Continuing with yesterday’s “treasures” from the Naropa Archives, here’s another one, another singularly early one, dating from August 1975 – “Visiting Poetics Academy Convention” (consisting of three separate components – a radio-interiew with Allen Ginsberg, a radio-interview with John Cage, and a talk by (with several instances of the participatory practice of) Cage-ian protege, Jackson Mac Low
[Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Jackson Mac Low]
Visiting Poetics Academy may be listened to in its entirety here
The first part, a 1975 radio interview by Rick Fields (“Open Secret”) – Allen discusses the relationship between Buddhist meditation and American poetics and reads several poems by William Carlos Williams – has already been featured on the Allen Ginsberg Project. It can be accessed here.
The Cage Interview dates from the previous year (August, 1974) and was conducted prior to his appearance in Boulder, Colorado for the premier of Part IV of his Thoreau piece, Empty Words
A transcription of that interview follows:
(it starts approximately nine-and-a-half minutes into the tape and runs through to about eighteen-and-three-quarter minutes in)
Interviewer: We’re talking and I’ll say this morning, because it will be by the time this is broadcast, with John Cage, who stepped off a plane and a recording studio very kindly after spending about nine hours getting to Denver and I want to thank you for that first of all. Welcome to Colorado.
JC: I’m glad to be here Steve [sic].
Interviewer: And also Alden Jenks who’s going to be helping out with, as I understand it the technical aspects of the concert tomorrow. Is that correct?
Interviewer: Ok – And that concert, which we should get to first, is called Empty Words.
JC: You know that with sound.. Although people objected at the beginning, after a while they didn’t object to each sound being audible by itself, and not making sentences out of sound. So that we can now hear a piece of music and it doesn’t have to be recognizeable as “like Bach”, or “like Mozart”, or “like Beethoven”, but can be something that we hear like, actually I think the sounds we hear when we’re not in a music concert, like the sounds around us, wherever we happen to be.
Well, when people saw that that was what I was doing with sound, they said “Yes, you can do it with sound but you can’t do it with words…tidily!”. (But) I’m doing it, in words, and the way I did it, I didn’t do it quickly. I… it has taken, taken some time. But I was asked (I forget just when it was, but it must have been (19)68 or (19)69) to write a column for that magazine in Minneapolis called Synthesis, and then there was concern with electronic music. And a few years before I had been introduced to The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, by a poet in Kentucky, and I took to the Journal of..Thoreaujust like a duck to water (or as I myself took to the country, when I moved to it, in (19)54, from the city). Reading Thoreau, I noticed that he looked the way modern painters look and he listened the way modern composers listen, or electronic composers, listen..
Interviewer: How’s that?
JC: To everything! – and not.. You don’t just listen to things that are major and minor but you listen…
JC: Every single sound is interesting
Interviewer: And now how are you incorporating that in what’s happening tomorrow?
JC: Oh, I, I.. it’s a long story..
Interviewer: Ok, I won’t rush it
JC: The column about electronic music, then, was, simply, taking all the remarks that Thoreau made about sound or silence (or music) that are indexed in the Dover publication of the Journal (which is over a million words), (I then) subjected them to chance operations and divided language into its several parts that I was able to discern. We can say that language has sentences, that it has phrase (we won’t agree, of course, about what a phrase is, but I would say a phrase is a part of a sentence, it doesn’t give a complete idea). Then we have, after phrases, we have words, after words we have syllables, and after syllables we have letters. So when you have those five different things and you make the permutations of their being separate or combined, in pairs, or in triplets, or in quartets, or all five together, you have, I think it’s something like twenty-seven possible things to do with language
Then, as you know, I work with chance operations, and I use the I-Ching. So when I know I have twenty-seven things to do, I ask the I Ching which one of the twenty-seven am I doing? – because, you’re doing the twenty-fifth one, and then I know exactly what I’m doing, and I say how long do I do it? and (it’d) say for sixty-five events – (it wouldn’t say sixty-five because it works with the number sixty-four, so it would say thirty-seven, maybe, or something like that, unless I doubled the sixty-four and then it could say anything up to a-hundred-and-twenty-eight.
Interviewer: Uh huh
JC: But, once I knew what I was doing and how many times I was doing it, then I started, I first started “Mureau” (“Mureau” means music from Thoreau – you see it’s a word combining those two). And after I finished that, it had four parts, and so did this text called Empty Words. Well, “Mureau” is published in my last book, and Empty Words was begun after that book was published. That book is called M. And the Empty Words begins because I.. and the way I thought of the title was, I let it be known to my friends (and even strangers as I wandered around the country) that what was interesting me was..making English less understandable.
Because, when it’s understandable..well..people control one another and poetry disappears. And, as I was talking with my friend Norman O Brown, and he said syntax (which is what makes things understandable) is the army, is the arrangement of the army. So what we’re doing when we’re making language un-understandable is, actually, we’re de-militarizing it, so that we can do our living.
Interviewer: You’re going back to sounds, you’re not getting sounds confused with meanings.
JC: It’s a transition from music to language, certainly. And its bewildering at first, but it is extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that’s what I’m up to. Empty Words begins by omitting sentences. It has only phrases, words, syllables and letters The second part omits the phrases, it has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words (has only syllables and letters), and the last part, which is what I will read tomorrow evening, has only the letters and silences. And going with it will be the projection of (some drawings of) Thoreau. I think that he was a great artist, I mean graphic artist, and I don’t know of anyone else that’s saying or thinking that. Of course, by now, since this is not the first time that I’ve shown his drawings (I’ve done in the South and in..and so forth, and now people are beginnng to see that he was a great graphic artist also).
Interviewer: Is the performance tomorrow going to be.. are you attempting to reproduce something.. or is this going to be a kind of recreation…
JC: It will be the first reading of this last part
Interviewer: It will be?
Interviewer: But that was for piano?
JC: No, it’s for any…any instrument ..and any number of musicians.
Interviewer: Okay! so the whole audience can play!
JC: They can all start playing!
Interviewer: Let me say first, before we go on, where this is going to be – at the Naropa Center, this evening (sic), it’s Thursday evening at eight o’clock, and the center is at 1645 Broadway, tickets two-fifty, and they will be.. you can purchase those at the door.
JC: Generally when I perform some people want to leave immediately, after.. when they see what they’re up against, so those people who don’t have two dollars should wait outside and..the ones going out, they should get their tickets..
Interviewer: Fair enough. Do you find you have time, as much time, to compose or do you feel that you are composing each time you give one of these performances, you are..
JC: No, I don’t perform very much anymore.
Interviewer: You don’t?
JC: I prefer to stay at home and do my work (which you’ve already surmised) , I reduce the number of times that I leave/
Interviewer: Are you doing any formal teaching?
JC: No, I’m very fortunate not to have to do that, I mean, to make a living, I.. my music is all published and I have a number of books, and I have ..with just a few engagements, and my royalties, I’m able to live in a modest fashion.
[Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951)]
Interviewer: (Arnold) Schönberg once said something to the effect that his music wasn’t difficult to understand, it was only badly performed. Do you…
JC: Schönberg‘s music is getting to be very beautifully performed.
Interviewer: How about yourself? how about that in the things that you’ve done?
JC: Well, I think of myself as one thing and my music is something else, and now and then I think about it, how it’s getting alomg, it seems to me it’s getting along fairly well. There was a.., among the New York critics, the general idea that, when I die, my music will die with me, and that nobody will pay any more attention to it. And I don’t think that that’s quite the case, because I, after all, here I am, what am I? Sixty-two? Sixty-ne or two? or something like that, and I’ve spent forty years with my music and I haven’t been bored at all! I don’t see how it could suddenly be boring to everybody else.
Interviewer: Who are the people, I wonder, the people that are performing now. Are there any centers, are there any places, in the ‘States especially, where your music is being performed most frequently. or is general throughout the country?
JC: Well, there’s.. I was telling Alvin Jenks.. there’s a very active and energetic and good, very good, conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, who has a chamber orchestra in the Twin Cities , St Paul and Minneapolis, and he conducts the ensemble in New York City, and he tours with this St Paul Group to Europe and what-not, and he’s also the head of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz (I’ll see him shortly) and each… his concerts.. and the activity of this group.. it’s very active (what they do is, each year, they devote themselves to one dead composer and one live composer, and last year it was (Igor) Stravinsky and some dead one, ((George Frideric) Handel perhaps?), and this next year, it’s (Franz Joseph) Haydn and yours truly.
[Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)]
Interviewer: Good company!
JC: And so I’m writing a new piece for orchestra – because their orchestra is largely strings and they.. when I wrote for them, the other pieces I’ve written for orchestra need all the winds (which they don’t have), so I needed to write something to suit their situation.
Interviewer: Some people would say that experimental composers have formed their own rules and laws because they couldn’t cope with the ones that existed.
Interviewer: Well I thought you might say that but I wondered what.. if you would care to go any further, in terms of…?
JC: They said that in terms of modern artists. They said they couldn’t draw and that’s why they made abstraction. It’s not true. I saw a very amusing proof of that, (and this was years ago, in the late (19)30’s, in Portland, Oregon – where.. when modern art was really modern and the public was objecting like.. “expletive deleted”).. And that.. so what the museum did was to put a table with paints in the middle of the room and blank paper for the public to make their drawings, on one side, and then they put the modern art on theAnd anyone could see, immediately, the difference. No, the history of Western art, more than the history of Oriental art, is the history of changes.
Interviewer: Sometimes in a technical society it seems that when something becomes feasible, it almost inevitable, in terms of when someone conceives of, say, going to the moon, going beyond, there becomes this momentum toward accomplishing that fact. Now in the area say of experimental music, when new..when new techniques, new electronic techniques, are available, do you feel yourself drawn to those to see what will happen, see how many combinations, how many permutations of sound are possible?
JC: I’m the son of an inventor and I figure that my.. my.. what I can do is make some kind of discovery. If I can’t make a discovery, I’m not worth my salt. And when I see many people working with electronics then I don’t myself do it, because, well, for one thing, I might get a shock! and, for the other, all the.. many other good minds that are working in that field, and so, I’m now not working in that so much.
[Balinese Gamelan instruments]
Interviewer: You mentioned that you had not gone to (and I don’t know if that means you hadn’t studied) Indonesian music,
although many people find great similarities between…especially (the works for prepared piano
JC: The reason is I don’t have a feeling for harmony and harmony was not characteristic of any of those Oriental musics either. So that when they hear my music which doesn’t have any harmony in it and it just has sounds, then they think, “oh, it sounds very Oriental”.
Interviewer: But not Oriental in general. I was..
JC: Indonesian, in particular?
Interviewer: Quite a lot of the dance music in Bali, in terms of the rhythms, the stops..
JC: I think it’s much more dramatic than mine. Those stops in Balinese music are quite world-shaking and I don’t tend to shake the world.
Interviewer: Can we talk a little bit about setting up, how you go about setting up technically a performance like Empty Words?
AJ: Well, to tell you the truth, that still seems to be somewhat up in the air. John and I still have yet to talk about it.
JC : We haven’t seen the place. Place now is very important when you use loudspeakers and microphones and so on. And how they work in a space determines very much what you do.
I might not do what I said I would do, I might do something else.
Interviewer: Keeps it fresh .. You’ve done this before I assume, Arlen, you’ve worked in other cities, setting up..
AJ: Oh yes, that’s.. that’s how I earn my living.
JC: Since I don’t work very much with electronics, I’m very grateful for what other people do..because then they help me.
Interviewer: This evening at eight, at the Naropa Center, Empty Words, with and by John Cage, at 1645 Broadway in Boulder. Tickets are two-fifty, and, if you stand outside the door, (and) someone comes out, take their ticket and go in!
Thanks very nuch for spending some time with us. Now you can have dinner.
JC: Thank you very much.
Interviewer: Thank you all
AJ: A pleasure..
A full recording of the Empty Words concert (alongside the interview) is also available in the Naropa Archives on two tapes – here and here
(it is also available here and here)
A later (1975) Munich studio recording of Cage performing “Mureau” is also available here (and here) Finally, Jackson Mac Low – Mac Low’s complete talk, “The Poetics of Chance and the Politics of Simultaneous Spontaneity – or – the Sacred Heart of Jesus” may be heard in three parts here, here, and here (referring back to his performance here).
A (revised) printed version may be read in Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute – Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – Volume 1 (a version of Cage’s Empty Words talk, along with “relevant material”, is also included in this volume).In this opening section, he (Mac Low) discourses on “chance operations” (systematic chance and impulsive chance, performer choice). At approximately forty minutes in (on this particular tape) he proposes his own “21, 21. 29 – The Fifth Biblical Poem” as an active example and proceeds to enact it in live performance (with the collaboration of Sharon Matlin, and Naropa student, Tom Savage) – “I’ll talk a little more about why I do such a thing. I had been, for many years, in some ways, concerned with Taoism (I consider myself a Taoist), and later, in the middle (19)50’s, partly through contact with friends of (John) Cage before I really knew him, I became interested in Zen Buddhism, and considered myself, for many years, a Zen Buddhist, and, in this context, the idea of trying to produce a kind of art that is not ego-ic seemed very important, and that’s the main motive I would say, to let other things than one’s self…” – Mac Low goes on to discuss silence, acasual connection, politics and dharma, pacificism and anarchism, the politics of performer choice, ego-tripping and virtuosity, and possibilities (vocabularies) created by names. The tape concludes (this particular tape) after approximately eighty-seven minutes of playing-time.