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Living the New York art legacy: Merce Cunningham remembers meeting John Cage for the first time.

Merce Cunningham in conversation with Laura Kuhn, Dancers on a Plane

Merce Cunningham in conversation with Laura Kuhn, "Dancers on a Plane" Tuesday March 31. Photo: Enid Alvarez - © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, NY

I have sung the praises of the Guggenheim’s “Third Mind” show repeatedly here on A Sky filled with Shooting Stars. What I haven’t mentioned here yet is the “Third Mind Live” series that continues through April 17, though I have already written about Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson’s performances for Total Theatre in London. Last night I went to what I regard as the best event so far, Merce Cunningham demonstrating in detail how he actually uses chance procedures to choreograph. It was absolutely fascinating, and along the way he offered some wonderful insights into his relationship with his collaborator and life partner John Cage. These recollections fit perfectly with what I’m calling Living the New York art legacy. Mr Cunningham will be 90 years old on April 16, and seems to be pretty much permanently in a wheelchair these days. Anyone who remembers him as a dancer will find him terribly frail , but I have to say that his passion for his work and for the radical tradition from which it derives is quite undiminished, and it was a delight to hear him talk about how perplexing even he found his first encounter with John Cage’s ways of thinking.

“I remember two things very clearly.

“First, when I was a student at the Cornish School in Seattle, Cage came to be the accompanist for the dance classes. I had no connection with him other than through this daily work, but he asked me to play in a percussion ensemble he was forming with several of the teachers of the Cornish School. So I said, ‘But I’m not a musician,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but your rhythm is very good, and you can read music.’ (I had had piano lessons as a student.) So I undertook to join the quartet and we held rehearsals once or twice a week. After one of these rehearsals John said to one of the players, ‘You played everything absolutely perfectly. Now go a little further and make a few mistakes.’ She was shocked, though I was shocked in another way, and I thought, ‘There’s something here that I don’t understand at all, something that’s totally different from the way I’ve been brought up to expect things about artists and what they might do and might not do.’ I was fascinated.


John Cage and Merce Cunningham

John Cage and Merce Cunningham


“Then later we met again in New York. At that time one of his ways of making a living was composing music for short solos by young modern dancers. He had begun to use the prepared piano: he placed objects in the strings of a grand piano which changed the sound. Then he composed the Music of Changes using the I Ching. I thought I’d like to see whether I could do something similar and I made a solo, or a short series of movements, by tossing coins to see what would follow what. In the beginning it was a total mystery! My training had been to learn a series of movements that followed one another according to some movement logic. But doing it this way there was no logic. You had to try to figure out whether you could you do the series of movements at all: things would come up that seemed impossible. But I decided I’d try them anyway. Sometimes it would be impossible, but in the course of trying it you found out something that you didn’t know before. You lose any idea about what you like and dislike (or if you don’t you’re foolish) and you have to take it as an adventure. In a sense I’ve worked that way ever since.”

(My 2007 interview with Merce Cunningham is here.)

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