writings to transfixed audiences or performing his compositions, sometimes abetted by a small group of fellow musicians.)
Before such performances I saw Cage patrol stages and orchestra pits, checking the placement of electronic gear and making certain that all connections were correct. It was instructive to observe how oblivious the dancers were to Cage’s music. Their world was an inner, highly focused one, and they were unfazed by the screeching and howling of Cage’s scores that had little to do with Cunningham’s choreography, but existed as things apart. It was often difficult for audiences to comprehend or relate to the lyrical movement onstage. Cage’s sounds left many an audience confused and, on occasion, frustrated–but no matter. If indeed there was a common thread in their work it was the absence of narrative. Bringing the sound and movement together onstage, however, resulted in a third, and decidedly “chance,” entity.
It was interesting to witness Cage’s transformation over the years. When we initially met, John was a buttoned-down, necktie-wearing figure in a dark suit, a model of gentlemanly attire. Over the years, however, in the sartorially liberated spirit of the times, that attire would give way to denim work shirts and jeans, like the young audiences who increasingly saw him as a cultural hero, tuned to the costume of the street. Like them, he railed against the Vietnam War as a wanton expenditure of national moral capital and, unlike many artists, he addressed issues publicly. At the same time his presentations could be remarkably obscure, especially when he took on reading from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The result was fragments of speech that stirred the audience deeply. There was something oracular about those sessions. Far from a speaking in tongues he offered a highly disciplined, deeply probing transmutation of the Joycean text. His audiences were not only transfixed students but a sprinkling of academics who, whether or not they truly understood what he was saying, were nevertheless convinced of its importance.
During his residencies at the Walker John never lacked for things to do. He sat at a desk with paper and commenced working on a piece he had just started or hauled out a manuscript that he had been laboring over. It didn’t matter where he was, what time it was, or what month or season. He worked constantly and thought about what he was doing.
I thought about a memorable evening at our home in Minneapolis in late April 1970 when John and the sculptor Tony Smith came to dinner. Cage had been participating in a contemporary composer series during which his compositions were performed in various venues. Smith was in Minneapolis for a Walker-sponsored urban design conference about the future of a major Minneapolis avenue that was in serious social and physical decline. His proposal for its regeneration was an enormous urban plaza bordered by high walls in which passersby would seem like figures in a Giacometti landscape. (Alas, the city fathers were cool to the idea, opting instead for urban glitz.)
Cage and Smith had not seen one another for decades, and the reunion, while a felicitous one for Smith, was decidedly irksome for Cage. “John,” said Tony upon entering the room, “I barely recognize you. You used to be so handsome. What happened?” Smith pressed on despite Cage’s obvious discomfort. He quickly switched the subject to an unrealized architectural project from the 1930s. It was to be a building devoted to Cage’s music. At the time Cage had been married to Xenia Kashevaroff, a union which lasted until long after it had dissolved. The building that Smith, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, aspired to create would also be a place where Xenia, also a percussionist, would, as Smith put it, “bang on her gongs.” However, there had been a falling out between Cage and Smith, and that was the end of the project.
At dinner, to John’s evident relief, the conversation shifted to John’s explorations of Finnegan’s Wake. He did not simply read them, but in a way he encoded them. We soon learned that evening that Tony Smith was also a devotee of Joyce’s writing. After a few bottles of red wine, during whose consumption the tension level in the room markedly dropped, Smith suggested that he and Cage read aloud from a volume of Joyce that he spotted among our books. Cage readily agreed. The more they read the more Joyce’s spirit hovered over the dining table. So stirringly musical was their reading–singly and at times together–that I wanted our daughters Lise and Ceil–then ages 14 and 11, asleep upstairs–to come down and hear what was going on. Rubbing their eyes sleepily as they descended the stairs, they soon were fully attentive and caught up with what was happening. They still speak of that unprecedented moment.
Impromptu as that evening was, it was by no means typical of the way Cage dealt onstage with his readings, from Joyce or other sources. Despite being known for being random when it came to his performances there was little impromptu about them. For all his involvement in chance sounds, these events were carefully planned.
Occasionally Cage’s visits to Minneapolis were enlivened with minor adventures that only he could generate. One morning after a reading at the museum he suggested that we go mushroom hunting. What a provision that would be! I was aware that he was a true mycologist and was eager to go foraging with him. “But where,” I asked. “Never mind,” he said. “I’ll show you.” John suggested that we first start our hunt in Minneapolis on a long median strip on the narrow lane of grass between high street traffic lines. So there we were digging up foxgloves and who knows what else while passerbys honked and jeered.
“It’s too noisy here,” he said. “Let’s try some other sites.” We settled on a church lawn. It was Sunday morning and there we were crawling around on our hands and knees digging for mushrooms when, at the conclusion of services, the prim congregation emerged. They stared in disbelief at what was going on, wondering aloud at how those drunks got here. (The congregation certainly knew drunks, because a recent minister had been quietly dispatched for overindulgence.)
When word got out that John was staying with us we would find bags of mushrooms at our front door for several days. The offerings, I might add, were undocumented so who knew what was inside. John went through the bags in a businesslike fashion. After all, he had supported himself in the 1960s as a mycologist for the Four Seasons restaurant, so he knew precisely what he was doing–except for one occasion, he told me, when he bit into the wrong thing and found himself leaning against a tree trunk and watching his life acted out before him. No such fate awaited us because as John briskly worked his way through the bag of mushrooms, he said, “This one would kill you in 10 minutes.” By the time the sorting was complete, these offerings were added to those we had dug out ourselves and put into a frying pan which contained oil and which John had salted liberally.
One of the most memorable of John’s visits to Minneapolis was during the weekend of September 17, 1982. The Walker was host to a symposium in honor of Cage’s 70th birthday. He turned up in my office for this auspicious event carrying a hamper containing what remained of his lunch aboard the plane. In fact he was munching on a peanut butter sandwich when he entered my office and generously offered me the other half. I didn’t know if peanut butter was macrobiotic–as his presumed tastes at the time might have dictated–but reserved judgment.
Numerous friends, fellow composers, and other believers came from near and far to honor him. Among those performing and participating in panels were Carolyn Brown, who published Cage’s silkscreen; the composer and poet Dick Higgins; and Stuart Sherman, who created a “performance portrait.” In addition there were numerous fellow composers and writers and devotees of Cage’s work. The museum went all out in its reception of Cage–not only in its selection of guest speakers and performers but also in culinary directions. It was decided that lunches and dinners should have pronounced macrobiotic character. It was well known that he eschewed ordinary fare in favor of specific vegetables and grains. Consequently the pièce de résistancee was a macrobiotic cake ornamented with a large Tao-like emblem. For all the presumed good it contained, it was an off-putting part of the menu in its anti-confectionary coloration. Much of it, I recall, was left uneaten except by pigeons in a nearby park where part of the Cage celebration took place.
A dinner at our house was a more intimate event during the weekend. My wife prepared a chicken galantine along with several macrobiotic dishes which Cage proceeded to ignore, nipping away instead at non-macrobiotic food. The next day when I looked into the refrigerator I found that what was left of the chicken had disappeared entirely. I came down to the kitchen, “Did I do something wrong?” John asked. “Did I eat all the chickie?”
One of the most interesting events was a performance of a Cage harp piece Postcard from Heaven, arranged by Nigel Redden, the Walker’s coordinator of Performing Arts. At the behest of John, Nigel compiled a tally of as many harpists as he could. Once John had the list, he and Nigel would visit each of them. So began a strange journey from music schools to bars to funeral parlors. The harpists, mainly female, were unaware of what John Cage had in mind for them. Some 80 or so, of every variety gathered on the stage of the Walker Art Center. Each was handed small box-like instruments and instructed not to strum the heartstrings but to hold the magic boxes against the strings and see what sounds might emerge. Some pretty strange ones indeed, a bit odd frankly melodious mélange of planks and flanks in flux. The loyal unquestioning following in the auditorium could not have been more pleased. The evening culminated with the singing of “Happy Birthday,” and John could not have been happier that day.