Around the time this film was shot, I met John Cage to interview him for a French journal Hexagrammes
about the I Ching with which I was involved. He received me in his apartment on West 18th Street in New York City, when I was in New York over the Christmas holidays. While I didn’t know much about Cage’s music at the time, I met him to ask about his use of the I Ching, how he became interested in it and how it affected his compositions.
I’ve always felt that Cage was a combination of charlatan and genius. His ideas are unique, but his allowing of all his music - after a certain point, the time of his Music of Changes
for piano - to be determined by chance operations seemed to me to be smoke and mirrors. During the interview, he demonstrated his compositional process to me, showing me how he had determined randomly the different characteristics for timing and notes. He had personally chosen the instruments he was writing for, perhaps because of a specific commission that asked for those instruments. The rest was up to chance.
Speaking with John Cage was a memorable experience. It was the year before this film was shot, and just six years before his death, and Cage had the patina of one who had seen much and who knew much. I would ask him a question, and he would pause for a second, then reply in a way that made me think that he had carefully thought out his response for a much longer time. His voice was also seductive, in the manner of a wizard/pixie. We spent about an hour together, and he invited me to attend the beginning of a reading of Finnegans Wake, scheduled for the next evening in a gallery in Soho. If anything, listening to John Cage read the beginning section of Finnegans Wake was far more interesting than his music.
This film shows Cage in five different locations during 1987: Cologne, London, Los Angeles, New York and Frankfurt, with filmmaker Frank Scheffer interviewing him about his music and his ideas. This was not a conscious project - to make a film of interviews - but is a collection of material that Scheffer had from his work with Cage in the composer’s later years. It doesn’t hang together very well, but it does show Cage in a variety of situations, discussing different aspects of his work. It is of essentially anecdotal interest, but since Cage was such an interesting person, any interview footage is worth watching.
In addition to this documentary, the DVD includes five “experimental” films by Frank Scheffer. Many of them are guided by chance operations, but offer little interest. For example, Wagner’s Ring
uses single-frame shooting to reduce the entire Ring
to three minutes and fifty seconds. Chance operations determined when each frame was shot. The longest and most interesting of these films is Ryoanji
, which takes the 60-minute recording by Robert Black, Eberhard Blum, Iven Hausmann, Gudrun Reschke, John Patrick Thomas and Jan Williams on Hat Hut records, and illustrates it with black and white photos of the Japanese garden after which the piece is named. This is a slow, hypnotic work, and the still-photo approach adds much to it.
All in all, this is an interesting, if limited, set of films about John Cage.