An Autobiographical Statement
What follows is an excerpt from John Cage’s “Autobiographical Statement” (1990).
I once asked Aragon, the historian, how history was written. He said, “You have to invent it.” My father was an inventor. He was able to find solutions for problems of various kinds, in the fields of electrical engineering, medicine, submarine travel, seeing through fog, and travel in space without the use of fuel. He told me that if someone says “can’t” that shows you what to do. He also told me that my mother was always right even when she was wrong.
My mother was the founder of the Lincoln Study Club, first in Detroit, then in Los Angeles. She became the Women’s Club editor for the Los Angeles Times. She was never happy. After Dad’s death, I said, “Why don’t you visit the family in Los Angeles? You’ll have a good time,” she replied, “Now, John, you know perfectly well I’ve never enjoyed having a good time.” When we would go for a Sunday drive, she’d always regret that we hadn’t brought so‑and‑so with us. Sometimes she would leave the house and say she was never coming back. Dad was patient, and always calmed my alarm by saying, “Don’t worry, she’ll be back in a little while.”
Neither of my parents went to college. When I did, I dropped out after two years. Thinking I was going to be a writer, I told Mother and Dad I should travel to Europe and have experiences rather than continue in school. I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.
In Europe, after being kicked in the seat of my pants by José Pijoan for my study of flamboyant Gothic architecture and introduced by him to a modern architect who set me to work drawing Greek capitals, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, I became interested in modern music and modern painting. One day I overheard the architect saying to some girl friends, “In order to be an architect, one must devote one’s life to architecture.” I then went to him and said I was leaving because I was interested in other things than architecture. At this time I was reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Enthusiastic about America I wrote to Mother and Dad saying, “I am coming home.” Mother wrote back, “Don’t be a fool. Stay in Europe as long as possible. Soak up as much beauty as you can. You’ll probably never get there again.”
Later when I returned to California, I wrote songs with texts by Gertrude Stein and choruses from The Persians of Aeschylus. I met Richard Buhlig who was the first pianist to play the Opus II of Schoenberg. Though he was not a teacher of composition, he agreed to take charge of my writing of music. From him I went to Henry Cowell and at Cowell’s suggestion (based on my twenty‑five tone compositions, which, though not serial, were chromatic and required the expression in a single voice of all twenty‑five tones before any one of them was repeated) to Adolph Weiss in preparation for studies with Arnold Schoenberg. When I asked Schoenberg to teach me, he said, “You probably can’t afford my price.” I said, “Don’t mention it; I don’t have any money.” He said, “Will you devote your life to music?” This time I said “Yes.” He said he would teach me free of charge. I gave up painting and concentrated on music. After two years it became clear to both of us that I had no feeling for harmony. For Schoenberg, harmony was not just coloristic: it was structural. It was the means one used to distinguish one part of a composition from another. Therefore he said I’d never be able to write music. “Why not?” “You’ll come to a wall and won’t be able to get through.”
“Then I’ll spend my life knocking my head against that wall,” I replied
I became an assistant to Oskar Fischinger, the filmmaker, to prepare myself to write the music for one of his films. He happened to say one day, “Everything in the world has its own spirit which can be released by setting it into vibration.” I began hitting, rubbing everything, listening, and then writing percussion music, and playing it with friends.
I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found in the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswammy that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. I became less disturbed and went back to work.
In the late thirties I heard a lecture by Nancy Wilson Ross on Dada and Zen. I mention this in my forward to Silence then adding that I did not want my work blamed on Zen, though I felt that Zen changes in different times and places and what it has become here and now, I am not certain. Whatever it is it gives me delight and most recently by means of Stephen Addiss’ book The Art of Zen. I had the good fortune to attend Daisetz Suzuki’s classes in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in the late forties. And I visited him twice in Japan. I have never practiced sitting cross‑legged nor do I meditate. My work is what I do and always involves writing materials, chairs, and tables. Before I get to it, I do some exercises for my back and I water the plants, of which I have around two hundred.
The Buddhist texts to which I often return are the Huang‑Po Doctrine of Universal Mind (in Chu Ch’an’s first translation, published by the London Buddhist Society in 1947), Neti Neti by L. C. Beckett of which (as I say in the introduction to my Norton Lectures at Harvard) my life could be described as an illustration, and the Ten Oxherding Pictures (in the version that ends with the return to the village bearing gifts of a smiling and somewhat heavy monk, one who had experienced Nothingness).
While teaching at Black Mountain College, I made what is sometimes said to be the first “happening”. The audience was seated in four isometric triangular sections, the apexes of which touched a small square performance area that they faced and that led through the aisles between them to the large performance area that surrounded them. Disparate activities, dancing by Merce Cunningham, the exhibition of paintings and the playing of a Victrola by Robert Rauschenberg, the reading of his poetry by Charles Olsen or hers by M. C. Richards from the top of a ladder outside the audience, the piano playing of David Tudor, my own reading of a lecture that included silences from the top of another ladder outside the audience, all took place within chance‑determined periods of time within the over‑all time of my lecture. It was later that summer that I was delighted to find in America’s first synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that the congregation was seated in the same way, facing itself.
In the sixties the publication of both my music and my writings began. Whatever I do in the society is made available for use. An experience I had in Hawaii turned my attention to the work of Buckminster Fuller and the work of Marshall McLuhan. Above the tunnel that connects the southern part of Oahu with the northern there are crenellations at the top of the mountain range as on a medieval castle. When I asked about them, I was told they had been used for self‑protection while shooting poisoned arrows on the enemy below. Now both sides share the same utilities. Little more than a hundred years ago the island was a battlefield divided by a mountain range. Fuller’s world map shows that we live on a single island. Global Village (McLuhan), Spaceship Earth (Fuller). Make an equation between human needs and world resources (Fuller). I began my Diary: How to Improve the World: You Will Only Make Matters Worse. Mother said, “How dare you!”
I could go on but I do not want to waste the reader’s time… and the kitchen beckons. Here are two of my favorites – hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
SWEET NUT BALL RECIPE
Four cups of ground walnuts;
4 cups of flour;
12 tablespoons of sugar;
2 2/3 cups of butter;
4 teaspoons of vanilla.
Form into circa 125 small balls.
Bake at 350 degrees in motel oven.
Now back to Room 135.
Roll in 1 pound of powdered sugar.
ALMOND COOKIE RECIPE:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor, grind:
1 c. raw almonds
1 c. raw oats
Combine almonds and oats in a large bowl. Stir in:
1 c. whole wheat flour or brown rice flour (if you want a gluten free option, you may need to add slightly more than the 1 c. brown rice flour, so that you are later able to form balls with the dough)
Add ground cinnamon to the dry mixture.
To the dry mixture, add:
1/2 c. almond oil (other nut oils work as well)
1/2 c. real maple syrup (no Aunt Jemima!)
Stir mixture until you are able to form one-inch balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten slightly, and press a small dollop of your favorite jam or preserves (jelly is too thin) into the center of each cookie. Bake for 15-20 minutes, turning the pan once, halfway through the baking process. Cookies are done when light golden brown. They store well in the fridge.
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