Difference and Discipline: The Cage / Cunningham Aesthetic Revisited

 Difference and Discipline:


The Cage / Cunningham Aesthetic Revisited



–I’m all for multiplicity, unfocused attention, decentralization, and so I would be on the side of individual anarchy with minimal government (1970).


–I think I am actually an elitist. I always have been.  I didn’t study music with just anybody; I studied with Schoenberg.  I didn’t study Zen with just anybody; I studied with Suzuki.  I’ve always gone, insofar as I could, to the president of the company (1986)

–John Cage[i]

The last apartment Merce Cunningham and John Cage shared before the latter’s death in 1992 was in the old Altman Building (once the department store) at 101 West 18th Street on the corner of Sixth Avenue in lower Manhattan.  In the eighties, when I had begun to write on Cage’s work, I was sometimes invited for dinner.  Cage and Cunningham occupied the top floor of a rather nondescript five-story structure, a loft with an unremarkable view of the drab buildings across the street.  Yet the apartment itself had a wholly distinctive character. One entered directly into a large space, at the center of which was the kitchen, open on four sides, with very-up-to date appliances [figure 1].  Here Cage prepared his often elaborate macrobiotic meals [figure 2].   In the L-shape beyond the kitchen, furniture was sparse:  on one side was the small table where Cage worked; across from it, near the entrance, was a Buddha stone fountain encircled by plants.  Around the corner of the L-shaped lot, was a table with a chess set and two chairs (in homage to Cage’s beloved Marcel Duchamp no doubt).  On the wall, above a small bookcase, hung a version of Jasper Johns Number Series 0-9 [figure 3].   No sofa, no armchairs, no carpets.   This “living area” was complemented by two others:  one, a kind of technology center, devoted to computer and recording equipment: in those pre-Apple days, large ugly instruments with many cords. Here Cage worked out his now electronically chance-generated compositions.  The second space, on the other side of the open loft area, had been transformed into a kind of greenhouse, with narrow paths between the countless plants and herbs—bonsai, fern, cactus, pine– all of which Cage tended himself when he was in town.  Inside this green and tranquil garden, one almost forgot the ugly streets outside: I say “almost” because the steady hum of traffic—which Cage insisted he thoroughly enjoyed– was obtrusive.[ii]

The three main divisions of the loft (there was also a bedroom area but I never saw it) could be said to represent the three aspects of its inhabitants’ austere and disciplined lives: nature, technology, and art.  In Cage’s mind, computer equipment and kitchen gadgets were not at all at odds with his plant world.    And, as we were preparing to sit down at the little table (chess set removed) for dinner, Merce would come in as silently as a cat and join us. Just as quickly, he would leave again since his own workspace—the dance studio—was further downtown.

The loft at 101 W. 18th St thus reflected Cage’s idea that, as he put it in describing his “Irish Circus” called Roaratorio, “there is not one center but life itself is a plurality of centers.  This is a Buddhist idea.”[iii]  Not only Buddhist, we should note, because Cage had come across it much earlier in the writing of Gertrude Stein.  “In composition,” said Stein famously, “one thing is as important as another thing.  Each part is as important as the whole.” And again, “Act so that there is no use in a center.”[iv]   This notion of decenteredness had also been, from the very first, at the heart of Merce Cunningham’s aesthetic.   The choreography of Martha Graham (he got his start in her company from 1939-45) increasingly struck him as “very confined . . . a kind of closed circle.”[v]   What was needed was an opening of the field.  At Black Mountain in 1953, Merce asked his friend Bob Rauschenberg to “do something visual” for his new piece called Minutiae [see figure 4):

I didn’t ask him for anything specific.  I said that it might be something we could move through.  He made an object which was very beautiful, hanging down from pipes, but I said, “It’s marvelous but we can’t use it because we rarely play in theaters with flies.”  He didn’t get angry at all about it, he just said he’d make something else.

I came a few days later and he had made something else that was later exhibited.  Wonderful object!  Colors, comic strips all over it.  You could pass through it or under it or round it.  He made it out of stuff he’d picked up off the street.  I loved it because it was impossible to know what it was. (Dancer 55)

The indeterminate, the fluid, the non-hierarchical, the multiplex:  these have always been recognized as the attributes of Cage’s and Cunningham’s artworks.  Yet—and here I refer to my second epigraph above—how do we reconcile these characteristics with the notion of the artist as self-declared elitist, inventing the rules of the game?  The question has become particularly pressing in view of the dissolution of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the close of 2011—a dissolution decreed before Cunningham’s death in July 2009 on the grounds that, without its founder and director, the company had no viable future.  Its replacement, the Merce Cunningham Trust, is a foundation dedicated to the documentation, digitization, and preservation of the company’s lifetime repertoire.  On the day of the final performance (New Year’s Eve 2011), the New York Times ran an article by Alastair Macaulay, bearing the dramatic title, “50 Years, 50 Minutes, One Creator: A Valediction.”[vi]   As for Cage himself, the centenary celebrations of 2012 have included literally hundreds of concerts, performances, symposia, and festivals around the world.  In both cases, the deference of the larger community to the genius of the “One Creator” could hardly be more palpable.

Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink what words like “anarchy,” “freedom” and the “non-hierarchical” really mean in the Cage-Cunningham lexicon. Consider the following passage from “The Future of Music” (1979):

Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.[vii]

Cage’s distinction between structure and process is both intriguing and compelling; it stands behind such important performance pieces as Lecture on the Weather, in which, as Joan Retallack puts it, “political climate and (simulated) meteorological climate collide in such a way that the political climate is experienced as meteorological—as the complex chaotic condition of interpenetration and obstruction in which we live, a fragile balance of order and disorder, clarity and cacophony.”[viii]   Retallack takes Lecture on Weather as the expression of Cage’s Utopian drive toward  “anarchic harmony—in mutually consensual, non-hierarchical enterprise” (xxix).   But she has already noted that Cage’s “weather” is simulated, that in other words this particular “non-hierarchical enterprise” has a carefully controlled form devised by layering simultaneous readings from Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience, recorded sounds of breeze, rain, and thunder (timed to the precise second), and images of lightning.  The composer is very much in charge.  True, the actual weather conditions (I once attended a performance of Lecture on the Weather on the night of a thunderstorm) produce certain variables, but all in all, Cage’s elaborate blueprint is followed to the letter.  Far from being “natural,” Lecture on the Weather is a conceptual artwork involving careful simulation.

The “open form” of Merce Cunningham’s dance pieces is analogously deceptive.  As late as 2008, the artist was producing extraordinary new dance pieces like Ocean, a nice example of the choreography of dispersion—each thing—or rather individual dancer—being as important as every other one.[ix]   Its music is based on earlier chance-generated computer instructions by Cage, as well as an overlay by David Tudor, made from the actual underwater sounds of dolphins, whales, and other marine life.   There are also film segments, created by a frequent Cunningham collaborator, Charles Atlas.   Originally performed in the round in various European theatres, Ocean was then produced in a Minnesota quarry, with 150 musicians but no conductor, the choice of site playing a large role in determining the actual trajectory of the performance [figure 5].

Ocean clearly represents yet another daring new move on Cunningham’s part.    But to look at the choreographic drawings for this and related pieces [Dancer 88-89; figures 6-7); as well as their later computer counterparts, shown, for example, in Charles Atlas’s 2001 film on Cunningham for PBS,[x] is to wonder whether difference is in fact synonymous with anarchy and non-hierarchical composition, as so many of us have assumed over the years.

Difference, to begin with, is a concept Cage surely derived from Duchamp’s use of the term infrathin (inframince)—the smallest possible, indeed imperceptible. difference between two seemingly identical phenomena or moments. [xi] The infrathin, Duchamp insisted, defied definition: it could only be understood by example.  For instance:

The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infra-thin.


“Infra-thin. separation between / the detonation noise of a gun / (very close) and the apparition of the bullet/ hole in the target.”


“When the tobacco smoke smells also of the / mouth which exhales it, the 2 odors / marry by infra thin (olfactory / in thin).


Velvet trousers–/ their whistling sound (in walking) by / brushing of the 2 legs is an /infra thin separation signaled by sound.[xii]


Absurd as these propositions sound, their emphasis on careful differentiation accords with Cage’s own habits of composition.  “There is a beautiful statement, in my opinion, by Marcel Duchamp:” he told Bill Shoemaker in 1984, ‘To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory imprint.’ And he expressed that as a goal. That means, from his visual point of view, to look at a Coca-Cola bottle without the feeling that you’ve ever seen one before, as though you’re looking at it for the very first time.  That’s what I’d like to find with sounds—to play them as if you’ve never heard them before.”[xiii]

”But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein (Cage’s favorite philosopher even as Duchamp was his favorite artist) had asked.[xiv]   The answer, as Cage had also learned from his Zen masters, is no: repetition, no matter how often and how precise, always involves difference.  And the perception of that difference demands a kind of attention that does not accord with notions of letting things be, with free form, much less with anarchy:  “If I look at a tree, a single tree,” Cage remarked, adapting the Duchampian infrathin, “and start looking at the leaves, all, admittedly, have the same general structure.  If I look at it carefully, I notice that no two leaves are identical.  Then I begin with that attention to differences to enjoy every glance at the tree, because everything I see is something I haven’t memorized.” [xv]

Indeed, the creation of differential play in art demands strict discipline. When in June 2010 I had the chance to see the dance version of Roaratorio performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles—a beautiful Roaratorio but no longer graced by the presence on stage of Merce or by the actual speaking voice of John Cage—what seemed especially remarkable was the tight formal structure of a composition once billed (both in its radio and dance incarnations) as an anarchic Irish Circus, bursting with random sounds and unforeseen events.[xvi]  For, however differential the leg, arm, and torso movements of the individual dancers (sometimes in pairs or threes, sometimes alone), all are metonymically related in a network of family resemblances, and all are, as the charts show, mathematically organized.

“Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance,” Cage told Robin White in 1978, “don’t realize that I use chance as a discipline” (Conversing 17).  And the composer’s frequent cautionary note follows: “when I say . . . ‘Make a disciplined action,’ I’m not saying, ‘Do whatever you like’” (Conversing 102). in other words, “Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want.”[xvii]

Given this emphasis on discipline, how is it that critical discourse on Cage and Cunningham continues to emphasize the spontaneity, naturalness, anti-formalism, and anarchy of their work?   “John Cage,” wrote Jill Johnston in an early consideration of Cage and dance, “picked up where the Dadaists left off.  His inventive experiments with sound, and his studies in Zen, led him to the philosophy of indifference that Duchamp had so beautifully exemplified for many years. . . . The chance gesture became a spiritual insight into the condition of chaos, which is the natural order of the world.”  And Johnston talks of the “abdication of the will” in Cage composition as well as his insistence on “letting sounds be themselves.”  “Sounds, for Cage,” she insists, “are not structurally connected as in the melodic and harmonic designs of the past.”[xviii]

No doubt, critics like Johnston have followed Cage and Cunningham’s own lead in the handful of aphorisms and polemical statements that have regularly been recycled without much thought about their larger contexts.  Wasn’t it Cage who in Sllence defined his music as “purposeless play”—“not an attempt to bring order out of chaos . . . but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord”?[xix]  Or again, “Whether I make them or not there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent.” [xx]  And wasn’t it Cunningham who insisted that dance “is not meant to represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic.  It relates much more to everyday experience, daily life, watching people as they move in the streets” (Dancer 139)?

The very life we’re living: the assertion of Gelassenheit so seemingly central to Cage and Cunningham is belied by the facts of their actual lives , but critical writings about their work have regularly insisted on what Joan Retallack pithily defines as “an aesthetic pragmatics of everyday life.”  “[Cage] told me,” she recalls, that “the art that he valued was not separated from the rest of life. . . . The so-called gap between art and life didn’t have to exist (Musicage  xix-xx).   And Merce repeatedly made the same point, using traditional ballet as contrast.  For example:

In classical ballet, as I learned it, and even in my early experience of the modern dance, the space was observed in terms of a proscenium stage, it was frontal.  What if, as in my pieces, you decide to make any point on the stage equally interesting?  I used to be told that you see the center of the space as the most important: that was the center of interest. . . . I decided to open up the space to consider it equal, and any place, occupied or not, just as important as any other.  In such a context you don’t have to refer to a precise point in space.  And when I happened to read that sentence of Albert Einstein’s, “There are no fixed points in space,” I thought, indeed, if there are no fixed points then every point is equally interesting and equally changing.  (Dancer 17-18)


In a Cunningham piece, the same dancers may be dancing the same phrase together, “but they can also dance different phrases at the same time, different phrases divided in different ways, in two, three, five, eight, or whatever. . . . Our eight [or twelve or sixteen] dancers can be doing different movements, they may even do them to the same rhythm . . . but there is also the possibility that they can be doing different movements in different rhythms, then that is where the real complexity comes in” (Dancer 18).  Given this situation, the viewer has to be unusually attentive, trying to take in as many “centers” as possible and perceiving their relational rhythm.

Most important—and this was Cage’s great innovation in the dance arena —although the music and dance are performed at the same time in the same space, they are created independently of one another. The dancer no longer dances “to” the accompaniment of the music.   The same holds true for the décor.  As Merce explains it, “What we have done in our work is to bring together three separate elements in time and space, the music, the dance and the décor, allowing each one to remain independent.  The three arts don’t come from a single idea which the dance demonstrates, the music supports and the décor illustrates, but rather they are three separate elements each central to itself” (Dancer 137).  Early audiences, one should note, found this disjunction especially problematic.  The music—say, by Erik Satie or La Monte Young, not to mention Cage himself—didn’t seem in sync with the dance movements; simultaneity did not produce any sort of fusion, and the décor—say, Andy Warhol’s silver helium balloons for Rain Forest (1968; figures 7-8)—was, to say the least, puzzling.

A corollary of this separation of powers is that, as Merce repeatedly insisted, unlike classical ballet or even unlike a Martha Graham dance piece with its Freudian symbolism, his own composition does not represent something else, whether psychological, literary, or aesthetic.  It merely is—a study of movement related to everyday experience, to daily life (Dancer 139).  And furthermore, as David Vaughan explains, Merce’s choreography dispenses with conflict and resolution, cause and effect, climax and anti-climax.  The artist is not interested in telling stories or exposing hidden conflicts. Drama arises, not from the narrative, but from “the intensity of the kinetic and theatrical experience onstage.”[xxi]  The dancers, in other words, are not “characters”—no Firebird or Sorcerer or Sleeping Beauty, no historical figures or even young lovers: here they are quite simply dancers.

These features of Merce’s style have been discussed again and again:  the dance historian Lynn Garafola, for example, describes the choreography in terms of opposites: not coercion but choice, not hierarchy but egalitarianism, not self-promotion but sharing, not conformity but freedom.  A Cunningham composition, like a Cage sonata or percussion piece, is never linear; one thing does not lead to another. Rather, the domain is one of simultaneity and fluidity.  The break with traditional spatial hierarchies, Garafola posits, means “equality” for the dancer, and “for the spectator, the freedom to choose his [sic] own experience of a dance.”[xxii]  Indeed, “Open form challenged the privileged role of the choreographer.”[xxiii] The dancer is given sufficient leeway to select specific tempo, direction and “whether to do certain movements or not” (MC 150); as for the spectator, “the idea of a single focus to which all adhere is no longer relevant” (MC 140). “I have,” says Merce,  “in a sense tried to avoid any concern with power and ego, self-expression and all that. . . We represent anarchy so to speak” (MC 162).

It sounds convincing:  to see Rainforest or Roadrunners, Channels/ Inserts or Beach Birds is to perceive that there is no central focus or storyline, no prima ballerina flanked by a corps de ballet, no symmetry or detectable unifying principle.  But if the dancers are free to introduce their own variations and tempo, if the piece is as non-hierarchical and collaborative as Merce suggests, why has each work been plotted out geometrically and arithmetically? Why have the dancers, received so much less acclaim than Cunningham himself, in his role as director /producer /choreographer?  And why, upon his death, was it decided that the ensemble could not be function without him?

Similar questions can be put about Cage’s work:  is his voice, live or recorded, essential to the performance of, say, Roaratorio?   The core of this “Irish Circus,” as originally produced in 1979 at the Pompidou Center in Paris, was Cage’s own performance of his “writing through” James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake via elaborate chance operations” [see figure 9].  “Much of Roaratorio’s atmosphere,” writes William Brooks, “is due to Cage’s entrancing reading, which trails through the soundscape like a voice borne by wind, not quite intelligible.  Cage reads in a kind of Sprechstimme . . . the voice intoning rather than expressing. . . the voice is central, despite the balances; even when only a murmur, it remains the poetry for which all else is the setting.”[xxiv]    At the same time, the Roaratorio’s soundscape, as devised by Cage, superimposes on that individuated reading an elaborate set of sounds collected from around the world but predominantly from Ireland, including sounds made by Irish musical instruments.  These sounds are based, again by an intricate set of procedures, on all the sounds actually referred to by Joyce in the Wake, yielding the classification found in the following chart [figure 10], which lists categories: from “Thunderclaps” to “Laughing and Crying (Laughtears),” to “Bells, clocks, and chimes,” to “Guns” and “Water.”  This summarizing table is based, in turn, on Cage’s listings, in longhand, of the individual categories—say, animal sounds [figure 11].[xxv]

Cage recalls that in the summer of 1979, he and his electronics designer John Fullermann and the latter’s wife Monika, spent a month driving around Ireland collecting sounds from about 150 different places:

It meant getting early in the morning and driving sometimes as late as ten o-clock in the evening.  And then making records at certain points.  We would go say 200 miles and record a sound say in Skibbereen and it be say just a dog barking or a chicken crowing, whatever happened to be there when we arrived.  (Roaratorio 95)

In practice, the process worked as follows.  Joyce’s words  “We were lowquacks did we tacit turn” (see the chart in Roaratorio 136) called for a recording of “ducks quacking.”  But few of Joyce’s references are this straightforward; the bulk are more elusive—for example, “Belling him up,” “buzzy,” “a slut snoring,” or “will you whoop” (Roaratorio 132-135).  Then, too, the sounds relating to non-Irish sites (a little under half of the total 626) had to be collected.  So Cage sent friends all over the world, providing the following elaborate directive:

The recordings should be at least thirty seconds long and not longer than a few minutes.  The sounds do not have to be chosen.  Simply go to the place indicated, e.g. Düsseldorf, anywhere in it, and make a recording of whatever sound is there when you arrive.”

“As I mentioned, I need a recording of ambient sound from your part of the world from . . . .  It will be used in a piece of music I’m making to be called Roaratorio, based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. . . . If you could send me a tape or cassette, preferably ¼” tape, stereo recording (any length between 30 seconds and five or ten minutes) made in . . . , I would be very grateful.

(Roaratorio 119).

Such directives make clear that, however collaborative Cage’s “Irish Circus” might seem to be, the conception of the work is very much the composer’s own.  Cage may well speak of a Buddhist “plurality of centers,” and his IRCAM producer Klaus Schöning may well refer to Cage’s “’anarchism’, purposeful purposelessness. . . open awareness” (21) and the notion that “each sound has its liberty and chance” (107). But that “liberty” has of course been predetermined: it is one thing to choose a sound by pre-arranged chance operations and quite another to let actual chance determine what will be heard on a particular occasion.  As Schöning himself writes in his Introduction to Roaratorio:

“A fugue is a more complicated genre; but it can be broken up by a single sound, say from a fire engine” (from Silence).

Paraphrase: Roaratorio is a more complicated genre; it cannot be broken up by a single sound, say from a fire-engine.  (19)

Form, dense interwoven structure is all.  And hence the authorial presence of Cage, timing his reading to the split second, seems intrinsic to the work. Now that he can no longer be physically present at the performance, his recorded voice is substituted.  It is hardly an ideal solution—Cage himself repeatedly expressed his dislike of recordings[xxvi]— and contemporary audiences, many of whom remember the “real” Cage and the “real” Cunningham, have complained about it—but surely the use of the recording seemed preferable to having the voiceover for Roaratorio read by someone else, the pitch contours, phrasal timing, and silences having been so very much Cage’s own.  By 1985, the composer was reluctantly assenting to the recording process: “I now not only don’t object to my music being recorded but I even help people record it” (Conversing 132). There was nothing improvisatory in question.  In fact, says Cage, “chance operations are a discipline, and improvisation is rarely a discipline” (133).

Indeed, although Cage’s name is often associated with the first “happenings” at Black Mountain College in 1952, and although Allan Kaprow had been Cage’s student at the New School in ’56, Cage never really cared for Kaprow’s own more programmatic events like Eighteen Happenings (performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York in 1959), for which Kaprow designed three semitransparent cubicles, each differently lit and with a different number of folding chairs, and then handed out instruction cards to the seventy-five members of the audience, advising them when to take a different seats, applaud, change cubicles, and so on.  Kaprow, Cage felt, “acted the part of a policeman.”[xxvii]  The demand for audience participation, so central to Kaprow’s Happenings as to Fluxus, was not really part of Cagean aesthetic.

This is true even of his fabled Musicircus. The first one, produced at the University of Illinois in 1967, was designed to allow as many people as possible (approximately five-thousand attended, free of charge) to make their own music in assigned areas of a given space, in this case the Stock Pavilion, usually used for showing cattle (Silverman 237).  There were jazz bands, piano recitals, a baroque orchestra, dance pieces, but Cage made no attempt to control what the others were doing.  The apparent “democracy” of such an event– and the Musicircus was to become a frequent and popular item in the Cage canon—should not blind us to the fact that the freedom to do what one pleased applied to the work of others but not quite to Cage’s own.

“In composition one thing is as important as another thing.”  “There is not one center but life itself is a plurality of centers.” “Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds”: such compositional principles—and they include the chance operations used by both Cage and Cunningham—leave nothing whatever to chance.  For the principle of “unimpededness and interpen-etration” (Silence 46) does not mean—and this is often misunderstood–that there is no distinction between audience and the artist’s performance itself.   Cage may have insisted, as he did in “Happy New Ears” (1966), that “Each listener’s experience is his own” (A Year from Monday 32), but that is not to say that the composer thinks all responses are equally valid.  On the contrary.  After a particularly difficult experience in 1974, at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, where the audience evidently responded to Empty Words with inappropriate noise, Cage was asked, “Haven’t you said that you want to incorporate outside noises into your work?”  He responded:

I haven’t said that.  I’ve said that contemporary music should be open to the sounds outside it.  I just said that the sounds of the traffic entered very beautifully, but the self-expressive sounds of people making foolishness and stupidity and catcalls were not beautiful. . . . If we are talking about the interruptions, that’s to be classified under the complete absence of self-control and openness to boredom—and boredom comes not from without but from within.”[xxviii]


Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want.  When in 1992, just a few months before his wholly unanticipated death, Cage produced one of his Musicircuses at Stanford University, I came to understand that, as T.S. Eliot had put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Cage’s scheme of things, “the difference between art and the event is always absolute.”[xxix]  The Musicircus itself [figure 12] was designed to be nonhierarchical and open:  the different groups and music were to get equal billing; audience members, moreover, were free to bring their own instruments or to play the ones available.  It was an extremely open situation.  But Cage’s own contribution—a reading of Muoyce had been carefully scripted in correspondence with the organizers [see figure 13].  “Everything about his participation in the Stanford Musicircus signaled a privileged difference,” writes Charles Junkerman in his essay on the event.  “He was reading rather than making music, he was in a separate room that was quiet, and he was in a space that was dark rather than fully lit.  All of this, compounded, of course, by Cage’s celebrity and personal magnetism, gave participants the feeling when they entered his room that they were stepping into a sacred space: out of the market into the sanctuary.”[xxx]

Some members of the audience reacted angrily to this protocol.   “We verbally celebrate decenteredness,” said Cage’s long-time friend and collaborator, the philosopher Norman O. Brown, perhaps a trifle enviously, “on what is fundamentally a very centered occasion. . . . The university seems quite unable to get away from star performances, of which John Cage is a major one” (Junkerman 51).  Cage, some decided—and this was frequently said of Cunningham as well—had turned out to be just another elitist aesthete.  At the concerts and performances themselves, moreover,  people  were lining up to have the composer autograph their copies of Silence or A Year from Monday with the famous signature that had become something of a logo [figure 14]:

What had happened to the fabled “death of the author”?

Cage had of course anticipated this critique when he famously quipped, “One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done.  One does something else” (Silence 68).   These words became a mantra for Jasper Johns as well as Cunningham, and Cage was also fond of citing De Kooning’s response to those who asked him what painters had most influenced him: “The past does not influence me; I influence it” (Silence 67).  Again, an echo of Eliot: “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them” (Eliot 38).

Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was the one piece of literary criticism cited respectfully by Marcel Duchamp.[xxxi]  Art, for Duchamp  as for Eliot, had to come to terms with the everyday, but it was always transformative: an ordinary snow shovel purchased at the hardware store and placed in a glass case could become the teasing In Advance of the Broken Arm, even as an ugly replica of a French window could become Fresh Widow.   Cunningham, who had always been reluctant to talk about his private life, much less his personal emotions, could have had no difficulty with Eliot’s notion that “the poet has not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways” (Eliot 42).  In Merce’s own case, the medium—dance—could draw on highly selected impressions and experiences from a variety of media—music, film, in later years video and digital composition—so as to Make it New.  But the current orthodoxy that such interdisciplinarity marks the breakdown of the High/Low divide of Modernism depends, I think, on a central misunderstanding.

Here the example of Cunningham’s Walkaround Time is apposite.  Both Cunningham and Cage, as well as their associates, were given to insist that there is no real boundary between walking and dancing: one shades into the other.  But in practice complications arose.   Here is Merce’s account of the 1968 piece’s genesis:

Walkaround Time is my homage to Marcel Duchamp.  When the idea came up about using The Large Glass for a set, I began to think about Marcel.  I wasn’t going to do something imitative but it was going to be my reactions to him; I didn’t think I could do anything else.  There are many personal references to Marcel in that piece.  There’s one part of the dance where I’m at the back and I change my clothes running in place, because he was so concerned about motion and nudity.  Then I knew the objects that would be on stage would be transparent although I had no idea how big they were going to be, because I never saw them until the day before the performance; but I knew that we could certainly be seen behind them, so I kept that in mind.

Marcel Duchamp had consented to the idea of having a set made from The Large Glass as long as Jasper Johns would be the one who would do all the work.   (Dancer 114).

Johns constructed seven large inflatable vinyl cases with metal frames: each bore silkscreens reproducing one of the seven major objects in the Large GlassThe Bride, The Milky Way, the Nine Malic Molds, the Chocolate Grinder, Glider, Oculist’s Witness, and Parasols.  Because these cases were so large, Cunningham recalls, “they limited very much what one could do in the space; it meant that all of your traffic had to be lateral from one wing to the other.  Two of them were hung from the flies [see figures 15-16]. Three were placed in fixed positions [see figures 17-18], being moved only once near the end of the dance. The remaining two objects were relatively small and easily moved.”   There were originally eight dancers, including Cunningham, and that was never changed [see figures 19-20].  The music is by David Behrman.  There is a movie of it, made by Charles Atlas.   And Merce recalls that Carolyn Brown, whom he especially had in mind when constructing the dance, did one movement that he had not choreographed: “She needed it to support herself getting from one complicated balance to the succeeding one.  It came out of necessity.  It was beautiful and expressive” (Dancer 115).

Yet the very beauty of the Johns sets, with their enigmatic Duchampian images, evidently created a problem: there is a telling photograph of Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Behrman, Cage, and Johns, behind them, smoking and looking nervously at the stage during the dress rehearsal [figure 21].  The title Walkaround Time, the dancer Carolyn Brown tells us, “is computer jargon and refers to the ‘walkaround time’—oh so long ago, before high-speed computers blanketed the world—when computer programmers walked about while waiting for their giant room-sized computers to complete their work.”[xxxii] This suggests that Merce’s original aim was to create an everyday environment, appropriate for the curious sense of calm Duchamp exuded in social settings.  But so large and striking were the cases that when Merce and the other seven dancers began by slowly “walking around,” they could barely be seen.  Even when the movements became more elaborate, they had to compete with the images of the chocolate grinder or glider, and there was little space to maneuver [see  figures 22-23]. Further, each performance was to end with the “reassembling” of the Large Glass facsimile from the seven boxes, according to Duchamp’s own instructions.  It doesn’t work,” wrote the dance critic Arlene Croce, reviewing the opening performance in Buffalo (see Brown 503).  “In the end,” Cunningham recalled in 2005,  “we had to stop doing the piece because the set was being harmed. It’s at the Walker Arts Centre now. I’m glad people can see it because it’s so beautiful.”[xxxiii]

Various critics have tried to find correspondences between Duchamp’s painting and Cunningham’s dance:  John Mueller, for example, suggested that the dancers of the piece’s entr’acte, which is evidently based on Erik Satie’s Relâche, and presents the dancers as merely lounging around onstage, corresponded to Duchamp’s readymades in their ordinariness.  Again, Cunningham’s solo—jogging in place while stripping from one costume to another—was said to be related to the declared nudity of the “bride” (See Brown 502-03).  But such interpretations sound more appropriate for Martha Graham than for Cunningham and suggest that décor may have overwhelmed dance as well as the music, which, in this case, was not especially striking.

What we learn from this experiment is that Merce’s  project was never primarily about the fusion of High and Low, walking and dancing.   There is, at least in the original version, plenty of walking around in Walkaround Time, and the entr’acte does give us an image of the dancers as they look and move offstage, although of course that offstage routine is itself carefully staged.  But the overdetermination of specific visual and tactile images seems, in this case, to have worked against the formal abstraction and fluidity of Cunningham’s own choreography. Form, in other words, is essential to the simulation of “free” movement; the “non-hierarchical” is a created phenomenon.  “As I see it,” wrote Cage in the Foreword to Silence, “poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized.  It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words” (x).  Substitute the word “dance” for “poetry” here and you will understand  Merce’s rigor– a formal play of differences—often infrathin—that governs compositional interaction.[xxxiv]

Finally—and who could have predicted this in the summer of 1953 when Cunningham and Cage first performed at Black Mountain?—the digital

archiving of the company’s entire repertoire, each work to be accompanied by carefully documentation and commentary, is obviously placing even greater emphasis on the figure of Merce Cunningham than on the minor players who carry out his carefully planned directions.  In the “non-hierarchy” of his beautiful and brilliant creations, Cunningham is first, Cage, as chief advisor and composer, second, the other composers like David Tudor and La Monte Young and the visual artists like Rauschenberg and Johns third.  Then come the dancers, presented not as prima ballerinas or lead soloists—in her memoir, Carolyn Brown repeatedly complains about her lack of proper status in the company[xxxv]–but as a new incarnation, as it were, of the corps de ballet, now reduced in size to less than a dozen dancers and given pride of place. It is a shift that does represent a more democratic situation.

Cunningham’s choreography, Cage was fond of saying, was no more “supported” by the accompanying music than “a tree is supported by the breezes that blow through it.” [xxxvi]  The Romantic metaphor is charmingly disingenuous: one thinks of an Aeolian harp, played by whatever wind happens to be blowing, until one reminds oneself that a Cage score—say, the Roaratorio— was anything but random, and that the dance movements could hardly help but relate to it in some form.  But then the Romantics themselves were given to similar claims:  when, in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth insisted his poems were written in “a selection of language really used by men,” specifically “rustics,” because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived,”[xxxvii] he knew perfectly well that no such transcript was in fact possible—or perhaps even desirable.  Nevertheless, his was a poetic revolution because it recognized the need to purge poetry of the Poetic Diction of the late eighteenth century—the “inane and gaudy phraseology,” as Wordsworth called it, whereby birds became the “busy herd,” new spring grass was coyly called “green attire,” and the blue sky, was the “azure realm.”

Just so, I believe, Cunningham and Cage had to make the claim that the open field poetics they had so brilliantly invented—the decenteredness, dislocation, indeterminacy, and non-hierarchy for which they are famous—had to go hand in hand with a purported renunciation of self, a kind of wise passiveness in the face of what Cage called nature in her manner of operation.  In their actual practice, however, they were Making it Radically New, defying the existing laws governing music, dance, and poetry.  “Given the tape recorders, synthesizers, sound systems, and computers we have,” said Cage in “The Future of Music,” “we could not reasonably have been expected to keep our minds fixed on the music of earlier centuries” (Empty Words 180).  Both artists understood that the Age of Technology, as the US was experiencing it, demanded a new form of art.   And so they made the claim already posited in the Romantic era, that theirs was a renunciation of an exclusive musical or dance language in favor of ambient sound and movement—in favor, that is, of life.  “Happy New Ears!”  It is the way avant-garde practice has worked throughout the twentieth—and now in the twenty-first century, as its articulation of new rules is strategically couched in the language of no rules.   Meanwhile, in the words of Gertrude Stein, describing an ordinary carafe in Tender Buttons,  “The difference is spreading.”
































[i]The first quote is from John Cage, “Conversation with John Cage,” in John Cage: An Anthology, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: De Capo, 1970), 8;  the second from Cage in William Duckworth, “Anything I Say Will Be Misunderstood: An Interview with John Cage” (1987) in John Cage at Seventy-Five, ed. Richard Fleming and William Duckworth (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1989), 15-33, p. 27.


[ii]According to Kenneth Silverman, within three years of moving into the loft (1982), Cage had acquired 203 plants and trees and spent the first two hours of each day gardening.   As for the street noise from 6th Avenue, Silverman cites Cage as saying, “I can’t think of any sonic experience that I’ve had that is superior to the sound that is freely given and received here on Sixth Avenue.”  See Silverman, Begin Again: John Cage, A Biography  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 310-11. 


[iii] John Cage/Klaus Schöning, “Laughtears: Conversation on Roaratorio,” in John Cage, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (Köningstein: Athenaum, 1985), 107.


[iv] Robert Hass (ed.), “A Transatlantic Interview” (1946), in A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1976), 16; Stein, Tender Buttons (1914), in Gertrude Stein Writings 1903-1932 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 344.


[v] The Dancer and the Dance:  Merce Cunningham in conversation with Jacqueline Lesschaeve (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985), 45.


[vi]New York Times, December 31, 2011, p. C1


[vii] John Cage, “The Future of Music,” Empty Words (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1979), 178.


[viii] Joan Retallack, “Introduction,” Musicage: John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Hanover, CT. and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), xxviii-ix.  For a somewhat different emphasis, see my Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 21-26.  Cf. http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/cage-lecture-weather/.   For Cage’s own discussion of the Lecture, see “Preface to Lecture on the Weather,”  in Empty Words, 3-5.


[ix]For a clip from this performance of Ocean, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aBJdHnv5tM&feature=related/.


[x] Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000 www.pbs.org/…/mercecunningham/a-lifetime-of-dance/566.


[xi]By extension, difference also points to sexual difference, the Cage circle—Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and by extension Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery—being almost entirely one of gay men.   But that would be the subject for a different essay.


[xii] Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse (Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980; rpt. Boston: G. K. Hall. 1983), notes #32, 4, 11, 9 respectively. The notes are reproduced as facsimile scraps, with the French and English print versions at the bottom of the page. Slash marks indicate the end of the line in the handwritten version. The book is unpaginated but the notes are numbered. Cf. Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan with the author (1984; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 160; Perloff, “The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp,” Twenty-First Century Modernism: The ‘New” Poetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 14-20.



[xiii] See Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1968), 222.



[xiv]Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), §215.  In one of the conversations with Joan Retallack in Musicage, Cage, citing Jasper Johns, says, “This is very much like Wittgenstein. . . ‘[xiv]We say one thing is not another thing. / Or sometimes we say it is. / Or we say ‘they are the same’” (58).

[xv] See Bill Shoemaker, “The Age of Cage” (1984), Conversing with Cage, 102.



[xvi]I discuss the 1978 IRCAM production of Roaratorio, which was not originally designed as a dance piece, in my Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 149-61.  See figures 4-7 in this chapter which detail Cage’s instructions.


[xvii]John Cage, “Seriously Comma” (1966), in A Year from Monday (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 28.  Cage frequently refers back to this aphorism in his later work.


[xviii]Jill Johnston, “Cage and Modern Dance” (1965), in Richard, Kostelanetz Writing about Cage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 336-37.


[xix] John Cage, “Experimental Music” (1958), in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 12.


[xx] See Klaus Schöning, “nich-nichi kore kô-nichi” (day by day is a beautiful day), Introduction to John Cage, Roaratorio, 13.


[xxi] See David Vaughan (the Cunningham company’s archivist), Notes for Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/merce-cunningham/a-lifetime-of-dance/566/


[xxii] Lynn Garafola, Legacies of 20th Century Dance (Middletown: Wesleyan, 2005), 246.


[xxiii]Garafola, 249, my italics.  Cf. Jill Johnston, “Cage and Modern Dance” (1965), in Writings about John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 334.


[xxiv]William Brooks, “Roaratorio Appraisiated’ (1983), in Kostelanetz, Writing about Cage, 223.


[xxv]Cage, Roaratorio 147, 137. For a detailed analysis of the composition of Roaratorio, see my “Music for Words Perhaps: Reading/Hearing/Seeing John Cage’s Roaratorio,”  in Post-modern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff” (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 193-228.


[xxvi]“I’ve always been opposed to records,” Cage tells Dick Higgins in 1976 (Conversing with Cage, 118).  Or again, in 1982, “I don’t like recordings because they turn music into an object, and music is actually a process that’s never twice the same” (Conversing, 237).  “All [hi-fi records do] is move toward a faithful reproduction of something that’s already happened. . . .I don’t collect records, including my own” (Conversing 237-38).  In conversation with Daniel Charles, Cage compares records to postcards “which ruin the landscape,” For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles (London: Marion Boyars 2000), 50.


[xxvii] See Silverman, John Cage, 193.


[xxviii] Interview with Anne Waldman et. al.  (1974), in Conversing with Cage, 126.


[xxix] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 42.


[xxx] Charles Junkerman, “nEw / forms of living together”: The Model of the Musicircus,” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994), 48-50.  Figure 25 is Junkerman’s Figure 3: see 49.


[xxxi]See my “Duchamp’s Eliot: The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of the Individual Talent,” in T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2007), pp. 177-84.  Duchamp’s essay in question, “The Creative Act,” is found in The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet & Elmer Peterson (London: Thames & Hudson, 1973), 138-40.


[xxxii] Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 503.


[xxxiii]Cited by Judith Mackrell, “The Joy of Sets,” The Guardian, 6 June 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/jun/06/dance/. Walkaround Time was later returned to the repertoire, but with facsimiles of Johns’s art pieces.

[xxxiv]A similar point is made about Cage’s Europeras in Herbert Lindenberger’s seminal essay, “Regulated Anarchy: The Europeras and the Aesthetics of Opera,” in Perloff and Junkerman, John Cage: Composed in America, 144-66.


[xxxv] Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance, passim.  Brown was one of the leading dancers in the company from its inception in 1953 to 1972, when she left in something of a huff to take an administrative position. She had to come to terms with the reality that for Cage and Cunningham, no dancer, however brilliant, was indispensable.


[xxxvi]John Cage, “Three Asides on the Dance” (1959), in John Cage Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight, 1993), 85.



[xxxvii] William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802), Appendix A, The Poems, Vol 1, ed. John O Hayden (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), 869.