John Cage was an American composer, Zen buddhist, and mushroom eater. He was also a writer: this site is about his paragraph-long stories – anecdotes, thoughts, and jokes. As a lecture, or as an accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham dance, he would read them aloud, speaking quickly or slowly as the stories required so that one story was read per minute.
This site archives 190 of those stories. Each story is spaced out, as if it were being read aloud, to fill a fixed area. If you like, you can also read them aloud at a rate of one a minute.
You can read a random story (reload or select the asterisk for another), pick one by number using the form on the main page, or choose one through one of the three indices. The index of names lists people and beings and the stories they are mentioned in, and the index of first lines lists the first line of each story alphabetically. The stories often end in punch lines; the index of last lines (my favorite) lists these alphabetically.
The stories are taken from two of Cage’s books, Silence and A Year from Monday, and from the Folkways recording of him reading 90 of them aloud as David Tudor plays piano (among other things). The numbering is arbitrary, except that the first 90 stories are those on the Folkways recording in order. Stories in the main series from 1 through 180 were explicitly marked by Cage via inclusion on the recording or typographical presentation in the books. Other text excerpts that read like stories are included in a secondary series, from X1 through X10. Cage probably thought of some these excerpts as stories in their own right; in Silence, he writes that “Some stories have been omitted [from special typographical presentation] since their substance forms part of other writings in this volume”, and several of the secondary stories appear in a context such as “I have not yet told any stories and yet when I give a talk I generally do” (“Composition As Process”, in Silence, p.32). Nevertheless, we do not know whether Cage believed these secondary stories could stand on their own. The list of secondary stories is not complete: although the crystal clear style of the stories presented here seems to correspond to the late fifties and early sixties, similar short anecdotes are present even in much later texts.
Cage sometimes links stories together, either tightly or loosely. On the story pages, these links are represented as ¶ and § signs. A ¶ mark is a link to the next (or previous) paragraph in this story, while a § mark is a link to the next (or previous) story in a more loosely linked chain. Links to a previous story appear just before the story text; links to the next story appear just after it.
Reloading a random story will get you a new random story, but reloading a specific story (if you followed a ¶ or § link, for example) will get you the same story again. The * mark always links to a random story. Each story’s number is a link to a bookmarkable version of that story.
Each story page lists its sources: the Folkways recording, Silence, or A Year from Monday. Most of the stories on the Folkways recording were later printed in one of the books, sometimes with revisions. Cage updated the text because time had passed (in story 26, “four years ago” became “four years ago or maybe five”, and in story 35, “just the other day” became “one day”); because he remembered something (in story 28, “his first name escapes me” became “his first name is Eryo” on the recording); to correct errors of fact (in story 61, “mother-in-law” became “stepmother”); or to make tweaks for conciseness (in story 60, “very possibly seriously poisonous” became “possibly seriously poisonous”). In one case, the recording is more expansive than the printed text: the second paragraph in story 28 is not in A Year from Monday. This archive follows whichever version I preferred, but the Sources section for each story provides links to its variants, if any.
A former roommate and her boyfriend enjoyed European art flicks, preferably Scandinavian and depressing. (“We’re beginning to understand Swedish,” they said.) One evening the boyfriend rented an episode of the British series 4merican Composers – Peter Greenaway’s hour on John Cage – and we watched it together. It has four or five of the Indeterminacy stories, spoken by Cage from his Folkways recording, and the hour ends with story 23:
“ ‘...now and then, I’ll just keep my trap shut.’ He said, ‘That’ll be a relief.’ ”My socks were charmed off. All I had really known of Cage was 4'33" (of course), and one compact disc, Between the Keys: Microtonal Masterpieces of the 20th Century, which has the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. I didn’t remember the Sonatas and Interludes, though; what I remembered was Harry Partch’s Yankee Doodle Fantasy, a schizophrenic Yankee Doodle for soprano, flexatone, and ensemble tuned to Partch’s 43-tone scale:
Daggers, pistols, swords and gunsI don’t listen to this very often.
A couple weeks later, I bought Silence and read it all – even 45' for a Speaker, which felt more like a quest or a trial to be endured than a lecture to be read. Three things stuck like butterflies: Where are we going? and What are we doing?; the Music Lovers’ Field Companion; and Indeterminacy, Indeterminacy being perhaps the purest. It was his love for life, simple and unconditional, that that won me over. Music Lovers’ Field Companion is very succinct: Stockhausen is interested in “juggling,” Pierre Boulez italics!; John Cage is interested in living.
In the summer I had to complete and write up my Masters’ thesis work in computer science, so I spent a lot of time looking for other things to do. Gifsicle took up the month of June, more or less, and I started to work in earnest in July. By late July, I needed another break, and eventually read A Year from Monday. Things converged: the minute-long stories, typography, imageless Web page design, the need to waste time on the computer so I could pretend I was close to doing work.
I typed in all the stories I could find in print, both in Silence and in A Year from Monday, spacing them according to sense, as if I were reading them out loud. A script prints out stories, spacing them so as to fill a given rectangle (just as Cage, when reading, varies his reading speed so as to fill exactly one minute). There are three indices. I dreamed of an “Indeterminacy of the day.” Unfortunately, August started and I had to work. In the fall, after turning in the thesis on the last day possible at 3:30 pm to two unhappy women, I checked the stories against the Indeterminacy recording. It’s winter again now, and I’m writing this note.
Now I wonder whether the stories are meant for the Web. It’s addictive to click and get a new story, then to click again, and again, and again. Repeats are disappointments. The luxury of time is gone – it doesn’t take a minute to read a story. Their fragility is broken now that they are all in one place and indexed. How can you type Cage’s deliciously evil faux-Japanese accent from story 78?
Well, it doesn’t matter. Here they are.
I. from the Folkways record, Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music
For over 20 years I have been giving lectures. Many of them have been unusual as lectures, simply because I employed in them means of writing analogous to my composing means in the field of music. My intention was, often, to say what I had to say in a way which would exemplify it, which would, conceivably, permit a listener to experience it rather than to just hear about it. This means, essentially, that, being, as I am, engaged in a variety of activities, I attempt to introduce into each one of them aspects conventionally limited to the others. So it was that I gave about 1949 my Lecture on Nothing at the Artists’ Club on 8th Street in New York City (the artists’ club started by Robert Motherwell that predated the popular one associated with Philip Pavia, Bill de Kooning, et. al.). This Lecture on Nothing (recently published in Incontri Musicali*) was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions (Sonatas and Interludes, Three Dances, etc.). One of the structural divisions was a repetition of a single page in which the refrain occurred “if anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep” some 14 times. Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, “John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.” She then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave 5 prepared answers regardless of the questions. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen. At Black Mountain College, I organized an event which involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, the pianism of David Tudor, together with my lecture which ends: “A piece of string, a sunset, each acts.”** The audience was seated in the center of all this activity, and, later that summer, vacationing in New England, I visited America’s first Synagogue to discover that the congregation was there seated precisely the way I had arranged the audience at Black Mountain. As I look back, I realize that this concern with poetry was early with me. At Pomona College, in response to questions about the Lake Poets, I wrote in the manner of Gertrude Stein, irrelevantly and repetitiously. I got an A. The second time I did it I was failed. And between the Lecture on Nothing and the one here recorded, there are at least a dozen which are unconventionally written, notably the London Lecture*** which was written by means of chance operations, and the Rutgers Lecture**** which is largely a series of questions left unanswered. When M. C. Richards asked me why I didn’t one day give a conventional informative lecture (adding that that would be the most shocking thing I could do), I said, “I don’t give these lectures to surprise people, but out of the need for poetry.” As I see it, poetry is not prose, simply because poetry is one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity, but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words. Thus, traditionally, information, no matter how stuffy (e.g. the sutras and shastras of India), was conventionally transmitted by poetry. It was easier “to get” that way. (Karl Shapiro may have been thinking along those lines when he wrote his Essay on Rime in poetry.)
Late in September in 1958 I was in Stockholm in a hotel. I set about writing the present lecture which I was obliged to give a week later at the Brussels Fair.***** I recalled a remark made years before by David Tudor that I should make a talk that was nothing but stories. The idea was appealing when he gave it to me but I had never acted on it. A few weeks before, in Darmstadt, Karlheinz Stockhausen has said, “I’ll publish your Brussels talk in Die Reihe.” I replied, “You’d better wait and see what it is I write.” He said, “No matter what it is, I’ll publish it.”
When the talk was given in Brussels, it was just the first 30 stories and without musical accompaniment. A recital by David Tudor and myself of music for two pianos followed the lecture. The title was Indeterminacy: new aspect of form in instrumental and electronic music. Karlheinz Stockhausen was in the audience. Later when I was in Milan making the Fontana Mix at the Studio di Fonologia, I received a letter from Karlheinz Stockhausen asking for a text for Die Reihe. I sent the Brussels talk. He published it.
When I got back to America in March 1959, there was a letter from Jack Arends asking me to lecture at Columbia Teachers College. I decided to write 60 more stories and to ask David Tudor to make a 90-minute accompaniment for the occasion. He did this using material from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, employing several radios for noise elements.******
A few days after the talk was given at Columbia, I went to see Emile de Antonio. I gave him a copy of the stories. After he read them, he telephoned to say they should be published. I mentioned this to David Tudor. He said, “It should be published as a record.” The next day I got a letter from Roger Maren. He wrote to say that he had just seen Moe Asch who was interested in recording something of mine. I telephoned Moe Asch and we made an appointment. The day was set for the recording so that it could be made before David Tudor returned to Europe. David Tudor said, “Instead of radios, I’d like to use tracks from the Fontana Mix.” I said, “Fine.”
It took about an hour and a half for the recording engineer, Mel Kaiser, to set up the studio. Finally he asked me to speak a little to get the level. Then he did the same for the piano, the whistles, the tape machines and the amplified slinky. Then he said, “We’re ready.” However, I no sooner started speaking than he stopped me. I said, “What’s the trouble?” He said, “You shouldn’t pause the way you do between words; you should just speak naturally.” I said, “But this is what I have to do. I tell one story a minute, and, when it’s a short one, I have to spread it out. Later on when I come to a long one, I have to speak as rapidly as I can.” He said, “O.K. I’ll just keep my mouth shut.” After the first side was made, he said, “I’m beginning to get the idea. I think we’d better do it over again.” What had happened was that he had tried to get some kind of balance, rather than just letting the loud sounds occasionally drown out my voice. I explained that a comparable visual experience is that of seeing someone across the street, and then not being able to see him because a truck passes between. We then made the first record over again, and continued with the other three. At the end of the session, David Tudor said, “You may want to cut that last sound I made at the piano. It’s an ugly one.” Editing, which took place the following week, was minimal. I lowered the level on my voice at one point near the end, and took out an echo that had developed on the tape before one sound somewhere in the middle. I didn’t cut out the last sound as David Tudor had suggested, for to my ear it sounded perfectly acceptable. All this time, Moe Asch was out of town. When he returned, he listened to the record, and then called to say he was delighted. I said, “I’m glad you are, because I am too.” He said, “When you write the album notes, write as much as you wish. Don’t stint. And technical information too.”
Most of the stories are things that happened that stuck in my mind. Others I read in books and remembered, those, for instance, from Kwang-tse and Sri Ramakrishna. The 2nd, 15th, 16th, 46th and 75th stories are to be found somewhere in the literature surrounding Zen. The statement, “Split the stick and there is Jesus,” (19th story) comes, perhaps, from Huxley’s Perrenial Philosophy, which I read when it first came out. The 29th story I read in one of Martin Buber’s books. The 61st story is told in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with 1000 Faces. Xenia (stories 72 and 73) is Xenia Cage. She was Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff whom I married in 1935; we were divorced 10 years later. Malcolm Roberts first delivered the lecture on Japanese Poetry (78th story). We (he, Xenia and I) were sitting, quite drunk, in a Seattle gutter; it was a full moon. He claimed that it had been given at the University of Washington by a Japanese scholar. Virgil Thomson told me the story about Chabrier, “the dirty” composer (story number 58). Henry Cowell told me the story about the Eskimo lady (the 25th). Merce Cunningham picked up, I don’t know where, the one about the Japanese Abbott (the 13th). It may be discovered that I remembered some of these stories inaccurately. However, this is the way they are now as far as I am concerned.
The continuity of the 90 stories was not planned. I simply made a list of all the stories I could think of and checked them off as I wrote them. Some that I remembered I was not able to write to my satisfaction, and so they do not appear. Whenever I have given the talk, someone comes up afterwards and insists that the continuity was a planned one, in spite of the ideas that are expressed regarding purposelessness, emptiness, chaos, etc. One lady, at Columbia, asked, during the discussion following the talk, “What, then, is your final goal?” I remarked that her question was that of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to applicants for fellowships, and that it had irritated artists for decades. Then I said that I did not see that we were going to a goal, but that we were living in process, and that that process is external. My intention in putting 90 stories together in an unplanned way is to suggest that all things, sounds, stories (and, by extension, beings) are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not over-simplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.
David Tudor plays material from his part of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58), using tracks from the Fontana Mix (1958-59) as noise elements where these are notated in the Concert. (Manuscript pages of the Concert, together with notes and analytical statements, appear in the recording of my 25-year Retrospective Concert at Town Hall, issued by George Avakian, 10 W. 33rd St., N.Y.C. Other manuscript pages, originals, are available at the Stable Gallery, 58th and 7th Ave., N.Y.C.*******) David Tudor was free to make any continuity of his choice. There was no rehearsal beforehand involving both the reading and the music, for in all my recent music (since Music for Piano) there are parts but no score. Each one of us rehearsed alone and employed a stopwatch during the actual recording session. Each did what he had to do, bringing about a situation which neither had foreseen.
The manuscript of the Fontana Mix is on transparent plastics which may be superimposed in any number of ways. There are ten sheets having points, and ten having differentiated curved lines. There is also a single straight line and a graph having 100 units horizontally and 20 vertically. By placing one of the sheets with points over one with curves and then superimposing the graph, it is possible to connect a point within the graph with one outside by means of the single straight line, and to make measurements which define the production of the sound in a studio for making tape music, specifically, the choice of sound source, alterations of frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration, mixtures, loops, and splicing. More detailed information regarding my methods of producing tape music with special reference to the Williams Mix appear in the Avakian album referred to above.
Critics frequently cry, “Dada,” after attending one of my concerts or hearing a lecture. Others bemoan the interest in Zen. One of the liveliest lectures I ever heard was given by Nancy Wilson Ross about 1937 at the Cornish School in Seattle. It was called Zen Buddhism and Dada. There is a connection possible between the two, but neither Dada nor Zen are fixed tangibles. They change; and in quite different ways in different places and times, they invigorate actions. What was Dada in the twenties is now, with the exception of the work of Marcel Duchamp, just art. What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have. Recently, I am told, Alan Watts has questioned the relation between my work and Zen. I mention this in order to free Zen from any responsibility for my actions. I shall continue making them, however. I often point out that Dada nowadays has a space, an emptiness, in it that Dada formerly lacked. What, nowadays, New York-mid 20th century, is Zen?
II. from Silence, pages 260-1
Late in September of 1958, in a hotel in Stockholm, I set about writing this lecture for delivery a week later at the Brussels Fair. I recalled a remark made years earlier by David Tudor that I should give a talk that was nothing but stories. The idea was appealing, but I had never acted on it, and I decided to do so now.
When the talk was given in Brussels, it consisted of only thirty stories, without musical accompaniment. A recital by David Tudor and myself of music for two pianos followed the lecture. The full title was Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Karlheinz Stockhausen was in the audience. Later, when I was in Milan making the Fontana Mix at the Studio di Fonologia, I received a letter from him asking for a text that could be printed in Die Reihe No. 5. I sent the Brussels talk, and it was published.
The following spring, back in America, I delivered the talk again, at Teachers College, Columbia. For this occasion I wrote sixty more stories, and there was a musical accompaniment by David Tudor – material from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, employing several radios as noise elements. Soon thereafter these ninety stories were brought out as a Folkways recording but for this the noise elements in the Concert were tracks from the Fontana Mix.
In oral delivery of this lecture, I tell one story a minute. If it’s a short one, I have to spread it out; when I come to a long one, I have to speak as rapidly as I can. The continuity of the stories as recorded was not planned. I simply made a list of all the stories I could think of and checked them off as I wrote them. Some that I remembered I was not able to write to my satisfaction, and so they were not used. My intention in putting the stories together in an unplanned way was to suggest that all things – stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extension, beings – are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.
Since that recording, I have continued to write down stories as I have found them, so that the number is now far more than ninety. Most concern things that happened that stuck in my mind. Others I read in books and remembered – those, for instance, from Sri Ramakrishna and the literature surrounding Zen. Still others have been told me by friends – Merce Cunningham, Virgil Thomson, Betty Isaacs, and many more. Xenia, who figures in several of them, is Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, to whom I was married for some ten years.
Some stories have been omitted since their substance forms part of other writings in this volume. Many of those that remain are to be found below. Others are scattered through the book, playing the function that odd bits of information play at the ends of columns in a small-town newspaper. I suggest that they be read in the manner and in the situations that one reads newspapers – even the metropolitan ones – when he does so purposelessly: that is, jumping here and there and responding at the same time to environmental events and sounds.
III. from A Year from Monday, page 133
Since the fall of 1965, I have been using eighteen or nineteen stories (their selection varying from one performance to another) as the irrelevant accompaniment for Merce Cunningham’s cheerful dance, How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run. Sitting downstage to one side at a table with microphone, ashtray, my texts, and a bottle of wine, I tell one story a minute, letting some minutes pass with no stories in them at all. Some critics say that I steal the show. But this is not possible, for stealing is no longer something one does. Many things, wherever one is, whatever one’s doing, happen at once. They are in the air; they belong to all of us. Life is abundant. People are polyattentive. The dancers prove this: they tell me later backstage which stories they particularly enjoyed.
Most of the stories that are in this book are to be found below. (The first thirty formed the text of a lecture titled Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, which I delivered at the Brussels Fair in 1958. They were printed under that title in Die Reihe No. 5 [German edition copyright © 1959 by Universal Edition A.G., English edition copyright © 1961 by Theodore Presser Company] and are here reprinted by permission.********) Other stories appear elsewhere, giving, it is hoped, what adjacent articles in newspapers sometimes give: an occasion for changing one’s mind.
A note on permissions: I haven’t tried to get permission for the inclusion of the various Cage texts on this site. This is due to lack of time, not lack of desire. I would feel much better with permission.
The stories are stored in a text format designed to be easy to type. A Perl script parses this format and outputs HTML, spacing the story out to a fixed measure.
On these web pages, the stories and the Three Notes
are copyright © John Cage; all other text and images are copyright
© 1997-8 Eddie