In Which John Cage Gives Us The Indeterminate Future We Were Hoping For

from Indeterminacy

by John Cage

A woman who lived in the country was asked how cold it had been the previous winter. “Not very cold,” she replied. Then she added, “There were only three or four days when we had to stay in bed all day to keep warm.”


One Sunday morning, Mother said to Dad, “Let’s go to church.” Dad said, “O.K.” When they drove up in front, Dad showed no sign of getting out of the car. Mother said, “Aren’t you coming in?” Dad said, “No, I’ll wait for you here.”

robert rauschenberg

Sometime after my father’s death, I was talking with Mother. I suggested she take a trip West to visit the relatives. I said, “You’ll have a good time.” She was quick to reply. “Now, John, you know perfectly well that I’ve never enjoyed having a good time.”

merce cunningham

Once I was visiting my Aunt Marge. She was doing her laundry. She turned to me and said, “You know? I love this machine much more than I do your Uncle Walter.”

When Colin McPhee found out that I was interested in mushrooms, he said, “If you find the morel next spring, call me up, even if you only find one. I’ll drop everything, come out, and cook it.” Spring came. I found two morels. I called Colin McPhee. He said, “You don’t expect me, do you, to come all that way for two little mushrooms?”

john cage

When I first went to Paris, I did so instead of returning to Pomona College for my junior year. As I looked around, it was Gothic architecture that impressed me most. And of that architecture I preferred the flamboyant style of the fifteenth century. In this style my interest was attracted by balustrades. These I studied for six weeks in the Bibliothèque Mazarin, getting to the library when the doors were opened and not leaving until they were closed. Professor Pijoan, whom I had known at Pomona, arrived in Paris and asked me what I was doing. (We were standing in one of the railway stations there.) I told him. He gave me literally a swift kick in the pants and then said, “Go tomorrow to Goldfinger. I’ll arrange for you to work with him. He’s a modern architect.” After a month of working with Goldfinger, measuring the dimensions of rooms which he was to modernize, answering the telephone, and drawing Greek columns, I overheard Goldfinger saying, “To be an architect, one must devote one’s life solely to architecture.” I then left him, for, as I explained, there were other things that interested me, music and painting for instance.

Five years later, when Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, “Of course.” After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

arnold schoenberg

Merce Cunningham’s parents were going to Seattle to see their other son, Jack. Mrs. Cunningham was driving. Mr. Cunningham said, “Don’t you think you should go a little slower? You’ll get caught.” He gave this warning several times. Finally, on the outskirts of Seattle they were stopped by a policeman. He asked to see Mrs. Cunningham’s license. She rummaged around in her bag and said, “I just don’t seem to be able to find it.” He then asked to see the registration. She looked for it but unsuccessfully. The officer then said, “Well, what are we going to do with you?” Mrs. Cunningham started the engine. Before she drove off, she said, “I just don’t have any more time to waste talking with you. Good-bye.”

I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall. The composer whose works were being performed had provided program notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the world. After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was telling me how the performances had not been quite up to snuff. So I said, “Well, I enjoyed the music, but I didn’t agree with that program note about there being too much pain in the world.” He said, “What? Don’t you think there’s enough?” I said, “I think there’s just the right amount.”

kirk douglas

A depressed young man came to see Hazel Dreis, the bookbinder. He said, “I’ve decided to commit suicide.” She said, “I think it’s a good idea. Why don’t you do it?”

An Indian woman who lived in the islands was required to come to Juneau to testify in a trial. After she had solemnly sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she was asked whether she had been subpoenaed. She said, “Yes. Once on the boat coming over, and once in the hotel here in Juneau.”

After a long and arduous journey a young Japanese man arrived deep in a forest where the teacher of his choice was living in a small house he had made. When the student arrived, the teacher was sweeping up fallen leaves. Greeting his master the young man received no greeting in return. And to all his questions, there were no replies. Realizing there was nothing he could do to get the teacher’s attention, the student went to another part of the same forest and built himself a house. Years later, when he was sweeping up fallen leaves, he was enlightened. He then dropped everything, ran through the forest to his teacher, and said, “Thank you.”

Once when I was in Ann Arbor with Alexander Smith, I said that one of the things I liked about botany was that it was free of the jealousies and selfish feelings that plague the arts, that I would for that reason, if for no other, given my life to live over again, be a botanist rather than a musician. He said, “That shows how little you know about botany.” Later in the conversation I happened to mention the name of a mycologist connected with another Midwestern university. Incisively, Smith said, “Don’t mention that man’s name in my house.”

One day when I was across the hall visiting Sonya Sekula, I noticed that she was painting left-handed. I said, “Sonya, aren’t you right-handed?” She said, “Yes, but I might lose the use of my right hand, and so I’m practicing using my left.” I laughed and said, “What if you lose the use of both hands?” She was busy painting and didn’t bother to reply. Next day when I visited her, she was sitting on the floor, painting with difficulty, for she was holding the brush between two toes of her left foot.

Xenia told me once that when she was a child in Alaska, she and her friends had a club and there was only one rule: No silliness.

John Cage is the senior contributor to This Recording.

John Cage oral history

John Cage American Masters

John Cage at UbuWeb

John Cage composed in America

Cage’s autobiographical statement

“Snow” – Pernice Brothers (mp3)

“Sell Your Hair” – Pernice Brothers (mp3)

“My So-Called Celibate Life” – Pernice Brothers (mp3)

“Dumb It Down” – Pernice Brothers (mp3)

Pernice Brothers wiki


Karina’s treatment of In Treatment

Neko Case in Poetry magazine.

They are soldiers.


2 thoughts on “In Which John Cage Gives Us The Indeterminate Future We Were Hoping For

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s