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Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement

"One of the great iconoclasts in 20th-century art," Merce Cunningham revolutionized modern dance, pioneering abstract movement with his partner John Cage. Cunningham died July 26 at the age of 90.


Other segments from the episode on July 31, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 31, 2009: Obituary for Merce Cunningham; Interview with John Cage; Review of the film "The ugly truth."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Merce Cunningham: A Life In Movement


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli of, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, one of the most important influences
on dance in the 20th century, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

Today, we’ll listen back to an interview Terry conducted with Merce Cunningham
back in 1985, when he was 66. At that time he was still a featured part of
Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which he founded in 1953. He appeared in every
performance by that company until 1989, when he was 70.

Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented the world premiere
of his latest work, a salute to his own birthday called “Nearly 90.”

Cunningham’s approach to dance as both a choreographer and a performer was
unconventional, so much so that he’s been called one of the true
revolutionaries in the history of dance. Cunningham didn’t choreograph movement
to coincide with the rhythms of music. Instead, he preferred to have music and
dance performed simultaneously but independent of one another. It was an
approach he pioneered and explored with his collaborator and life partner,
composer John Cage, from whom we’ll also hear on today’s show.

Merce Cunningham grew up in Centralia, Washington, where he studied tap with
the retired vaudevillian, Maude Barrett(ph). Martha Graham saw him dance and
invited him to join her company in New York, which he did in 1939 and began
studying ballet.

When Terry spoke with Merce Cunningham in 1985, she asked how he developed his
new ideas about dancing and choreography.


One of the ideas that I think began to interest you, which is, I think, one the
ways where you parted company aesthetically with Martha Graham, was the idea of
dance not having to tell a story or describe an emotion or set a mood. When did
you start having that idea, that dance didn’t have to be about something other
than its own motion?

Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Dancer, Choreographer): I think all the way from
Mrs. Barrett…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: …in tap dancing because I think that’s a sense that she gave
me. I wouldn’t have intellectualized it that way naturally then, but in
remembering it, that sense she gave me of the quality of the dance being in the
movement, that the buck and wing was different from the old soft shoe, and that
was different from the Irish dance, and then she would show this. And if you
thought about it, you realized she meant it was in the movement itself, not
because it had names.

The names were probably tacked on afterward, but in the quality of the movement
itself was the difference, and in all my work with dancing, I’ve always –
that’s to me the thing that makes the dancing come alive. Oh, you can say it’s
about something, and you can – or indicate that in some way. But who basically
would be interested in those stories if the dancing wasn’t interesting?

GROSS: Did you have any big differences with Graham about that? Did you talk
about that a lot?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No, no. I – when I realized that I really wanted to do my own
work and that if I stayed with her it would involve more time, because she was
beginning to have more tours and have more performances at that point, I
decided that I would prefer to do my own work. So I left and proceeded to work
by myself and give - in the beginning, with John Cage, we gave – I gave solo
programs, and we’ve had short tours and a small amount of performing.

GROSS: Most of us think of dance as being done to music, you know, where all
the movements are in synch with the rhythm of the music that it’s being
performed to, but you came up with the idea of simultaneous but independent
dance and music. What gave you that idea?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Cage had this way of composing music, which involved what he
calls – called time structure. That is music not based on harmony or based on
modulations or based on various kinds of form, theme and variation, but sound
which could exist in a length of time, and the structure, how you structured
it, was through the time, not through another way. And we both thought, well,
that’s the one thing that really connects music and dance, is the fact that
they both take place in time, and if you put them together, they can take place
in the same time.

So even in those very first solos that I made, we developed for each dance a
different time structure within which I made the dance and he would make the
music, but that didn’t imply that he was following the dance strictly but that
we would meet in the structure points – that is, the sound and the dance would
meet at structure points. But in between that, we could be separate. But the
music, the sound cuts the time up differently from the way the dance does. The
music cuts it for the ear, the dance cuts it for the eye.

GROSS: My guest is choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham. When you and Cage
were first touring together and performing, I mean, audiences were certainly –
many still aren’t used to it now but certainly then. In the early ‘50s no one
was used to the idea of independent dance and music and the dance not telling a

What kind of reactions did you get? Did you get booed a lot?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, and people leaving. Of course. But we also, as we
toured, and as I began to work with dancers and have a company, we would tour

the United States, we began to also have friends, not many, but every place
there would be a few people who would be very interested in what we had done,
what we were doing and wanted to know more about it and so on, and we tried to
not only have music by John, by Cage, but music by other composers who would be
interested in working in this same way.

They didn’t have to compose the way John does but in the sense of this
separation between the music and dance. When we found a number of them over the
years, with whom we have worked, of course, who have – what do you say? – who
have used these ideas in their way, and we have, in a sense, amassed a
repertory of this.

GROSS: During those times when you were booed during those early years, did you
have enough belief in what you were doing to not be discouraged by the negative

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, it was and remains to me an extraordinary area to work
in. It seems to me constantly – one can constantly be refreshed, at least for
my - my personal feelings is that way, as I work at it. And one only has to get
one’s mind out of the way about deciding that something is good or bad and
rather allow for different things to take place, different kinds of things to
take place so that you or I am constantly on the point of discovering something
I don’t know about rather than repeating what I do know about.

GROSS: So the boos were just part of that process for you and not a real

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, of course, they were interesting sometimes and
difficult sometimes, and sometimes we even had things thrown at us and all of
that kind of traditional thing. And I remember a program in – I think it was in
Cologne in Germany once with a dance company, where the audience was extremely
unpleasant and difficult and booed and yelled all the way through the
performance. And I thought the company, my dancers, were wonderful. I said
we’ll just keep on going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: They were marvelous. They did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I bet, though, you figured out some pretty creative ways to survive on
next to no money during those years when you were touring in the Volkswagen bus

and performing at colleges.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, you mean money? Oh, well, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh yes, there wasn’t any. No, we would manage to get from one
place to the other and somehow keep it going, and I in the very – in those
days, when there were a few dancers - of course there were six dancers and two
musicians and one technical person. That’s all we could get in the bus, so
that’s what we had, and I would pay all the bills because I thought that if I
gave the dancers money, it would be so little that they would maybe try to save
some and not eat properly. So I decided, no, I will pay. They can eat what they
want. I will manage that and I will - but I will pay for it so that then they
will be more likely to eat well and not get sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: And I think on the whole, it worked. At some point, of course,
it didn’t work anymore, naturally, but for a while it did, so we would – and we
would also, you know, not simply eat in restaurants. We had very nice times,
often – difficult, of course it was difficult. But we had very good times
because we would stop and eat in the parks, buy food and cook in the parks if
the weather was nice, and as Carolyn Brown(ph) said once, writing about it, she
said there was an awful lot of laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did it ever reach a point where you thought that the kind of poverty
existence that you and the other dancers in your company were forced into was
no longer suitable, where you were just getting either too mature or too tired
for that kind of life?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, too tired, but I think dancers are always too tired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Probably many times. The only thing for me is that I really am
deeply fond of dancing, always have been. So no matter how dire the situation
was, how desperate, I would wake up one day and start to work and suddenly
realize that it was just as interesting as it always had been, regardless of
the circumstances.

BIANCULLI: Merce Cunningham, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s back to Terry’s 1985 interview with dancer and choreographer
Merce Cunningham, who died Sunday at the age of 90.

GROSS: Do you think of the male and female body as being very different

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. They’re both the same and different. First of all, you
start with the fact that they have two legs and two arms and one head. That’s
the same. But there is a physical difference in the woman’s body. The structure
is different. There are kinds of movements that she can do, which the man can
do, but they’re not the same.

I mean, they don’t – he can do them, certainly, and equally so the other way,
but the man has a different kind of strength in his body, the way it’s knit,
for example, physically knit together. There are kinds of movements which both
can do, and I think that’s quite clear in more – probably in American dancing,
say, that European dancing, although of course, now it’s common every place.
But that American women, for instance, do steps that originally were thought
only for men, and the men probably do certain things which were originally
thought only for women, which now both can do. But there still is a difference
because the man does it in a different way than the woman, as each person does
it different from the other one.

GROSS: Are there ways that you think of yourself as using men and women
differently in your dances?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I use them both as individuals - that is, simply as individual
– who may be doing the same movement but not necessarily at the same time, just
as you might, if you look at a flock of birds, in a sense they’re doing the
same, but they don’t really do the same thing. They don’t do it at the same

Then also, I take for granted that there are certain differences that will come
out with any – say, say, that, say, a male body is doing something, and a
female body is doing the same thing, but there are certain differences that
will simply appear, to my eye, anyway, and I think that’s fine. It’s human.

GROSS: Well, you’ve talked about how you don’t want a frontal emphasis in your
dance, and you don’t want – you know, you don’t want to be focused on the
center, and you don’t just want to be focused on the front. It should be
interesting from any angle.

Why is that important to you since, you know, in most theaters there are just
audiences seated in front?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, that’s based on the idea of proscenium theater, as they
called it, the Italian theater. It’s based on the idea of perspective, where
you have a point to which everything relates some way or another. And the
classical ballet, it seems to me, is built on that.

That means there’s one point that’s the best, and that’s the point that’s
directly in front of the royal box, so that the royal box can see it. Everybody
else deviates slightly, all the way out here, where you can’t see anything.

That doesn’t seem to me to be socially useful now, certainly not in the face of
the way we think about people all over the world. That’s like colonialism, in a
way. It has another point of view, if you are going to speak politically. but I
didn’t think of it that way, although later on I thought about it.

I thought, but there’s no reason why you can’t change the space. You do it in
the streets. You don’t see people from the front in the streets. You see them
from any angle. Why cannot you do that on the stage?

Now, we perform in many different places, of course. We perform in the
perspective stage, we perform in gymnasiums and hallways, outdoors. We have
done many performances where the audience is on four sides, three sides or two
sides, so that you can’t fix which way you focus.

So I make the dances with that in mind, that they could be done in different –
not all of them, certainly not, but almost all of them are done, are arranged
so that they could be done either in a perspective stage, a proscenium, or they
could be done in another kind of space.

You only have to think now about putting yourself in outer space. Are you going
to have a center of interest there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: How do you think about right and left when you’re up floating
around? (Unintelligible) The only thing you can do is think from yourself, and
each person in turn from himself. I’m going to my right. I can’t say I’m going
to go over there because by the time you get there, you’ve gone someplace else.
You’ve shifted your – you’ve shifted where your body is.

So you have to think direction-wise differently, and in my work, ever since I
began with Cage, years and year ago when I got to thinking about space, and it
was that remark of Einstein’s, where he said there are no fixed points in
space, I thought, well, that works perfectly for the theater.

GROSS: Many dancers start choreographing after they retire from dance. Now,
you’ve always been doing both, and you haven’t stopped dancing.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I do less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You do less, but you still dance, and you’re in your mid-60s now.


GROSS: Has working with your own body for dances, as you’ve gotten older,
brought up any really interesting ways of using it that you hadn’t thought of
before when you were younger and had a more flexible body then?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I think so. I think there are things about balance and
about – since there are certain - many kinds of movements now that are not free
for me to do, I’m not physically free to do, I find other ones. They are
limited, of course, and I realize – I’m quite aware of that, but within that
scale I keep trying to find new things - just for myself. This hasn’t to do
with the dancers in the company. There I’ve tried to push them as far as

You know, I don’t think of dances or dancing as an object which is completed. I
think of the whole thing as a process, which I continue.

GROSS: Do you still do daily exercises?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yes. I do what the dancers, what ballet people call a warm-up
or – I don’t do as much as I used to, naturally not, but I do, I always do it.
When we’re on tour, for example, I get up and go to the theater before anybody
else and I do my work, which is roughly an hour, certainly not more than that.
Then I teach the company a class. Then we have rehearsal, and then we do an
evening show.

GROSS: What’s your mental attitude toward doing the exercises every day?
Because it could become very tedious and a routine that you have to drag
yourself through every day, but it’s not enjoyable.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It is – I’m sure for many dancers that’s really the thing that
perhaps really eventually stops them, the idea of having to do that every day,
because it is tedious. But I long ago decided, okay, if this is what you have
to do, you have to find a way to do it.

So instead of thinking, oh, I’m going to repeat this every day, I adopted the
philosophy that it was new each day. Even if I did the same thing, it was new.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Even the simplest exercise was new all over again. Simple to
say and not easy to do, but just the same, I keep finding new things then.
Rather than just repeating exactly the way it is, I keep finding very slight
ways, small ways, big ways, hopefully with the dance company it’s big, big ways
- for myself less so, but still, it’s like – oh, it’s like renewing yourself.

I mean, what if you decided that you breathe a few times and you decided you
knew about that. You don’t have to do that anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You’ve had your share of injuries, haven’t you, in dancing?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Like all dancers, yes.

GROSS: How do you know when it’s okay to actually continue with the performance
and keep dancing and when, if you do that, you’re going to ruin that joint or
that muscle forever and it’ll ruin you?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I think that you shouldn’t ask me that question because I’m not
sure I do know because I’ve danced under injuries which probably most dancers
would have sense enough not to have done. So don’t ask me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you haven’t suffered anything catastrophic from that. You haven’t
had to abandon dancing or…

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I thought at two points I was going to be because I had a
bad spine, a terrible back problem, (unintelligible) lumbar, like so many
people have, and then I simple developed exercises that have kept me going,
have helped that, and I put them in my dance technique, in a different way, but
for the spine, because I think that comes about when the lower back doesn’t
work. And most people don’t use the muscles in the lower back, and then one day
they do something, all of a sudden and it gives.

I thought, well, there must be a way. There are muscles down there. There must
be a way to use them. So I developed exercises, and I’ve not had serious back
trouble since then.

I have to be careful, I admit that, but I’ve not had serious back trouble.

GROSS: During those periods when you’ve been in pain because of an injury or
just because of the toll that dancing daily takes on your body, have you ever
taken painkillers or anything like that, or do you have a mental attitude that
is – that can distract you from your own pain and take your mind off of it?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No. I was going to yes and no. Once I took – I think it was
when I had the back troubles, I took some – I don’t know what they were. The
doctor gave me something, but I realized that that was only an excuse and that
I was not realizing what was really the problem, which was to get rid of the
pain in the back, not hide it.

So I never – I just quit. I take vitamin pills, but that’s out of habit, and
those are straight. But I’ve not taken anything like that ever.

GROSS: You have challenged a lot of traditions and conventions of dance. Do you
think it’s important for artists to challenge conventions? Do you think that
that act of challenging is important in and of itself? Or is that irrelevant,
and you just challenge things because that was your sensibility, and that’s the
way it is?

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I suppose it is important to challenge things, but I think in
my own case it was because I could see these ideas were possible. It wasn’t the
fact that I was doing something somebody else did or didn’t do because although
I don’t know other dancers at the other time who did it, there were visual
artists involved in the ideas and certainly composers.

So the idea that – it was that these ideas were new ideas that were in the air,
and these were possibilities that had never been tried before, and one could
see they were possibilities, even though one wasn’t sure how they might come

BIANCULLI: Merce Cunningham, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. The acclaimed
dancer and choreographer died Sunday in Manhattan at age 90. His most recent
choreographed work premiered earlier this year at the Brooklyn Academy of
Music. Its title was “Nearly 90.” I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Creative Coincidences: Cage On Cunningham


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today we’re saluting the life and work of Merce Cunningham, the influential
dancer and choreographer. Many of Cunningham's most celebrated and innovative
collaborations were with composer John Cage, who also was Cunningham's life
partner. So we thought it, would be interesting to listen back to Terry's
conversation with John Cage from 1982.

John Cage began serious music studies in the 1930s, and quickly gravitated to
the avant-garde and the idea of composing music at least partly through chance.
He saw chance-generated music as a way to release his music from the limits of
his own taste, memory and emotion. His radical ideas about composition led to
equally radical experiments with instruments. By 1937, Cage created what he
called the prepared piano, which is a method of altering the piano's tonal and
percussive qualities by placing wood, metal or rubber objects on the piano
strings. He later became one of first composers to use synthesizers and
computers. Sometimes Cage didn't use instruments at all but used recorded
voices and even radio static to help build his chance compositions.

Here's a excerpt from his 1959 work “Indeterminacy,” in which Cage tells 90
stories in 90 minutes taking about one minute each for each story. The piano
and electronic music score was composed and realized by David Tudor. The
collision of dialogue and music, like the collision of ideas, is purely

Mr. JOHN CAGE (Composer): This summer I'm going to going to...

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for
Social Research. Actually, it’s five field trips not really a class at all.
However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted by
with the idea, she said, I’ll have to let you know later whether or not we’ll
give it. So she spoke to the president who couldn’t see why there should be a
class in mushrooms...

(Soundbite of cymbals)

Mr. CAGE: the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor who lives
in Piermont. She said, what do you think about our having a mushroom class at
the New School? He said, fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification
develops the powers of observation.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: This remark was relayed...

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...both to the president and to me. It served to get the class into
the catalogue and to verbalize for me my present attitude towards music: it
isn’t useful, music isn’t, unless it develops our powers of audition. But most
musicians can’t hear a single sound. They listen only to the relationship
between two or more sounds. Music for them has nothing to do with their powers
of audition, but only to do with their powers of observing relationships. In
order to do this, they have to ignore all the crying babies...

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: engines, telephone bells, coughs, that happen to occur during
their auditions. Actually, if you run into people who are really interested in
hearing sounds, you’re apt...

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: find them fascinated by the quiet ones. Did you hear that, they
will say.

(Soundbite of piano keys)

Mr. CAGE: In 1954, when I went to Europe, I no sooner arrived in Paris then I
noticed that the city was covered with posters publicizing a mushroom
exhibition that was being held in the Botanical Gardens. That was all I needed.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: Off I went. When I arrived, I found myself in a large room filled
with many tables upon which were displayed many species of fungi. On the
hour from a large centrally-placed loudspeaker a recorded lecture on the
deadly, poisonous…

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: ...amanitas was delivered. During this lecture, nobody in the hall
moved or spoke. Each person's attention was...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: to speak, riveted to the information being given. A week later,
I was in Cologne...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: Germany attending a concert of electronic…

(Soundbite of breath)

Mr. CAGE: There was also an audience and a large
loudspeaker. However, many in the audience were dozing off, and some were
talking to their neighbors.

(Soundbite of vocal rhythms)

Mr. CAGE: I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall.

(Soundbite of rumbling)

Mr. CAGE: The composer whose works were being performed had provided program
notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the

(Soundbite of record scratch)

Mr. CAGE: After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was
telling me how...

(Soundbite of record)

Mr. CAGE: ...the performances had not been quite up to snuff.

(Soundbite of piano chords)

Mr. CAGE: So I said, Well, I...

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. CAGE: ...enjoyed the music, but I don’t agree with that program note...

(Soundbite of scratching)

Mr. CAGE: ...about there being too much pain in the world. He said, what? Don’t
you think there’s enough?

(Soundbite of record)

Mr. CAGE: I said...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. CAGE: I think there’s just...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. CAGE: ...the right amount.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to John Cage in 1982 when he was 70 years old. He
died a decade later in 1992. His life partner, Merce Cunningham died Sunday at
age 90 which is why we’re listening back today to both Cunningham and Cage. In
1982, John Cage explained to Terry that he really wasn't drawn to music the way
most composers where.

Mr. CAGE: My father was an inventor and I’ve never thought that, as many people
do, that music should be in my head and that I should learn how to write down
what I already hear. I really can't hold a tune and I don't know solfege at all
- so that I found ways of writing music to produce sounds that I haven't heard,
and that other people haven't heard. If I'd study solfege, if I had a feeling
for harmony, which I don't, I think I would simply write what people have
already heard or what I would've thought - thought I heard. The result is I
have a curious feeling every time I write a new piece, particularly one for an
orchestra that involves so many people and so much trouble you know to bring
into existence. I think up until the last minute that maybe it’s just going to

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: ...a great mistake or that we won’t discover anything with it.

GROSS: So you have to listen to your pieces as they're being done in

Mr. CAGE: I hear...

GROSS: a different way than most composers listen to their work.

Mr. CAGE: I hear them for the first time. And I hear them with interest rather
than critically. I try to hear what there is to hear.

GROSS: So you won't walk away thinking that was a real success or that was a
terrible failure. I won't do that again.

Mr. CAGE: No. No. Not that.

GROSS: I think when you were studying with Schoenberg, and this is an indirect

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: He says something like you don't have an ear for harmonies and that will
always be for you like walking against, like knocking into a wall. And you said
in that case I'll bang my head against that wall...

Mr. CAGE: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...for the rest of my career.

Mr. CAGE: Right.

GROSS: And a lot of your work hasn't been about that relationship with sounds
to other sounds but of sounds in and of themselves, individual sound, a sound
for itself. Is that too, do you think, from not wanting to work with harmony?

Mr. CAGE: I had an interest in each single sound from the beginning. At first I
began putting the sounds together into - as I’d been taught - into motives and
repeating them and varying them. But gradually, and through a study of oriental
philosophy and through the use of chance operations, I have found ways, I
think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my
mind. So that instead of expressing myself, as so many artists think their
responsibility is, I could alter myself so that I would flow with my

GROSS: So...

Mr. CAGE: This is my - that's been my project.

GROSS: What's your attitude towards random sounds in your home? I'm thinking
now about...

Mr. CAGE: I just love them.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Like apartments in Manhattan, which is probably the noisiest
city in the world.

Mr. CAGE: I live on - and 6th Avenue is very, very noisy. And sometimes there's
burglar alarms...

GROSS: Oh yeah.

Mr. CAGE: ...and they may last three of four hours. It's quite, that's quite a
problem. I think that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a
burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they're curiously slightly

GROSS: What if you're paying attention to something else at the same time?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is
paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with
equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it’s more
effective than sitting crosslegged. I mean to say crosslegged in relation to...

GROSS: In meditation.

Mr. CAGE: Yes. It opens the - I think the meaning of meditation is to open the
doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation,
wouldn't you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through
multiplying the things to which we’re able at one in the same time to pay
attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that's my

BIANCULLI: John Cage speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. More after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1982 interview with John Cage, who died in
1992. Like his life partner and frequent collaborator, choreographer Merce
Cunningham who died Sunday, Cage loved to inject the element of chance into his

GROSS: You’ve rejected taste and memory in your chance processes work. What's
restricting about taste and memory for you?

Mr. CAGE: There's a beautiful remark of Marcel Duchamp: To reach the
impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory
imprint. And I think the trouble with memory, both from a poetic point of view,
is made clear too by the remark of René Char, the French poet, that each act is
virgin even the repeated one, to see things as being new rather than things
that we already know before we’re experiencing them. I think this is one of the
things that leads to trouble between two people when someone says of another
person, I knew what she would say or I knew what he would say. I would hope
that we don't get into that frame of mind with respect to one another, hmm?

GROSS: You know it’s interesting to me because you have such a really rich and
detailed memory and use it so beautifully in your storytelling and in your
writings, which become your pieces also.

Mr. CAGE: Mm.

GROSS: I know that that memory does come into play.

Mr. CAGE: There's another remark I've come across in the last year or so that I
like and it's by the composer Erik Satie and it’s related to that remark that I
just quoted from Char – he checked his version. Satie says experience is a form
of paralysis. Do you see the relation? If we think we know what the other
person is going to say hmm, and if we don't approach things as virgin hmm, then
our minds and our attitudes turn out - become paralyzed and that's why we want
to have each thing new, hmm?

To have, to realize that two Coca Cola bottles are not identical and what makes
them not identical is that they're not at the same point. They can't be at the
same point in space. Since they're not at the same point in space they
automatically receive - each one receives light differently than the other, so
that it can be as fascinating as going to a museum to look carefully,
attentively at two Coca Cola bottles, hmm? And something of that is implicit in
a great deal of 20th century art.

GROSS: That kind of perception I think sometimes, like, when you walk into a
museum or a concert hall, it's like your senses get turned on because you're

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS:'re going to be - you're paying money, you're walking in - you're
going here especially...

Mr. CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: experience something sensual. Whereas, when you go to work in the
morning or when you're going to take the subway or something, you kind of turn
down a lot of those senses. You're not expecting a sensual experience and
you're maybe expecting things that you're not going to want to see or hear.
It’s your job.

Mr. CAGE: It's not as though when we’re surprised by coincidences of light or
sound in our presence - that's one of the beautiful things about hunting
mushrooms is that they're, they grow up and they're fresh at just a particular
moment and our lives are actually characterized by moments, hmm?

GROSS: I like to think of you and Marcel Duchamp playing chess together because

Mr. CAGE: Well we actually didn't play much.

GROSS: You didn’t play?

Mr. CAGE: No. No.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

Mr. CAGE: I played with Teeny Duchamp, his wife and he would criticize our

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: And he said to me once, he said, don't you ever want to win?

GROSS: Did you play to win when you played chess?

Mr. CAGE: I didn’t then. I played chess in order to be with him. I wanted to be
with him as much as possible. Now that he’s dead, my game has improved.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you talk much during those chess games with Teeny, talk with

Mr. CAGE: No, I had a kind of confidence that if I was just near Duchamp that
that would be enough, that I didn’t have to ask him questions or converse. Once
I remember he said let’s sit down and have a conversation. We sat down. I don’t
remember what we talked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was that…

Mr. CAGE: I just liked being with him.

GROSS: Was that so, that being with him and not talking got for you some of
what you wanted to be around him for?

Mr. CAGE: Yes, I think his presence, his being, was both question and answer,

GROSS: Can I quote you again…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You said, “Where there’s a history of organization, introduce disorder,
where there’s a history of disorganization, introduce order.”

Mr. CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Can you think of times when you’ve introduced order into your art where
there’s been a history of disorganization? Has there ever been a situation like

Mr. CAGE: What I was thinking of when I made the remark was that in the world
of art where there’s been established relationships, that there we need freedom
given by irrationality, whereas in the treatment of the relation between
society and the world on which we live, there has been a kind of idiotic
mishandling of natural resources. And I think that Mr. Fuller has a very clear
and useful way to bring about an equation, a proper relationship, a proper
organization between nature and society, human beings. And we need that very
much. We don’t need to have rivers that could burst into flame, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think your life is like this great dialectic between things like -
between computers and the I Ching, or between having to know what mushroom to
pick so that you don’t kill yourself and friends by doing a poisonous one and…

Mr. CAGE: Right, right.

GROSS: …then using chance processes for your music and poetry. Do you
consciously decide which each of those will be or do you just kind of naturally
have those interests in (unintelligible)?

Mr. CAGE: I think we can tell rather clearly when we’re in what the Indians
call an artha circumstance, which is a circumstance where you have a goal and
you don’t want to kill yourself or you want to win, as in a game, or you want
to cross the street without getting killed, or you want to hunt wild mushrooms
and not kill yourself and so on. That’s one way of living. Another way of
living is having and giving pleasure, kama. And another way is following the
good rather than the evil. I think that would - that which is dharma in Indian
philosophy is very close to what in Christianity is faith, hope and charity,
such things.

And then in Buddhism, there is moksha, which is liberation from all those three
concerns. And normally if we went to school, we would think, well, we start in
artha, we go to kama, we go to dharma and we graduate and get into moksha. But
I think the truth of the matter is that we’re in all four all of the time, and
that we live a life characterized by inconsistency. And that’s the marvelous
thing. You can then write a poem, as the Japanese monk did, on having reached
enlightenment. You can say, now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I like to think…

Mr. CAGE: And that characterizes - you know, the way we feel, don’t you think?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Well…

Mr. CAGE: And say you get exhausted toward the end of the day - and don’t you
have the experience of finding life not quite so bad the next morning when you
wake up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAGE: Full of new energy.

BIANCULLI: Composer John Cage, speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. He died in
1992. His life partner and frequent collaborator, dancer and choreographer
Merce Cunningham, died Sunday. He was 90 years old. Coming up, critic-at-large
John Powers looks at women in movies. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
On Hollywood’s Strong, Self-Hating Women


Two of this summer’s biggest comedies are “The Proposal,” starring Sandra
Bullock as a publishing executive, and “The Ugly Truth” starring Kathryn Heigl
as a TV producer. Although both were executive produced by their female stars,
some critics have called the films misogynist for their portraits of their
heroines. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has some thoughts on the ways our
movies now see women.

JOHN POWERS: It’s one of the tricky things about pop culture, that you never
know for sure whether it’ll be ahead of the times or behind them. African-
American music, for example, was a trailblazing force. It helped make black
culture part of the mainstream, decades before anyone dreamed we might ever
have a president named Obama. You can see the flip side of this in our current
movies’ treatment of women. When Hollywood isn’t ignoring them altogether, it’s
usually putting them down, even in romantic comedies supposedly aimed at the
female audience. Nobody gets ruder treatment than career women, who are
routinely portrayed as bossy, uptight and utterly without personal lives. What
they need, we’re supposed to think, is a man.

But before they can get one, they must have a mortifying comeuppance. In “The
Proposal,” Sandra Bullock plays a boss from hell who’s literally forced to
kneel before her good guy assistant. In the lousy new comedy “The Ugly Truth,”
Kathryn Heigl plays a control-freak TV producer forced to hire a loutish
commentator - that’s Gerard Butler, who gives her a pair of vibrator panties.
Predictably, it’s the lewd beast who tames the brainy, high-powered beauty.
Here, Heigl’s calling her neighbor, a handsome doctor, for a date, when Butler
intervenes to give her romantic advice.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Ugly Truth”)

Ms. KATHRYN HEIGL (Actor): (As Abby Richter) Hi. This is Abby Richter calling
for Dr. Anderson.

Unidentified Woman: Hold.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Yes. I’ll hold.

Mr. GERARD BUTLER (Actor): (As Mike) What are you doing? Who are you calling?

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Shh! Shh!

Mr. ERIC WINTER (Actor): (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Dr. Anderson.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Hi, Colin. This is Abby.

Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Everything okay?

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) I was just calling to let you know how much I
enjoyed meeting you last night. And I was thinking we should go out for dinner

Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Oh.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) There is a new French bistro in town, and an art
opening that got amazing reviews, so I was thinking we could go on Friday.

Mr. WINTER: (As Dr. Colin Anderson) Oh, Friday. Wow.

(Soundbite of phone hanging up)

(Soundbite of dial tone)

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter): What the hell are you doing?

Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) I’m saving you. He was blowing you off.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) He wasn’t blowing me off.

(Soundbite of struggle)

Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) He will be expecting you to call him and when you don’t,
he’ll call back.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) How you know?

Mr. BUTLER: (As Mike) Because I know how men operate. If you want it to work
out with this guy, then you’ll listen to me and you’ll do exactly as I say.
You’ve probably already done irreparable damage with your psycho-aggressive,
control-freak phone call. It might even be too late. And if you do salvage the
situation, you’ll never be more than Abby, his desperate neighbor.

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) I’m not desperate.

(Soundbite of phone ring)

Ms. HEIGL: (As Abby Richter) Did you think I sounded desperate?

POWERS: Of course, American movies have long hand problems with career women.
Rosalind Russell once estimated that she’d played 23 different versions of what
she termed Alice in Careerland: strong, working women who, deep down, actually
wanted to be housewives. Things were only slightly more enlightened in the ‘50s
and early ‘60s, when Doris Day occupied the executive suite on her way into bed
with Rock Hudson. But if the sexual politics of such movies were old-fashioned,
they were essentially in line with the official attitudes of the time, at least
they weren’t contemptuous. All that changed with the women’s movement.

Although feminism has inarguably made society better, it also unleashed an
ongoing psychic backlash. Even as women began attaining positions of power,
Hollywood didn’t reflect how this change actually entered our collective
experience. Instead, it began cooking up dark, paranoid fantasies about
unwomenly women and pushy shrews. It served up a parade of Prada-wearing
devils, like Sigourney Weaver’s demonic exec in “Working Girl,” Tilda Swinton’s
brittle corporate shyster in “Michael Clayton,” and pretty much the whole
career of Glenn Close, at least since she boiled that bunny in “Fatal

This drives me particularly crazy, because I’ve spent my whole life surrounded
by strong career women. My mother ran a market research company, and my sister
is an international consultant. When I was a professor, my office-mate taught
feminist theory. I’ve worked for female bosses at LA Weekly, Vogue and here at
FRESH AIR. And here’s what I’ve learned: Just like career men - now there’s a
term - every career woman has her own personal style. What they all have in
common is that I’ve never seen any of them behave remotely like Weaver,
Swinton, Close or Heigl. Why then do they act this way on screen? You see, even
as women were gaining more power in society, the movie audience was changing.
The key demographic became adolescent males.

And if there’s one inescapable truth about teenage boys, it’s that their
exploding libidos are shot through with anxiety, especially a terror of
powerful women. Their idea of a likable career woman is a good-hearted hooker,
like Heather Graham’s character in this summer’s biggest comedy, “The
Hangover.” Sad to say, such laddish notions have actually been internalized by
many powerful women in Hollywood. That’s why I was happy to see several big
reviews rebuke the women behind “The Ugly Truth.” Heigl, the three female
screenwriters and Sony co-chair Amy Pascal, who greenlighted a picture that
disdains a woman like herself.

The movie is a worthy target not because it’s so singularly awful, it isn’t,
but because its misogyny is so representative. Now, if you asked Pascal, Heigl
and the writers, I’m sure they’d say they were simply trying to make something
that the audience likes, and perhaps they have. The movie had a big opening
weekend. Still, if things are to get better, it has to start with powerful
women in Hollywood refusing to write, star in or finance films that wantonly
disrespect women. After all, Stepin Fetchit made movies that the audience
liked, too, but that’s not what anyone remembers him for.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of
our show at
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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