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Merce Cunningham and John Cage, forever inseparable

July 31, 2009 |  2:45 pm


The tributes to choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died in New York at 90 Sunday evening, have been pouring in, and they are glorious.

I think we have consensus on the fact that Cunningham revolutionized modern dance and that he was the greatest living choreographer. That the world recognizes the genius, originality and importance of a beloved artist means a lot to us Merceophiles. Still, coming to Cunningham from music, I have been struck by how little has been said about Cunningham’s relationship to my art form, and by a certain grudging credit accorded Cunningham’s collaborator and greatest artistic influence, his companion and the music director of his company, John Cage

It has been easy enough to dismiss the whole thing by noting that for Cunningham, dance and music were created apart, with the implication that in his case choreography did not need the music. 

Moreover, the tone of Cunningham’s obituaries is significantly different from that of Cage’s. When he died in 1992, less than a month before his 80th birthday, Cage was widely credited for being among the most original music thinkers of all time and among the most influential and charismatic musicians of his day.

But no one dared call him the greatest composer of his time. More typical was what the British critic Andrew Porter spelled out in the lead paragraph of his Cage obituary in the Observer:  “He said a lot silly things, and wrote a lot of silly music. But everyone was fond of him.” Even those who praised Cage’s music were forced to assume a defensive tone.

In fact, those “silly” things said and the “silly” music were central to Cunningham’s work and everything the choreographer stood for.

But such misunderstanding is nothing new. During their partnership, Cage was better known but Cunningham more institutionally celebrated, particularly in America. Cunningham, not Cage, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by the White House in 1990. 

There were some obvious reasons for all this. The dance world is smaller than the music world. Cage and Cunningham were both hugely charismatic stage animals, but in a visual society, Cunningham’s spectacular dancing and the fabulous movement he created offered a more immediate appeal than Cage’s extraordinary ideas or extraordinarily curious music.

Even so, Cage made Cunningham possible. A teenage Cunningham first encountered Cage at the Cornish School in Seattle in 1938. Cage was the accompanist in Bonnie Bird’s dance class. Cage recognized a musical talent in Cunningham and enticed him into a percussion ensemble. Though only seven years Cunningham’s senior, Cage was already worldly and exposed the young dancer to the most progressive notions of the visual arts, literature, theater and philosophy.

Cunningham left the Cornish School in 1938 to join Martha Graham’s company in New York. Cage got to Manhattan three years later, and he convinced Cunningham to break out on his own. Cage dissolved his marriage, and he and Cunningham began a career and life together.

It was Cage’s idea that music and dance should have lives of their own. In her obituary, Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman writes that score and choreography came together “essentially as strangers.” In fact, the case was just the opposite. The only reason this approach could work is because the dancer and composer were on the same wavelength.  They understood that music and dance would come together as friends. Theirs was a deep relationship based upon trust that honored independence, which is different from separation. 

In the early years, Cage wrote prepared piano pieces for Cunningham and they toured performing together. When the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed in 1953, Cage became music director. He selected all the music and musicians. The composers and performers were his – and Cunningham’s – friends. The general nature of the work was always discussed.  The musical style employed was well known to Cunningham. There was always a clear aesthetic at work. 

Experimentation was encouraged, and because of that everything wasn’t going to work, which all the creators knew in advance.  But Cunningham made room for music, and the composers created music that made room for movement. An invitation always went out to listen.     

Cage’s sphere became Cunningham’s. Included were such visual artists as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; philosophers Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan; the Zen Buddhist teacher D.T. Suzuki; the mythologist Joseph Campbell and a great many others. When Cage developed a way to make music using chance operations, he passed that on to Cunningham. Cunningham’s artistic antennae were exceptionally sensitive. He immediately found implications from all these sources for movement that no else had ever thought of. 

There are some in the dance world who resent Cage’s intellectual power over Cunningham. Without Cage, the thinking goes, Cunningham could have been another Baryshnikov or another Balanchine, or both rolled into one. But he wouldn’t have been Merce, and maybe he wouldn’t have been the man who revolutionized dance.

In the New York Times obituary, Alastair Macaulay quotes Cunningham as saying, after Cage died: “On the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, and John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home and John’s not there.” 

Yes, Cunningham did say that. But when I heard him say it, he did so with a gentle laugh that asked us not to feel sorry for him. And he fought to keep back the tears with his follow-up line: “I miss the conversation.”  

-- Mark Swed

Photo: John Cage, left, and Merce Cunningham.  Credit: Steven Mark Needham / Associated Press

Related stories:

Merce Cunningham dies at 90; revolutionary choreographer

Merce Cunningham remembered


Comments () | Archives (6)

Dancers seem attracted to bad music. Great music would be near impossible to choreograph, imagine trying to dance to Coltranes Giant Steps. though I would love to see someone have the juevos to attempt it, to do A Love Supreme, or a Miles song like Footprints.

Instead, choreographers take simple musics where they have freedom to do what they want, lots of holes to put what they create in, instead of looking at it as the whole experience, Music is just a backdrop, as in Twyla Tharps using the Talking Heads. Dancers dont seem to feel the music depth, they feel what they need to dance. And it has been shown they can dance to anything. .

art collegia delenda est

No offense, but is there anyone who will just come out and say John Cage was a lousy composer? May he rest in peace, but his music was just plain awful. I went to an L.A. Phil. concert years ago while a college student at UCLA. The Phil was conducted by Zubin Mehta back then, best conductor they ever had in my opinion. Zubin liked to try new things, and he tried a piece by Cage. I remember that it reminded me of a car accident, crashing, honking, and a big mess. Most of the audience either walked out or booed, first and only time I've ever seen that kind of reaction. Now I'm all for new and different things, but sorry, John Cage was just plain bad....admit it, and you'll feel better about yourself.....

Greatness must be able to be measured in different ways. Both Cage and Cunningham had immense impact on changing music and dance and artists connection to them by thinking out of the box. Often the actual works they created were not quite so brilliant as their words and ideas. "What is the question?", something they always posed, changed my life and my art and others. Where are the question to art today?

As human beings they were the greatest - engaging all of life with wit and curiosity.

They were dumb questions then, and are even worse now. Irrelevant to real life, which art must always reflect. That of all humanity, not just a tiny sub sect of wannabes. I agree that experimentation often fails, but much can be learned about what does work along the way. Much of the last Coltrane works were over the top, he was dying and crying to bring god into the world, it was deeply spiritual. Much was learned that was incorperated in what already existed, and so transformed it, it adapted and evolved, as all art must.

But Coltrane created great music long the way, and even up til the end. Cage never did. Just silliness. Cunningham created some great dance, but also was often hypersensitive and only for a small group. Alvin Ailey and others have done a better job reflecting life and to humanity as tehy created in its reflection, but he did create much new and groundbreaking work, that made him a name to survive the trends and fasions of time.

But dance as well as academic music and visual arts need to get back to the Earth, to the soil, to sensuality, masculine as well as feminine instead of introversion and individualism. the age of excess and meism is over, and all must reconnect to humanity, nature and god, Back to fundamentals and art spurpose, which is lifes. The stupid irrelevent questions that art is now based on must end, and artists get out of their sterile confines. Life is out there, not inward. Live it first, one must before one can create.

art collegia delenda estv

Yesterday, I attended one of Merce's *Events,* held outdoors along the river in New York.

During the event, the dancers performed John's *4'33"* by freezing in place for each of the three movements. This "silent" piece, as John told me, and others, was the key to his career, and was what he considered to be the music to which he himself most listened (traffic out the window, and all). As simple as it sounds, or as interesting of an idea as it may be, the actual work of doing it is what makes all the difference, as both of these men knew.

I knew John and Merce (as well as the writer of this article), and yesterday at that moment in the dance, I had tears, not just of emotion, but of synergy, of how that arrangement was so much a consequence of John and Merce together, of their partnership, and potency of their work. A loving moment, and a telling moment.

Thank you, Mark, for your article.

In the mid-1970s, our country held a contest for composers. "Design a 200th anniversery concert for our country." It was scheduled to be performed in major cities throughout the U.S.
John Cage was chosen the winning composer.
I am a non-musically educated 5-string banjo player who at that time was living in the Washington, D.C. area with a lovely deep-voiced blues singer lady. Mr. Cage contacted her and said "I want your voice as one of the voices in my new concert - are you interested in helping perform this monumental musical piece which I have just composed. She agreed, and so began the practice sessions and learning about John Cage.
His ideas for the front line soloists and the orchestra behind them were a bit new to me......... There will be no musical score as such. The soloists will keep time themselves, and come in when the musical "score" indicates. The tempo and key are randomly chosen by the soloists at the moment, and because they are individually extremely talented, the sounds will be harmonius. There was a lady jazz singer, Chief Swift Eagle / American Indian, my blues-singer ladyfriend, and two others whom I have forgotten.
The Orchestra was handed "music" which consisted of colors and time signatures. No musical notes as I recall. They were told that they could play in keys they chose, and play and rest as dictated by the time designated on the musical score. If they chose to switch instruments for the concert - that would be okay with Mr. Cage, as he felt a serious musician could express themself on any instrument. This concert was to be played in about five major cities, and almost immediately it became apparent that John Cage was a very distracted driver, and someone would have to drive him from airports to concert halls in all the performance cities. That became my job.
What an experience. We would be driving along and suddenly John would shout out "I want to walk over to that tree" or " There is a color over there that attracts me." I learned early on that it was important to lock his car door so he would not jump out impulsively.
So I picked him up at the Cleveland Airport - to take him to Oberlin College for an informal meeting with the members of the Oberlin Conservatory. I am driving along and John Cage screams "STOP THE CAR." I stopped the car and calmly put my hand on his shoulder. "What is it ?" I asked......."I just saw the most gorgeous shelf mushroom on a tree we passed" he replied. "I have to have it......we can take it to Oberlin, find an available kitchen and cook it for everyone to enjoy." I immediately envisioned the entire Oberlin Music School leaders dead on the floor. So I made a deal with John Cage. "You sit here in the car - and don't get out under any circumstances, and I will go to the farmhouse near the tree and get PERMISSION to remove the mushroom."
He thought this was a grand idea, so off I went. The elderly couple who came to the door looked at me and I said "There is a man in my car out there on the highway - and he wants to buy the big mushroom growing on your tree." They looked at me and at the old man sitting in the car and said "Are you serious?" I said that I was afraid so......So Mr. Farmerperson said "The ladder is on the side of the shed - help yourself and put the ladder back when you are done."
I gave the huge mushroom to John Cage and he was beside himself with joy. A questioned him about his intentions and out came this other side of John Cage......."During the depression, families had nothing to eat. I went to the library and read everything about mushrooms. If I had not become an expert on mushrooms, my family would have starved to death. When the early TV program "64-thousand dollar question" was on the air, I was a contestant - answering questions about mushrooms." So I asked him "...and how did you do?" And he said "I won sixty-four thousand dollars."
I suddenly had a great more respect for this man in my car. He was capable of thinking of musical scores and he was capable of going way out into left field. Nobody agreed with all his ideas, but he kept the ideas coming in spite of our nervous feelings.
John Cage cooked up the entire mushroom once we arrived at Oberlin. Everyone except me had a couple of bites, and all agreed that it was delicious. I abstained, because my parents told me a long time ago "Don't eat foods that you aren't familiar with......besides, sombody had to drive John Cage back to Cleveland that night for his flight home........
submitted by Reed Martin..........[email protected]


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