Conversations with J.C.
Sometimes we would just sit on the deck of his small house on the side of a hill and let the country take over. I was still in high school; he was old enough to be my father. I didn’t know that people could just sit quietly together until I met him. I couldn’t help but break the silence and he was always patient with responses. A few moments of thought, a smile breaking out that seemed to spread through his entire body, then an answer. Because it was John Cage, one could never be sure where the words came from, but they were never wasted.
“John,” I would say, knowing that he often used birds singing as a way to understand his musical philosophy, “the birds seem to have their own languages. Do you think they understand each other?”
“They’re all saying the same thing: “I’m hungry and this is my territory.”
A hummingbird buzzes toward then quickly away from my orange/red sweatshirt.
“Do you think that the hummingbird just ate the mosquito that just sipped my blood?”
He often just returned to some other conversation, perhaps one with someone else, or maybe just in his mind, like his conversations with DuChamp.
“You know, Shalom,” he said, “nature doesn’t mind being the subject of art, but it doesn’t care about art at all.”
“The mosquito has no motive other than instinct?”
“The mosquito is just waiting to be eaten by a bird. It’s the wheel of dharma, the interconnectedness of all things. Some part of you then becomes part of the bird who is chirping for more.”
There is a thick boundary of brush and iron wood trees separating John’s house from the forest.
“So, are you saying we should just sit and wait?”
He nods. This is strange since I know that John always seems to be doing something. He is often creating work, even while talking with guests. He’d given me lots of books to read and things to think about, like how to accept ambiguity and randomness without blaming the universe or playing the victim; how to be detached and attached at the same time; how to sit and do nothing and something at the same time.
“I grew up believing that certain people could speak to animals. St. Francis, the Baal Shem Tov, King Solomon, maybe Thoreau.”
“Observe their songs and behavior carefully enough and you’ll know how to communicate,” John responds. “I make recordings of the birds in the morning and the following day play the tape back to them. Each day I add another layer of sound. The songs accumulate until the air seems thick with birds, then suddenly, the birds disappear and only the sound remains.”
“What if it’s raining,” I ask, desperate to say something.
“I have other loops for the rain. David (Tudor) likes playing the rain back through his sound boxes. He can make a drip sound like a waterfall, a trickle like a raging river.”
“John, that’s kind of scary, that electronics can change the sounds of things so easily. What if it’s voices that are being manipulated? I’m worried about the way things are going. What does nature want from us? Do birds care about our chatter? Are mosquitoes feasting on us a kind of communion to them, like Catholics on Sunday? If there’s meaning to all the sounds, what happens to chance?”
Smiling, John answers, “See the yellow bird camouflaged in the tree?” He waits.
Frowning, I ask, “is that a Zen answer?”
He continues, “When the bird’s appetite is fed and the singing decreases, we can hear the river.”
I try to count the syllables to see if it’s a haiku. I’ve studied water patterns. “But there’s nothing left to chance in a river, water always finds its flow.”
John stands up, “Let’s go fishing.”
“In our minds or the river?”
“Grab the poles and let’s see if we can subtract a fish from it.”
A short car ride, putting on gear, gathering the tools. I watch John take forever to pick the perfect fly and attach it to a hook. The sounds of the river predominates the senses. Like a student reporting to the teacher I say, “I can hear nuances when the water hits a rock or trickles through some leaves.”
John nods. Like most things he does, it’s more about the process than the result. He is indifferent about catching a fish or finding the perfect mushrooms that’s why he always catches the fish and uncovers the treasure. I watch him elegantly, gently flicker his line on the surface of a pool where trout are known to rest during their journies and in awe, as one takes the bait, as if in honor of the fisher. He brings it in, I pry it off the hook and it dies in my hands. “Clean it,” he says, “and I’ll make us a nice breakfast.”
After I scale and gut the fish on a flat rock, we head back to the car. Even though I didn’t have the chance to fish, I’m feeling bold. “I want to change the world, somehow.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“That’s the question and I accept your answer.”
“What’s the question?”
“The question itself is the question.”
I slap my hands three times on the steering wheel.
John pretends to pray: “Oh, heaven. Why have you not answered me?”
“I forgot where we are going?”
“No hurry. Let’s just wander. I don’t know what I want. That’s why my work is so structured- order and form.”
“But life is chaotic,” I say, speaking beyond my years. “One never knows what will come next.”
“That’s why sitting quietly is best.”
“Well, we’re sitting in the car even though we’re moving.”
“Can’t help but kill some bugs along the way. I don’t want to think about it.”
We both notice some vultures picking at a carcass on the roadside. They scatter as the car approaches and roars past.
John is still smiling. “The dead animal didn’t seek meaning during its life. The vultures don’t stop to ask themselves what they are doing. Only we humans make judgments.”
I slap the steering wheel three times and we laugh as if someone told a strange but hilarious joke.
We stop at Shop Rite for a few breakfast items. “John, did that animal back there die a natural death?” I ask as we walk past the bacon and meat.
“It was its time to die. The death doesn’t have to have meaning or symbolism. We don’t even know what’s natural anymore.”
As we inspect the mushrooms: “Buddha died from eating a poison mushroom.”
“That was also a natural death. That’s one of the functions of the mushroom- to get rid of old rubbish.”
I’m sure John was glad when he didn’t die of mushroom poisoning.
“That sounds like religious symbolism to me,” I add, trying to catch John in a contradiction.
“No, this is very real. Almost everything in here is a kind of mushroom rotting everything around it. All this packaging is a mirror of our endless desire.”
“You are what you eat?”
“That and more. We are what we surround ourselves with.”
“From a distance, there seems to be choice, up close, one realizes its a few brands with subtle differences.” I realized that conformity, or the tendency toward it, comes from how we get our food and other stuff. Inspired by China, for a while John only wore denim, as a plain American uniform for a classless society.
“Look at these apples.” John pointed at a bin. He grew up in apple country in state of Washington. “I never saw two apples that looked alike when I was growing up.”
“Why is the Buddha almost always shown as heavy?” I say steering us from food to diet as we peek at the cereals. “Weren’t most of the people of his time thin?”
“When was the last time you went to church?”
“You know I’m Jewish.”
“That’s why I’m wondering. If you want to know what’s going on in the US, go to church. You can bring Buddha with you.”
“So there’s some connection between food, weight, and religion.”
“Exactly. Now you’re getting it.”
Many years later on 6th Ave., I’d just left my therapist, and saw John coming out of Balducci’s with two bags. We hugged and I helped him carry the bags home. Sometimes I worried he wouldn’t remember me. He did and asked about everyone in the family by name.
He invited me up for some tea and biscuits. I had nothing better to do so I followed him into his building. The room felt sparse, but very much a city apartment, with drawings and objects by his friends and admirers. He pointed out the two headed Buddha I made of him at Cal Arts, where I replaced the Buddha’s head with his. “I can’t believe you kept this.”
“I’ve had it out most of the time since you sent it to me.”
“Do you remember when my friend Peter Kirby and I met you and Merce in Pasadena and we showed you video.”
“What happened to you? Where did you disappear to?”
“I was around, hiding in plain sight. I saw Paik all the time and his circle, but after awhile I lost track of you. You seemed to become such a big shot. A legend in your own time.”
He had aged and whatever was ailing him had taken its toll. Always gaunt, he was now almost skeletal, but still smiling.
While we dunked some tasteless sugar free biscuits into unsweeted tea, he remembered Sari Dienes, my father, and others who had passed away. “My time is coming, too, soon.” I was impressed that even delivering this heavy statement, he found a way to play with words.
I was speechless so I channeled my Romanian mother. “John, don’t say it or think it, no matter what you might have been told or even what you feel. You have time.”
“The conductor has put down his baton and the encore is over.”
“I never thought you’d be so morbid. Is this what you’re thinking about?”
“Merce is still so healthy. He’s still doing a solo. We’ve been together since we were boys. I left my wife for him. His eyes are still in the sky, mine are dragging along the pavement.”
“You used to say that that’s why you were always finding things. You were always hunting for the something, even if you didn’t know what it was.” I wanted to say more, but stopped. I couldn’t gauge what my words were triggering in him.
“I hope Bob doesn’t dance on my grave. He’s a terrible dancer. If someone has to do it, and it’s not Merce, I hope its Caroline, nice and soft.”
I was feeling uncomfortable with the conversation and looked at my watch. He seemed tough and stoic. I knew nothing about his health and wouldn’t ask. If he wanted to be brave I’d be brave as well, “I thought you were going to be cremated and have your ashes spread over some rivers back west where you came from.”
“Yes, that’s right. Return to the water rushing to its source.”
The silence had become uncomfortable and full of a sadness that I didn’t remember in John. He lifted his delicate teacup. “You know I’ve been saying for so long and maybe I understood it at one time, but forgot: this is the masterpiece, the water, the flavor, the container.”
One of the Zen books John gave me ended with a Japanese monk saying “now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as ever.”
This last encounter with John was painful. I wanted to thank him again for helping me get into College, all of the inspiration and influence I’d gleaned from him, but it wasn’t the time or place. John was in the present, however painful that might be. I wanted to say that he’d defied the critics and triumphed over his enemies and detractors, but recognized that he was busy being heroic now with enemies he couldn’t see or hear without machines, or fight with mere words and sounds.
I remember visiting John at the Gate Hill Co-op during a brief stay during College. We walked on the path to the waterfall and came to a small clearing with an overwhelming sweet aroma. He identified the budding flower by its Latin name and put his ear next to it as though listening to a whisper. I sneezed. We walked on and he quoted Meister Eckhart: “Walk on, not wondering if I am doing right or doing something wrong.”
After awhile, I left. We hugged at the door and he kissed me on both cheeks.
A few months later, I read that he’d died.
John taught me that an artist’s job is to observe and explore nature then experiment with it in some way that amplifies its presence. He seemed to be consumed with making the silent audible. From the quiet between notes in his piano pieces to the microphones over plants and flowers, he wanted us to hear the invisible, the background, the moments between sounds. I think he was drawn to electronics because it supplied a way to listen to the ethereal. If a dancer is sculpting space through motion, the electronic composer is sculpting the wave-forms and frequencies of the atmosphere we live in. Just as Cezanne saw the shapes of an object; John heard the essence of sounds, even the ones too quiet to hear.