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Posts Tagged ‘John Cage’

Flowers for Hitler

October 19, 2016 | by

Valais, Switzerland, as depicted in the University of the New World’s Winter 1971–72 General Bulletin.

In 1973, I took a brief sabbatical from college to study in Switzerland at the University of the New World. I still have the small red course catalog somewhere. It was a school started by visionary hustler Al de Grazia, who had been a professor at Brown and … well, you should see what they offered: a faculty that included Allen Ginsberg, John Fahey, Ornette Coleman, Robert Motherwell, Immanuel Velikovsky, John Cage, Ram Dass, twenty-four-hour music rooms/art studios/libraries. There were stalls set up on the quad promoting it.

The university was situated in a tiny canton just outside Sion. The university was actually situated somewhere deep in the recesses of Professor DeGrazia’s mind. There was no university. It was, to be charitable, a work in progress. There were no libraries or music studios or art studios. There were no classrooms. There were no dormitories. There were no teachers. There were only a handful of students—mostly from Antioch—and we were all housed in rooms in a nearby ski lodge. From this distance I can’t tell whether it was a scam or a pipe dream. I had to humbly ask to be readmitted to Brown, and Dean Hazeltine was sympathetic but let me dangle in the wind for a few weeks just … well, just to give me time to reflect. 

It turned out to be an interesting time. Read More »

Here’s to Hearing the Hum, and Other News

April 11, 2016 | by

A visualization of the Hum made by Louviere+Vanessa, who broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer then print them onto handmade Japanese kozo paper Dibond-primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. Photo via New Republic.

  • Though his criticism can be acid, and though it sometimes deploys words like gassy, Michael Hofmann isn’t “a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants,” experts say: “As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge. In smooth RP tones that belie his German parentage, he explains that none of his hatchet jobs were written out of personal animosity … ‘I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,’ he says. ‘There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.’ ”
  • Tinnitus is more than a condition. It’s a worldview. Or so it is if you’re among the lucky 2 percent of the population who can hear the Hum, widely reported as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors.” Colin Dickey looked into it: “Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus … It’s important to remember that there’s so much we still don’t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans—indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as nonlethal weapons … Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we’ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don’t more of us hear it?”
  • There’s an argument to be made that any and all instances of the Hum are in fact to be pinned on Tony Conrad, the experimental filmmaker and drone-music progenitor, who died last week at seventy-six: “After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed seemingly improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for what might have felt like hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted. ‘It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,’ Mr. Conrad said … ‘Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.’ ”
  • For aesthetes, the mug shot provides a great reason to avoid a life of crime—it’s so unforgiving, so permanent. A new exhibition at the Met, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” looks at its history: “In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths … If one measure of a photograph’s power is the extent to which it inspires us to fill in the circumstances around it, then the mug shot of a 1930s Baltimore shoplifter is a small masterpiece of portraitist art. A woman in her late forties, with whitening blonde hair, turns slightly away from the police photographer’s camera with a mix of melancholia and trapped defiance. The flesh around her left eye is badly bruised, a messy black puddle that spills along her cheek and temple. Who slugged her—the department store security guard, the arresting cop, the shopkeeper himself, or an intimate friend? Her lips are thin and subtly crooked, her jawline is just beginning to sag. The life before (and after) the picture rushes in on you in an imagined story of filled-in time.”
  • Violette Leduc was a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir, and yet she seldom appears on syllabi—why? “A journey through Leduc’s rejections, documented in her autobiographies La bâtarde (1964) and Mad in Pursuit (1970), lay bare the insidious gatekeeping that money and masculinity exert on literary inclusion, then and now. Leduc was born poor and illegitimate; her mother is the help, her father is the heir and she, the child of their furtive union, is unwanted … De Beauvoir spent her time earning the title ‘intellectual.’ Her story is one of early erudition, acing exams, stunning philosophical acuity and a romantic (if also conveniently strategic) alliance with Sartre. In Leduc, she sees the authenticity that she theorizes, and in playing midwife to her self-exposition she seeks the vindication of her philosophy. In existentialism, we are all free to choose, exercise our radical free will; the constraints of past experience can be shaken off, truth told and freedom achieved. Leduc’s life, told in her writing, has to be evidence of the truth of this. De Beauvoir’s feminism, unleavened by any literal struggles with the whims of men, needs Leduc’s literary liberation to prove its practical application.”

Staff Picks: Back Waiters, Blackouts, Bulletin Boards

March 18, 2016 | by

From the cover of Sweetbitter, out in May

In its first chapter alone, Jean Stein’s West of Eden: An American Place sees a fortune made and squandered, a dubious murder-suicide, a media blackout, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money, and a death by battery acid. And this isn’t fiction—it’s an oral history of Los Angeles, full of myth and rancor and especially desolation. Focusing on just five addresses, including the Dohenys’ fabled Greystone Mansion and Jack Warner’s Beverly Hills monstrosity, Stein excavates an LA counternarrative that’s been buried for decades in the city’s foundations, obscured by those who insist on marketing the place as paradise. The Los Angeles that emerges here is anything but a dream factory—its denizens are so felled by corruption and hubris that their lives take on the dimensions of Greek tragedy. West of Eden is a stunning accomplishment. Strange that it comes at roughly the same moment as the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!, which tells, beneath its frothy surface, another sad story of old Hollywood’s bitter power-brokers. —Dan Piepenbring

“We are getting / rid of ownership, substituting use. / Beginning with ideas. Which ones can we / take? Which ones can we give?” I read these sentences a half dozen times, stopping after each read to consider a new meaning that appeared before me, like an ever-expanding horizon. In fact, most sentences in John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) took several readings to get through. But these fragments of opinions and problems, worries and joys are meant to be meditative, and working through them recalibrates the reader’s perspective. Shifts between typefaces, indentations, and colors make a collage of the text, and there is little sense of where one entry ends and the next begins, which produces wonderfully unexpected juxtapositions and startles to attention odd anecdotes like this one: “In the lobby after La / Monte Young’s music stopped, / Geldzahler said: It’s like being in a / womb; now that I’m out, I want to get / back in. I felt differently and so did / Jasper Johns: We were relieved to be / released.” And to think that it’s really all just words arranged on a page. But, as Cage points out, “If we could change our language, / that’s to say the way we think, / we’d probably be able to swing the / revolution.”  —Nicole Rudick Read More »

The Beginning of Granary Books: An Interview with Steve Clay

February 1, 2016 | by

A page from John Cage’s Nods, published by Granary Books in 1991.

Last September, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library opened “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books,” an exhibition celebrating Columbia’s purchase of the Granary Books archive. “It’s difficult to fully describe the range and impact of Steve Clay’s Granary Books,” wrote Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. “Beginning in 1985 he has concocted a mix of poets, artists, printers and craftspeople whose work defines an era and fundamentally shapes our understanding of the artists’ book.”

Granary Books began in Minneapolis, but when Clay first visited New York in 1986, he was quick to see an opportunity. “I came to do a one-week summer class in Columbia’s Rare Book School,” he remembered when we spoke in his Manhattan loft, “my first time in New York. Just coming to the city, getting off the bus at Port Authority, that was it.” Three years later, Clay arrived in New York to stay. After looking for a space on the Lower East Side and Soho to start a bookstore, he joined forces with the poet and bookseller David Abel. I asked him to talk about those first years of Granary Books.

We found 636 Broadway, doing it together with no formal plan. On the tenth floor you could display books, artist’s books, that you couldn’t on the ground floor. I lived there on the couch for months, took showers at David’s on Thompson Street. Milk carton on the window ledge. No kitchen. David knew a lot of people, perfect for a shy guy like me. Dick Higgins of Something Else Press came into the store and so did the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who became and remains essential to Granary. We put on a retrospective show of Something Else Books. Higgins gave me great advice on how to deal with the projects people who came to the store suggested—You’re going to have to find a really nice way to say no.Read More »

The Afterlife of the Voice: An Interview with Peter Gizzi

March 16, 2015 | by


Last year saw the publication of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987–2011, a significant retrospective of the work of poet Peter Gizzi. Gizzi—who also has three poems in the latest issue of The Paris Reviewhimself selected and arranged In Defense, which not only samples nearly twenty-five years of his poems but finds a new order and a new context for them—both for Gizzi and for his readers. The titles of his earlier books provided points of location and navigation. His first collection, Periplum (1992), takes its title from an Ezra Pound line about a journey, and the notion of the poem as a journey is something Gizzi has carried throughout his career. The Outernationale (2007), his fifth collection, gives a sense of the landscape these journeys cross—at once internal and external, subjective and universal. In Defense of Nothing, which will be published in paperback in April, was recently named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

I spoke with Gizzi by phone about assembling the volume. At the beginning of our conversation, I told him that we had met once years before, at an event, and that after our conversation he had given me the copy of Artificial Heart from which he had been reading. He couldn’t remember our interaction, but for him, that individual connection—between the poet and the poem, the poem and the reader, and the reader and the poet—is the heart of the poetic experience.

What does it mean to assemble a selected-poems volume, and how does a project like this begin?

It began as a conversation with my editor of fifteen or more years, and now my dear friend, Suzanna Tamminen. She has a good sense of my work and she knew there had been a lot of changes in my life, some difficult, and that I was taking stock, as it were. So she proposed that I do a selected poems.

Did you learn more about what that means over the course of the project?

I’ve discovered there are several versions of Peter Gizzi. Over the course of this book there is the Peter Gizzi who lived in New York City, the Peter Gizzi who lived in the Berkshires, in Providence, in California, in Amherst, and so on. I learned that twenty-five years of life accumulate, as does one’s work. And yet I found that there is an uncanny consistency to the variety and reality of address in my poetry in whatever form I happen to be working—small lyric, series, long form, prose poem. It was illuminating to me simply because my inner life can be a turbulent experience, and I live one poem at a time and one book at a time. Read More »

A Conversation About John Cage and William Gedney’s Iris Garden

May 27, 2014 | by


Iris Garden is a 2013 book that combines John Cage’s stories with William Gedney’s photographs—including several of the composer himself—with an ingenious design evoking Cage’s affinity for chance. The stories and photographs were selected by the photographer Alec Soth: twenty-two of the stories are from Cage’s series Indeterminacy, conceived in 1959, which featured stories of varying length, each intended to be read aloud over the course of one minute; and forty-four photographs from the William Gedney archive, shot from the 1950s to 1989 and housed at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.

Leanne Shapton and Jason Fulford are the founders of J&L Books.

Leanne Shapton: As soon as I started flipping through this book, I thought, I’m so happy art publishing allows for this. It’s a strong book, but it’s quiet and subtle, and the design would never make any marketing department happy.

Jason Fulford: The book comes completely apart, literally. Even the endpapers slide out, and the cover can be unfolded—so you can read it in any order. It reminds me of how my Hasselblad disassembles. You can take all of the pieces apart and lay them out on a table. 

LS: I went to the back of the book and read Cage’s statement, which helped me “read” the book. He wrote: “My intention in putting these stories together in an unplanned way is to suggest that all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment and by extension, beings—are related, and this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.”

JF: Cage stays with you your whole life. You keep coming back to things you loved about him when you were fifteen, and they still relate to you at forty. Actually, I guess I probably learned about him in my twenties. Did I ever tell you a story about Lee Elickson, the American filmmaker who lives in Amsterdam? When he was fourteen or fifteen, he had a chance to meet John Cage. He brought an empty sheet of music and asked Cage to sign it. Cage asked, What are you gonna do with it? So Lee had to think fast and said, After you sign it I’ll put it on the forest floor for a week, let nature make its marks, and then have it performed by an orchestra. So Cage was like: Oh, okay. Lee still has the paper, but he hasn’t found an orchestra yet to perform it. Read More »