Gardening with John (2005), sound installation for small garden shed, walk-on switches, iPod, flat panel loudspeakers, and dried mushrooms. Commissioned by the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, for the show "Playing John Cage," curated by David Toop.
So much has been written about John Cage that It seems superfluous to add more to it. Yet there is hardly any occasion when I do not invoke Cage's name, either in ordinary conversation, in teaching or in my dreams. I feel modestly blessed to have known and collaborated with him; and he was just one of a number of assorted mentors I had the good fortune to know and work with: Elliott Carter, Giacinto Scelsi, Feldman, Earle Brown, Cardew, Steve Lacy, Julian Beck, Pauline Oliveros, Braxton - I even had the honor of meeting Stravinsky, Varese, Nono, Berio and Xenakis for all that their warm handshakes confered on me. But the others Cage above all became friends with whom I was able to share hours of conversation, music food and drink. Visionary people never stop letting you know it. This is what makes them visionary. So we never tire of keeping our ears and eyes on them as they meander from one precipice to another. All this took a while. My first meeting with Cage was at Yale University in the early 60's where he was invited by the Philosphy department to do a concert (the Music Department had refused). He was outrageous as expected and his performance music for 10 record players leaves me scratching my head to this day. Unforgettably he wore a floor length leather coat 1930's style... I later bought one myself in a roman flea-market- such is the attractive power of vintage clothing in the avantguard..
Just after Cage's death in 1992, I was buying vegetables in a small shop in Genzano just outside of Rome. A friend whom I hadn't seen in a while came in...without saying anything she walked up and hugged me, then said I am so sorry..surprisingly conveying her condolences on John's death. This experience in a small suburban italian town always impressed me, for I wondered who in the vast provincial reaches of the United States would stop one another on the fly, expressing similar compassion...but surely it must have happened!
In 1999 Klaus Schoening, the founder of the Westdeutscher Radio's Studio for Acoustic Art, commissioned me to make a sound portrait of Cage. No easy trick. I thought the most characteristic sound of John was his laughter - he laughed incessantly and loudly - finding Zen absurdity in almost anything. So the piece which became the final part of a 6 part work called ERAT VERBUM, was called ERAT VERBUM JOHN and features John laughing.
I used sampled recordings of his laughter almost exclusively taken from the recorded WBAI radio conversations he made together with Morton Feldman in the mid sixties...to this with Laura Kuhn's help, I got access to Cage's loft where Merce Cunningham still lived; on a warm spring day I recorded everything I could in and around that apartment, building and streets below... smack in the center of the commercially busy Chelsea district of New York city, with roaring traffic, screaching bus brakes, and plentiful NYC police and fire sirens-I once asked John how he could stand the noise. He said he loved it, it was like a continuosly evolving symphony. To this I added lots of sounds: from playing chess, to preparing and cooking mushrooms, to walking on the creaky wooden floor of the loft, to sounds of the Cunningham Dancers bodies in rehearsal, as well as Merce himself whistling; for good measure, I added a version of my own playing of the old song "Oh Johnny" played on a hastily "prepared" piano. Originally to be a British telephone booth, now simply a tool shed, my sound-installation "Gardening with John" is partially based on some of the original Erat Verbum materials, with a liberal addition of selected sounds from my archive... these are accessed by a random selection of the entire file base, obviating any sense of intentional sequence or composition. Cage courageously and ingenously asked all the right questions.. those of us who took his music seriously are still busily engaged in looking for the answers. This could involve asking entirely new questions.
Alvin Curran, Rome, October 2005