Getting to Middletown from New Haven was an easy trip, but for the quarantine placed on the Yale students, confining them to New Haven only during that period. - such was the administrations reaction to that fearful virus imagined to be centered in Middletown Ct.
Nonetheless, the students, even though largely steeped in 12 tone theology, had a natural curiosity to know who the devil this devil was, and democratically proposed (demanded) that the Yale School of Music invite him. The School refused. In the ensuing ruckus, the Philosophy department, headed by a friend of Cage's, agreed to invite him, much to the chagrin of the Music people. And thanks to Richard Teitelbaum and The music Theory Lecture Series he curated, we were able at last to bring the musical antichrist to New Haven. Cage at last appeared, talked and performed his piece for three turntables, unleashing an uproar of raucous contestation - the expected "scandale." Yet at this memorable event I saw a man, unflappable and simple as he was brilliant and magnetic (and as it turned out for me highly contagious), though what my poor Ivy League ears were hearing in 1961 was definitely not music, that I was sure of. Extramusically speaking I was deeply impressed by the full length leather coat that Cage wore - confiring on him instant elegance and distinction. Today we'd call it "cool." But then it simply conveyed an air of European chic, and struck me in some way as a magical garment. We (the Pro-Cage group among whom were: Joel Chadabe, Tom Johnson, David Barron and Richard Teitelbaum) hung out with Cage after in a near by tavern delighting in Cage's aura and his ability to field anything thrown at him, good or bad; relaxed and funny he spoke about things no 12-tone composers would dare consider: sound and silence. Some years later I got one of these coats myself - bought it in the flea market in Rome; such was Cage's influence. In all seriousness, this was the beginning of wonderful friendship; his influence seeped in bit by bit without my even knowing it.
In the mid-sixites I moved to Rome, and as most of you know, I was joined by a group of people there: Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Carol Plantamura, Ivan Vandor, Alan Bryant, John Phetteplace, and Steve Lacy. A group was formed known as Musica Elettronica Viva. Largely unaware of and unconcerned by the direct Cage/Tudor influence on the origins of MEV (primarily through Rzewski's enthusiasitic stay in Buffalo with them, prior to his own return to Rome) we found ourselves busily soldering cables, contact mics and talking about "circuitry" as if it were a new religion. By amplifying the sounds of glass, wood, metal, water, air and fire we were convinced that we had tapped into the sources of the natural musics of "everything." We were in fact making a spontaneous music which could be said to be coming from "nowhere" and made out of "nothing" - all somewhat a wonder and a collective epiphany. On learning that Cage had done these things even ten years earlier was no shock, but a confirmation of a "mutual" discovery. What really mattered to us then was not who got there first, but that we were in fact THERE - a radical group of young people making music from zero. And in the spirit of Cage, that was the issue.
Like many Americans of my generation, I had an abysmal ignorance of history and social and political ideas. At the time, I am sure I never heard the word "anarchy," and I'd just begun to discover significance of Marxism - nonetheless I was there in the midst of a tumultuous student revolution, barricades, occpuations, riots, tear gas, dogs and dope - this was '68. Consonant with all of this - conisdering our basic pacifist position - was our aim to make a spontaneous music which we began to call "collective" - a timely buzz-word that resounded then in almost all activity. MEV, its music and behavior, was highly charged with all of the complex psychosocial dynamics of group behaviour, save our willingness to relinquish our individual egos completely. We were not a cult. What was happening here was that we were improvising in ways to question and test to the limits of all known and even unknown musical codes and behaviors; more often than not, musics -forms of pure transcendent energies- emerged which no one could rightly say who made them or how.
You all know that Cage abhorred improvisation - he shunned the word, concept and practice all his life. But this didn't seem to dampen his affection for all of us whom he continued to support and influence as well for many years.. as we inevitably took our places in the american experimental-music family.
To get back to the story, It seemed to me that with all the discussions about utopia, anarchy etc (maryanne used the word improvisation a few minutes ago), the interesting thing is that we (MEV) were clearly making a new kind of chance music - not made from known or invented systems, but based on the risk (in every sense) of bringing people together to make music anywhere without a score. This is something that Cage could not consider nor likely ever approve of. And in view of his voracious imagination and rigorous radicality, It is curious to imagine that this one small step toward liberating the music from the composer and ultimately from itself, is one Cage never took. That is, for all his dedicated committment to freedoom, liberation of the spirit mind and body he remained a modernist composer true to his time - fully horrified at the thought of taking ones own music and throwing it away. This may be in essence the most significant contribution made by the MEV group - it was our manifesto: music made with no composer, no conductor, no written signs, no music, no money, no expectations. And for this we have to thank John Cage; it would have been impossible without him. It's very much like what Maryanne Amacher was saying: it was the next step, the next evolutionary notch. Spontaneous music is now being practiced all over the world and very much alive - thanks to Cage.
My professional baptism occured in on Dec. 31 1969, in Palermo where as part of "Winter Music" performed by Rzewski and Cardew, Teitelbaum and myself were instructed to open all the doors and windows of the Teatro Biondo at a given time. The glacial music along with the added noises from the street caused a near riot in the theater. In 1984 I invited John to collaborate as one of the ten soloists in my Maritime Rites project. I asked him to record 5 monosyllabic words of his choice ("Ice, Do, Food, Crew, Ape") for me "Is that all?" he asked, ingenuously. I paired those beautifully soft-spoken words -in hocketed loops- with one of the most powerful fog-horns ever built, installed on the Nantucket Lightship II. In two occasions (one a 75th birthday party and 24 hour concert broadcast live by the Studio Akusticshcer Kunst of the Westdeutcher Rundfunk) I played roles in his delightful Hoerspiel, "An Alphabet" and once he honored me with the part of Satie. In the late 80's as he was preparing his Europeras in Frankfurt he had heard that I had made a mix of some 70 operas all playing at once and wanted to hear it. He listened and loved it - he thought he might like to include that in the foyer of the theater since he didn't think he had time to do a similar one; of course he found the time as he always did, but his invitation remains a precious memory.
One more thing, Cornelius Cardew. Cornelius was one of my early mentors. He came to Rome in 1964 on a study grant with Petrassi at the Accademia Santa Cecilia. Cornelius too was a revolutionary and very magnetic person. He revered Cage and as you know performed his piano music a lot. In a genuine search for a coherent belief, Cornelius passed from Buddhism to Marxism, Maoism finally to Hoxa-ism. In this latter period he wrote imflammatory manifestos denouncing all forms of Bourgeois behavior, and personally attacking his own former mentors, Stockhausen and Cage. I happened to be on hand with Cornelius -performing with Steve Reich in Pamplona, when Cage read Cardew's denunciation of him, John did not take it lightly, nonetheless he always reminded me how much he admired my solo piano work: "For Cornelius," pacifically linking himself to all the wayward sons and daughters.
Alvin Curran, 1999
in David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, editors, Writings through John Cage's Music, Poetry, and Art. University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 177-179.