Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The subversive humour of John Cage

When John Cage delivered a lecture or wrote an article, you could rest assured that the result would be uncompromising and unusual in form and substance as the music he composed. It was sometime in late 1958 or 1959 that he decided to give a talk that was nothing but a series of unrelated stories which were accompanied by music including several radios which were provided as noise elements. He said that his intention was to put the stories together in an unplanned way so as 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. The stories ranged from diary notes, thoughts, to memories and conversations and simply anything that he could recall fitted the "story" category. The mundane and the extraordinary, the sad and the happy, the complicated and the simple mix and sometimes leave a trace. Other times they simply evaporate...

In the following short, one minute story, taken from the lecture, it's all down to the individual versus society. It's the rules against common sense. It's just an everyday event where one is part of it and then forgets it. But John Cage noted it all down. And it was delivered together with another 59 against the music and radio noise in the background.

But if you leave the experiment aside and just read the stories as stories for what they are worth, you will discover that John Cage was somebody with a wonderful sense of humour that never failed to be subversive and ask the right questions.

- A crowded bus on the point of leaving Manchester for Stockport was found by its conductress to have one too many standees. She therefore asked, "Who was the last person to get on the bus?" No one said a word. Declaring that the bus would not leave until the extra passenger was put off, she went and fetched the driver, who also asked, "All right, who was the last person to get on the bus?" Again there was a public silence. So the two went to find an inspector. He asked, "Who was the last person to get on the bus?" No one spoke. He then announced that he would fetch a policeman. While the conductress, driver, and inspector were away looking for a policeman, a little man came up to the bus stop and asked, "Is this the bus to Stockport?" Hearing that it was, he got on. A few minutes later the three returned accompanied by a policeman. He asked, "What seems to be the trouble? Who was the last person to get on the bus?" The little man said, "I was." The policeman said, "All right, get off." All the people on the bus burst into laughter. The conductress, thinking they were laughing at her, burst into tears and said she refused to make the trip to Stockport. The inspector then arranged for another conductress to take over. She, seeing the little man standing at the bus stop, said, "What are you doing there?" He said, "I'm waiting to go to Stockport." She said, "Well, this is the bus to Stockport. Are you getting on or not?" -

Extracted from the book "SILENCE - Lectures and Writings by John Cage". The book has the finest dedication of modern times - "To Whom It May Concern"...

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