Playing by Ear: John Cage & Marcel Duchamp

John Cage collaborated with Merce Cummingham, painter Robert Rauschenberg, and pianist David Tudor. He was influenced and inspired by the French artist Marcel Duchamp. [Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images/NPR]
Composer John Cage.  [Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images/NPR]

While I was working yesterday to repair a hacker attack on this site’s php code, NPR’s Fresh Air was on the radio somewhere in the background. Fresh Air was rebroadcasting interviews with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who died Monday at age 90.

John Cage has been a tutelary spirit throughout my creative life. At every other time in the past when I happened to hear him on the radio, everything else could wait while I gave the master my complete attention. I felt torn, as if I were betraying him, while I kept to the code.

Later, I couldn’t recall anything Cage said, but I could remember the tone of his voice. It was calm and soothing, playful and unassuming, suffused with curiosity and engagement.

After listening to the interview again, I was reminded how Cage was one of my earliest teachers in the practice I call playing by ear. I have much more to say about that, but for now here is a story Cage told about hanging out with Marcel Duchamp. It seems uncannily parallel to my experience of listening to Cage while working through the code. But it isn’t uncanny. It’s just the way things happen.

TERRY GROSS: I like to think of you and Marcel Duchamp playing chess together because here…

Mr. CAGE: Well we actually didn’t play much.

GROSS: You didn’t play?

Mr. CAGE: No. No.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

Mr. CAGE: I played with Teeny Duchamp, his wife and he would criticize our game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: And he said to me once, he said, don’t you ever want to win?

GROSS: Did you play to win when you played chess?

Mr. CAGE: I didn’t then. I played chess in order to be with him. I wanted to be with him as much as possible. Now that he’s dead, my game has improved.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you talk much during those chess games with Teeny, talk with Duchamp?

Mr. CAGE: No, I had a kind of confidence that if I was just near Duchamp that that would be enough, that I didn’t have to ask him questions or converse. Once I remember he said let’s sit down and have a conversation. We sat down. I don’t remember what we talked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was that…

Mr. CAGE: I just liked being with him.

GROSS: Was that so, that being with him and not talking got for you some of what you wanted to be around him for?

Mr. CAGE: Yes, I think his presence, his being, was both question and answer, hmm?

Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham Fresh Air 073109 | Listen to Interview | Read Full Transcript

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2 Responses to Playing by Ear: John Cage & Marcel Duchamp

  1. Narjara says:

    I think this post was fantastic, I was looking for Erich Auercbach information, in order to prepare a tutoring wich subject is the concept of “mimeses” and I felt in this blog. Cage is simply fantastic in his thoughs. He was so deeply envolved with his own “tao” that everything he said seems to conect us immediately to our “tao”, I fell like meditating when I listen to Cage, or singing, or being in his presence.

    Thank you for the post.

    I’ll keep my ears turned on.


  2. Narjara says:

    sorry for my bad english, I’m brazilian…

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