Composer John Cage, master of notes - and sounds
New York — According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, John Cage has had ''a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the 20th century.'' Author, philosopher, and all-around artistic guru as well as musician, Cage is as busy as ever. His activities range from writing and composing to printmaking and performing--and participating in preparations for his 70th birthday, considered a major anniversary in some musical circles.
The following interview took place at Symphony Space in Manhattan, the afternoon before a massive 141/2-hour concert called ''Wall-to-Wall Cage,'' devoted to seminal works by him, his colleagues, and his followers.
Despite the extraordinary length of the concert, I understand there will only be time for a sampling of your own music and of composers you admire. Doesn't this suggest the enormous range of contemporary music? There are so many different directions one can follow. This comes from changes in technology and the interpenetration of cultures that were formerly separated. Also, there are larger numbers of people, so you have more ideas coming forth.
Your music has always been elusive when people try to record it. Do you agree?
I like live music. I don't stop my music from being recorded, because other people like it. But I've always been opposed to records.
You often work with electronic equipment. It seems to me that the spontaneity and good humor of your approach helps to humanize such devices.
The piece we're setting up now uses electronics, but it also uses junk things that are part and parcel of everyday life. We have a complex situation with three performers, and objects with cartridges and contact microphones. We enter a situation that resembles people trying to get through the tunnel into New Jersey.
In terms of sound?
No, in terms of what we have to do to produce the sounds. One person may be turning down the amplitude while someone else is playing something. Causes and effects get dislocated. The personal element seems to make the machinery not quite work properly.
Is a concert hall a good place for such an experience?
Yes. If we have a concert such as this, people can then listen when they go outside . . . and the noises won't seem as disagreeable as they'd thought.
Would it be good if the sounds of life eventually replaced the concert hall altogether?
Not altogether. In the future, it seems to me, we should want all the things we've had in the past, plus a lot of things we haven't had yet!
It seems to take a lot of work and trouble to achieve the randomness and spontaneity you seek. Is this a contradiction?
It's an attempt to open our minds to possibilities other than the ones we remember, and the ones we already know we like. . . . Something has to be done to get us free of our memories and choices.
Were your early classical studies--your work with Schonberg, for example--a necessary preliminary to this?
At the time I did them they were necessary, or I wouldn't have done them. When I was young, all you could do was follow Schonberg or follow Stravinsky--write 12-tones or write neoclassical. There was no alternative.
Such studies are less necessary now. But they're part of my life. Still, they need not be a part of yours. The fact that I had to learn to ride horseback, so to speak, doesn't have anything to do with someone who wants to travel to the moon.
In the past--in your book ''A Year From Monday,'' for instance--you have invoked the idea of the whole world becoming a single ''global village'' through communications technology. Has this come to pass?
Not sufficiently, yet. We won't have a global village as long as we have the nations divided. We need the realization that we're all together in one place, and that we all have the same problems. . . .
Your ideas have often reverberated beyond the world of art, into the realm of politics and society in general. Has there been a subtle effect, perhaps, on the general climate?
That's possible. But I think the first thing we have to do is embarrass the government out of existence. . . . This year two magazines asked me about the nuclear threat. I sat down and spent a whole day answering them. That takes the place of voting, for me.
You have always advocated the mingling of different arts. That is happening a great deal these days. But there is little mingling of art and politics--or art and social communications, like advertising and TV. This seems discouraging.
But not sufficiently discouraging to stop us. (Laughs) In a talk I gave at a school in Boston, I explained that I was less optimistic than formerly, due to current events. And they said, Oh, please remain as optimistic as you were!
I'll try. . . .