Monday, July 27, 2009

Remembering Merce Cunningham

The summer of 1968 was not the first time I had seen the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. However, it was the first time I did any serious writing about Cunningham's approach to choreography and John Cage's approach to the composition and performance of music. It was a time when, in the words of the first of the 101 Zen stories in Paul Reps' collection Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, I was full of my own opinions and speculations, most of which were firmly entrenched in the structural formalisms of logical positivism. As in the punch line of that story, the cup had to be emptied before the master could begin to pour fresh tea.

Cage was the one who actually emptied the cup. We were all at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I had joined my thesis advisor as an assistant while he taught there on a visiting appointment. One day I saw a poster announcing that Cage would be offering a "Music and Mushrooms" course, explaining where and when to go for the first session. I was one of two guys who responded; the other had a wife taking dance classes with the Cunningham Company. It turned out that the Company was in Boulder to get their lungs in shape before performing at the pre-Olympic Festival in Mexico City later that summer. Cage's idea of a course was to go mushroom hunting and talk about things (which almost always included music). Since there were only three of us, this was not such a bad idea. The first day he explained the use of a taxonomic key (which I never saw again), which was necessary for determining which mushrooms were toxic. It was a dry summer. There were very few mushrooms but plenty of interesting talk.

Prior to those walks in the woods, I had thought about the use of chance procedures more as a game that one could play with notations rather than as a serious approach to composition. However, as he would later demonstrate during his Norton year at Harvard University, Cage spoke about what he did with a sincerity that easily transcended the bonds of logic. I was probably vulnerable to his style. I had committed several years to studying music theory, analysis, and composition; and all the logic of those studies had crippled me to the point that I could not write a note. That metaphorical cup needed to be emptied. I doubt that it was Cage's intention to do so, since he knew almost nothing about my background; but empty it he did with the grace of a Zen master.

Having dispensed with the bonds that constrained how to think about music, I could then watch Cunningham and his dancers in their classes, "events," and concerts with similar transcendence. Dance did not need to be a formal reflection of music, as George Balanchine had conceived it, a higher plane of drama in the spirit of the Royal Ballet, or even Martha Graham's quest for the core of human emotion. It could just be a matter of "time to walk in space," the title that Selma Jeanne Cohen gave to the Summer, 1968 issue of Dance Perspectives. That issue focused entirely on Cunningham, drawing its title from a remark by former student Marianne Preger cited in an essay by Carolyn Brown.

Returning once again to that Zen story, I came to learn that, where both music and dance were concerned, one could not begin to have opinions until one had descriptions upon which those opinions were grounded. Those who had ridiculed the music of Cage and his colleagues were more interested in glib observations that never really described the listening experience, often trying to support the conclusion that there really was no listening experience. Those who took a similar stance towards Cunningham tended to focus on their own restlessness and boredom in the course of looking for things that were not there, rather than trying to account for what was there.

I was working in Singapore when Cage died. I had a personal friend at Singapore Broadcasting who asked to do a telephone interview by way of an obituary, since I was apparently the only person in the country who had known him for an extended period of time. I remember being asked to give a summary statement at the end of the interview. I responded with: "He taught me to question my teachers."

This morning Alastair Macaulay broke the story of Cunningham's death last night on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times. The news was no surprise. Last June he had laid out very specific plans for the future of his company and his work after his death. Like Cage he was far more occupied with the present than the future, but unlike Cage he recognized an obligation to worry about the future of a company of dancers. The plan is that the company will make one last international tour over a period of two years and then close. After than, the rest of us will only be able to draw upon archival material. From my own point of view, I feel it is important that I learned the value of description, even if my contribution to that archival material is insignificantly small.

1 comment:

William Arndt said...

I Googled Merce Cunningham and found this interesting article. I too was in Boulder in 1968. I was a student at CU and my mother was the accompanist in the dance department. She played for Merce's classes when he was guest artist at the university. They became good friends. One of the highlights of my youth was when Merce came to a picnic in our back yard. I was eating hamburges with one of the greatest creative minds in America. Very cool. He was a nice man, soft-spoken, gentle, and approachable. In spike of his avant garde dances, his teaching style was very traditional -- standard Graham technique. Mother always said he was an easy teacher to play for.