(As Mr. Composerhead's Amanuensis I apologize for falling behind in my work. Here is a long delayed Mr. Ch. essay with my pictures. Comp-head doesn't DO pictures, I guess. As a lesser student of Earle Brown I had personally forgotten about the Kontarskys but what Composerhead says is very true. /David, Mr. Head's-uensis.)
Okay, so John Cage was fond of telling stories, and he told a lot of them. Much of his writing consists in anecdotes. Sort of reminds me of Earle Brown, except Earle didn't write that much. But his "teaching" consisted, for the most part, in telling stories about the Kontarsky brothers…
But I digress
There's another composer who has a blog and recently posted a little anecdote about John Cage. It's very nice. (They always are.)
An artist friend once said to me that about the worst word you could use to describe anything or anyone is "nice". He considered "nice" to be a particularly derogatory word. But in a backhanded sort of way, because it doesn't sound bad. It's how you use it. Just like "bad" actually means "good", when used in an 80s slang sort of way.
When I was a kid living in Michigan my older cousins were using "tough" to describe a particularly desirable girl. "Yeah, she's tough". I never adopted that one myself. But I think I got it.
You can make a word mean almost anything you want, just by how you use it.
I think it has been said, somewhere, by someone, "Context is everything".
When I was in college in Ohio, some of the guys were using "tits" to suggest that something was particularly cool. "Man, that's tits". I'm not sure how you would use "tits" to suggest that someone had particularly nice tits. I never adopted that term for my own vocabulary either. Although I have no problem with tits. I think they're nice.
Another friend in college was using "harmless". He would say, referring to something that had no impact at all on any level "Yeah, get harmless!!". In other words, it wasn't even interesting enough to suggest that it sucked.
It is generally understood among musicians - and especially composers - that the most damning word you can use to describe someone's new piece is "interesting".
That makes it very difficult to tell someone you found their piece interesting – when you mean it. What if you were genuinely engaged? Liked it, didn't like it. Really doesn't matter. But what if you were interested? What can you say? It was nice? Tough? Tits?
"Yeah man, those were some nice tough tits. Interesting too."
Maybe just say it was bad.
Personally, if I was interested, I would say "It was interesting – AND I MEAN IT!".
But I am not often all that interested, frankly.
So "What does any of this have to do with John Cage stories?" you may be inclined to ask, and understandably so.
[Personally, I never stand under anything I don't understand. But I digress…]
Nothing, so far. But we're getting there.
So anyway, on this other composer's blog someone left a comment to the effect that it's about time someone put together a collection of Cage stories. How nice that would be.
Well, this was in the works years ago. I don't know if it ever materialized, but I was on a list of people who were asked to tell their favorite Cage story, for some sort of compilation.
I submitted a story about when I heard Cage read the preamble to Lecture On the Weather. It was a very engaging read; he was obviously into it. When he was done, the friend I was with said "Everyone thinks he's all sweetness and light, but that man has a lot of anger".
My story was never used, and I have always suspected it's because it was not nice enough.
But here's a nice one.
Once I had a piece performed on a concert that included Cage's Freeman Etudes. After the concert I encountered Cage in a corridor, with no one else around. He said to me "Yours was my favorite piece on the concert". If I had been quicker on my feet I would have said "Mine too". But instead I said "Thank you", not nearly as interesting or fun.
I don't recall if I said anything about the Freeman Etudes. I do think they're interesting – really - but I would never go out of my way to hear them again.