Interview with John Cage about Music and Politics

This interview with John Cage dates from 1970 and is about revolution, global welfare, the difference between American and European culture, and cultural changes in general. And about his music, of course.

Vorbemerkung / Introductory note (German)

John CageMr. Cage, in the last few years, you have mainly been performing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Are you still giving concerts on your own?

Yes, I continue both. For instance, this year I gave concerts in Minneapolis, Pennsylvania, Florida. I have worked with Merce Cunningham since 1943, and I have given concerts of music since 1933, and I continue doing both.

You told us yesterday, that you should also have time to help to make the revolution.


What would be your method to arrive at it? Or, in what way do you intend to act politically as a musician?

First of all, music can be conceived as a social situation. That is to say, taking sounds for granted, one can see it as a social situation involving people and their activities, and then it becomes an instance of a society that functions without government.

What is your opinion of the present political situation in America? Do you consider the contradictions of our society developed enough to produce the revolution in the next years?

Buckminster Fuller says, that 1972 will be the end of the critical period. We can expect between now and the end of ’72 a great deal of violence. He doesn’t see the problem as a purely American one, but rather as a global one, and we can already see that the USA doesn’t even consider itself limited by its boundaries. It operates outside of itself. Sometimes with the worst intentions and sometimes with fairly good intentions. It is a mixture. I think to have either good or bad intentions is unnecessary. What we need is to approach the problem, how to give to each person what he needs for living, so that the world would stop being divided between those who have and those who don’t have. At the present moment, we are getting nearly fifty-fifty, and in ’72 it will be 50:50 having and not having.

Do you think so?

We know so.

But don’t the rich become always richer and the poor…

No, no! For some of the rich, yes! But the number of those who have what they need has increased from 9 % at the beginning of this century to nearly 50 % at the present time.

Isn’t that too optimistic?

No, it’s factual.

But there are statistics about the underdeveloped countries, which tell just the contrary.

You must take a global point of view. One of the biggest influences in the direction, that you call optimistic direction, is an international collaboration between Russia and the USA.

On the head of the small countries.

Yes, but the small countries will adapt very quickly what has taken the US a very long time and Russia less. In a sense, the US is the oldest country of the 20th century, I said this long ago. Therefore, it has taken the longest time to have a certain material advantage. For the underdeveloped countries, it will take a very short time because they can take advantage of all the mistakes that we have made. For instance: We are more modern for a longer time as the Germans are. The result is, that the garbage disposal in the USA is done very poorly and in an old-fashioned way, where it is in Germany done in a very modern way. And in Africa or India, it will be done superbly! Probably electronically!! Instead of mechanistically.

But don’t you think that as long as the capitalist society endures, a development of those poor countries is impossible?

JC: In capitalism is its own destruction. It is already doing it through a greater interest in credit than in money. Already in 1934 it was in the US we went off the gold standard and the thing that became important was not gold, but credit. Now, what is credit? When you examine and if you speak to a banker, you discover that credit is confidence in the other person. It is simply an emotional question. All you have to do is to have confidence in other people. A banker for instance can give money to a very poor person if he has confidence in him.

But he has no confidence in him because he is poor.

No, no, but he does have confidence! For example, at the present time in the US, we get credit cards without even asking for them. They come to you in the mail. And they begin to give the food free on the ground, just as they do in the air. When you fly in the airplanes, they give you food, supposed that you paid for your ticket. Now, on the ground, when they have these huge groups of people (Rock’n’Roll and so on) they begin to feed them…

Do you see any possibility for your music to change something if only the consciousness of people? Would the adequate means to bring about a revolution, as we just were discussing it, not rather be physical force instead of art?

I don’t think we should expect one thing to bring about a revolution. We must use everything and not try to find a path, but going to do everything we can. For some people, words will be effective, for some people, even violence will be effective, for some people, music will be effective. We must use everything. I don’t believe in protest actions. I don’t think anything is accomplished by protest. But I can say that very easily because many people are protesting… But I don’t see anything being accomplished. I think, that de Gaulle on his last legs was given a new lease of life, and he became a little stronger, simply because the students protested so violently. But then the poor man, didn’t he die? At least, he lost his position, finally. Now, don’t you have just as stupid a government as before…??? And every now a country has no government at all; we were just now in Italy, and I think they have no government…

It is a fact that your music, like all relevant art of today, reaches only an extremely small group of the population because of the privilege of education, which the dominant class tries to keep by all means, not at last by high entrance fees like here at the St. Paul-de-Vence Festival.

In the fifties, when I gave a concert, I would advertise it, and at the most, 125 people would come. When I gave HPSCHD in Illinois last year, somewhere between 7000 and 9000 people came, and they came from all over the country – they came even from Europe. I gave a Musicircus in Illinois the year before and 5000 people came, and the concert was free. I gave the one in Minneapolis this year and another 3000 people came and it was free. Things are changing.

There are people saying that you as an „avant-garde artist“ are the jester of the bourgeois society. What do you answer to this reproach?

The situation is different and has been different for many years in the US from what it is in Europe. The people in Europe, who concern themselves with art, are for the most part not students who are busy studying in Europe but are rather the people who have the leisure to pay attention to art. Therefore, Europe is considered itself more cultivated than the US, who is considered by Europe to be a little far away from tradition and from culture and to be a little bit barbarian. Well, what is happening in the US is: When you get a job in society and enter the economic-political structure of capitalism, you no longer have any time for art. You are not interested in art any longer, only a few people are. The people who are interested in the arts are the students. Therefore, if I make a tour in the US, I go from university to university. If I make a tour in Europe, where do I go? I go from festival to festival or from radio station to radio station or from one concert hall to another. The public is changing now, but formerly it was entirely a grown-up group without children. That means, that the idea of I being a court jester is a European idea. But my idea of being is, in a sense, in a tradition – if I may – of the intellectual life… Really, it is! If in that are included people like Thoreau, Emerson, our poets, etc. They form part of the university life much more than they do of the adult life of the US. What is the average person in the US when he is grown up and he has a job and makes his living and pays his bills? He spends his evenings looking at TV. The TV would not let me on a program. Therefore I’m not a court jester, I’m more a teacher. I would prefer to be a teacher-student… I’m a student…

Would you say something about black people’s culture, which seems to be emancipating very much in the cities of the US? And if, in what way do you think you could learn from it?

Well, when I began musically with interest in noises, the reason was, that the noises were free of the laws of harmony and counterpoint. Now the exciting thing about the blacks is, that they are going to be free of the laws, which were made by the whites to protect them from the blacks, among other things, and to keep the blacks in slavery and to keep the white people more powerful. Now, it won’t be good for the blacks to become powerful like the whites in the same sense; any more than it would be good for the noises to become as harmonious and as devoted to counterpoint as the musical sounds. We need rather – as we have already done in music – to identify ourselves with the noises and to start from a situation without those laws of the whites or of the musical tones. I think that very few blacks understand that. They mostly think they would like to be just as powerful as the whites, That’s not the proper way.

Would you explain that once more?

Power is not the question. That was the question in harmony and counterpoint, where you have good things and bad things and you make rules. That is what the white people did to the blacks: They made rules. So we need a situation in which we don’t have rules, in which things are not more powerful than in other things, but in which each thing is what it is. Which we already have in music.

In your music.

JC. Well, in much music.

Some time ago, you performed „Variations VII“, so we heard. Would you tell us something about this piece and its performance?

It was done in New York, sponsored by the EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology). That was several years ago, in 1967, I think. The air, you see, is filled with sounds which are inaudible, but which become audible if we have receiving sets. So the idea of „Variations VII“ is simply to go fishing, so to speak, in a situation that you are in, and pick up as many things as you can, that are already in the air.

Is this in a similar sense as LaMonte Young’s butterfly piece? He said that the butterflies make a sound, though it is inaudible for human ears. But it really is music, too.

No, mine was more like fishing things that were already there.

So, which were the fishes you caught?

JC. Well, there were ordinary radios, there were Geiger counters to collect cosmic things, there were radios to pick up what the police were saying, there were telephone lines open to different parts of the city. There were as many different ways of receiving vibrations and making them audible as we could grab with the techniques at hand.

You have been criticizing the Europeans for being unable to break with tradition, and you said in an interview in 1961, that you hoped, the Europeans would become more American. How do you assess the progress in that respect during the past ten years?

I think it is very good. I noticed this time when I came to Europe, that it isn’t interesting any longer. It’s just the same as so I’d stay at home… People are becoming aware of world problems rather than American or European problems. We could distinguish now – say – between the developed and the underdeveloped world, as you already have, and I’m not pessimistic about that. I think we will still have lots of problems with people because many, many people are very selfish. But they will be less selfish when they all have what they need. That would be an interesting thing to solve, to see what happens when people have what they need. Now, there is always to fear, that someone takes something away from you if you have it. But if you don’t have it, that you will never get it, and so on. It seems to be obviously the problem to be solved. You know my interest in the work of Buckminster Fuller. He is concerned with what he calls comprehensive design science, which is to solve the problems of the world, that’s to say, the distribution of world resources to all the people of the world. It’s he who says, that in 1972 it comes to the 50:50 point. And then, the curve goes up quickly to 100 % having what they need. I think he is probably the most useful human being living right now.

Which is your opinion of contemporary European music?

The difficulty is, that I don’t know very well what is going on in Europe now. My own circumstances keep me busy, so I have very little time to hear anything. Formerly, when people were not interested in what I was doing, I had plenty of time. But now, I have very little time… It’s all foolish…

There are two famous men people are talking about very often in this year 1970: Beethoven and Nixon. Do you agree with the opinion, that both of them have done very much for our culture?

Well, from time to time, even so, I have been opposed for a long time to Beethoven, every now and then when I hear something by him I discover that he is actually a very interesting composer. The last time I was struck by that fact was when I heard the Bagatelle, played by Grete Sultan in New York. But Nixon hasn’t done that strikes me as being interesting.

Thank you, Mr. Cage.

© 1970, 2002/2020 by Max Nyffeler
Photo: MusikTexte

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