Coincidences, Chance, and Champignons

By Perwana Nazif­­­January 23, 2020

Coincidences, Chance, and Champignons

Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage
Love, Icebox by John Cage
Changes by Merce Cunningham

SOMEONE MENTIONED offhandedly to me recently that visibility and invisibility become more a matter of ontology than of perception, comparing them to famed experimental composer and artist John Cage’s passion for mushroom hunting. Whether you see the mushroom or you don’t, it is there, someone else said. Dick Higgins once wrote, “Starting with nothing is a good way to get somewhere.” This conversation had come after a group of us began foraging for mushrooms on an island off of France, and we were discussing anthropologist Anna Tsing and her matsutake mushrooms. But the allusion to Cage — and the conjunction of Cage with Higgins — made me think of Cage’s infamous work of “silence,” 4′33″, during which some audience members may think nothing goes on, while others hear a composition. Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which I was reading at the time, embodies these kinds of synchronicities, as multiple narratives coincide, merge, disappear, or continue, and fragment. Reading both Diary and Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham, a self-explanatory title, I began to see this particular writing style of Cage’s in its intimate and epistolary forms.

Synchronicity appeared before me again, on a far more comprehensive level, when I was confronted with filmmaker Kersti Jan Werdal’s 2019 Promenade, in which dancer Brittany Bailey proceeds through the mise-en-scène and eventually performs her work Shape Dance. The Merce Cunningham–trained performer — Cunningham and Cage were longtime collaborators (synchronicity!) — describes the body of work as an attempt to reconcile the fact that the audience only witnesses one angle when watching a performance. This hierarchy breaks down in her performance and the film, as Bailey herself states,

I do the right side of my body
I do the left side of my body
I do the phrase on both sides of the room.

In his Changes: Notes on Choreography, Cunningham explains that “the dances […] were all designed to be presented with the audience on four sides and are so given when situations allow for this. […] The space and directions were accepted as they happened rather than adjusting the dancers to make lines or face each other.” Similarly, Werdal echoes this sentiment in filming each angle of Bailey’s process with the culmination of the film being Bailey’s own written words on this Cunningham-esque concept rather than the performance toward which she practices.

Reading between Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), and Cunningham’s artist book Changes: Notes on Choreography, I felt a similar appeal to witnessing, or reading, all the angles behind Cage’s and Cunningham’s respective artistic practices and methodologies, as well as their relationship to each other both romantically and artistically. Werdal’s slow meditation on Bailey’s performance through visuals, movement, and language, interspersed with sporadic blocks of color, synchronizes to the beat with the three books — particularly in Cage’s affection for chance, Cunningham’s movements that are simultaneously natural via the habitual and unnatural in its affective resonance, and Cage’s poetic words to Cunningham.

Werdal, “Brittany Bailey in Promenade” (2019). Courtesy of Kersti Jan Werdal.

Werdal, “Brittany Bailey in Promenade” (2019). Courtesy of Kersti Jan Werdal.

Werdal, “Brittany Bailey in Promenade” (2019). Courtesy of Kersti Jan Werdal.

Merce Cunningham’s Changes: Notes on Choreography is a limited-edition reprint of the original publication with his thoughts on his choreographies in 1968 by Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press. The reprint of the artist book published by The Song Cave and edited by Frances Starr is best described as a combination of notes, images, and drawings of the acclaimed dancer’s works that resist any form of linearity and any conventions placed on the book, the notebook, and idea formation. A 1970 catalog from Something Else Press argues of the book, “Merce Cunningham is perhaps the most revolutionary and influential force operating in the dance medium today. This book takes you inside. It is the working notebooks, his in-progress notes for individual dances which tell you his method, and much of it is super-imposed with his own speculation.” Yet more than taking the reader inside, the book itself moves — or, rather, incites movement on behalf of the reader in terms of orienting the book and rotating it to make legible the writing that appears upside down, clockwise, or counterclockwise to various sides, and traces the outlines of images. At other times, the text becomes collaged with other texts such as official programs or quotes from John Cage and superimposed onto images of dancers and of Cunningham’s handwritten steps. Here, the text becomes so illegible, so abstracted, that instead of representing words it signifies the physical, active motion of writing itself. Certain passages will begin in medias res, again focusing on action occurring rather than on the meaning behind the words. Writing here not only enacts movement but also is movement.

On describing his choreography after he was asked to create something for “music concrete,” Cunningham writes: “These were accepted as movement in daily life, why not on stage? To these movements I applied chance procedures.” This idea is in direct parallel with Cage, who used chance procedures in his musical work as well as in his diary to determine type and color. They share the notion of blurring demarcations between art and (daily) life. Cunningham continues: “Thus time became a mutual field in which both the sound and movement progressed.” Given gestures found in the every day rather than steps to count, the dancers find a commonality between the movement and the “music concrete” according to Cunningham unlike his more known perspective on the two as separate, although not necessarily divergent, paths where movement does not rely on nor adhere to musical cues.

Later, Cunningham mentions his vision for the lighting of a performance:

i asked robert rauschenberg to think of the light as though it were night instead of day. i don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes by the way light HITS THEM.

These sorts of glimpses into Cunningham’s ideation for staging and choreography, of which there are many throughout the book, are an absolute treat and offer even more richness to the famed performer’s works. Cunningham’s fascination with shapes percolates even to lighting, where he asks for artificial, stunning lighting that manipulates form.

As for a more intimate study into Cunningham’s personal relationship to Cage and the latter’s adoration for the dancer, Love, Icebox is extremely gratifying and nearly guiltily so. A book of letters dated between 1942 to 1946 from John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Love, Icebox illustrates at least one perspective on the beginning and formation of Cage and Cunningham’s relationship. Included in the book published by the John Cage Trust and distributed by Artbook/D.A.P. are photographs of their 18th Street loft in New York City and various objects in their home and a foreword, afterword, and commentary throughout by editor Laura Kuhn. The 39 letters, found after Cunningham’s death in 2009, have never before been published and mark a closeness to Cunningham that explores various languages and forms.

A subtle thread of intimacy links Cage’s words to Cunningham’s in the very beginnings of their relationship in a letter in 1943: “I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.” While not a treatise on relationships per se, the book offers a deeply personal look into Cage and Cunningham’s relationship. Commentary by Kuhn provides more detailed context for the letters — such as this one being the first direct reference to the two working together (Cage invited Cunningham to work with him on projects his father gave him for extra income). Romantic language peppers both mundane observations — “pardon the intrusion: but when in september will you be back? i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us” — and direct proclamations — “i talk to you all day long but when i start to write i cannot.” Cage’s affection for Cunningham comes through in these instances in such sweet detail that one nearly feels intrusive reading Love, Icebox!

The photographs of objects and shots of their home, which fill the pages throughout the book, distract from Cage’s poetry itself, which stands on its own. His poetry takes many forms, including this letter from 1943 Cage writes upon sending money to Cunningham for his father after having been paid for a Spanish medical article they translated together:

I am on open top bus writing.
Writing and dying.
Yr. joint letter beautiful.
Pull a pig tail for me.
Need you to lie next to me under, on top, inside, between, close, close.

Yet a more thorough presentation of Cage’s poetry, or at least of his ideas about poetics, is available in Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), edited by Richard Kraft and Joe Biel. This new paperback edition of Cage’s diary, expanded from the 2015 hardback edition, both published by Siglio, includes a previously unpublished section of the diary and an essay by mycologist David W. Rose. Parts I–XIII span from 1965 to 1982 and include selections delivered as lectures or published in venues such as The Paris Review. While Diary primarily illustrates Cage’s musings on topics such as mushrooms, war, philosophy, technology, geopolitical relations, art, the environment, the avant-garde, and cooking, and people like Erik Satie, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Henry David Thoreau, and Ezra Pound, it is the formal aspects of the work that are particularly revealing. Cage applied chance operations to determine the formal qualities of the text, including word count, typeface, the number of letters in a line, line spacing, paragraph indentation, et cetera. Similarly, the editors of the diary used chance operations to choose between 18 typefaces and colors. Form and content align here; Cage’s musings on syntax, for example, are exemplified in his syntax itself:

… Syntax, like
government, can only be obeyed.       It is
therefore of no use except when you
have something particular to command
such as : Go buy me a bunch of carrots.
The mechanism of the I Ching, on the other
hand is utility.             Applied to
letters and aggregates of letters, it
brings about a language that can be
enjoyed without being understood.

This notion of language as an object of enjoyment that does not need to be known or understood runs through all of Cage’s writings, and his comparison of syntax to a form of control reveals his radical unspooling of language into, rather than reduced to, form. Language, when conformed to regulations, then enacts rule, “like government,” and is also the rule itself,  “something particular to command.” Cage levels comprehension to passive actions like obeying, whereas chance is more active mechanism of “utility.” With both approaches to syntax, Cage insists on the power and potentiality of language. His interest in the I Ching, the ancient chance-based divination text out of which many of his compositions were devised, runs through his career; he subsequently referenced and used the I Ching in various Fluxus works.

In his commentary on art, Cage advocates for a similar liberation from containment:

People still ask for definitions, but
it’s quite clear now that nothing
can be defined.            Let alone art, its
purpose etc.     We’re not even sure of
carrots (whether they’re what we think
they are, how poisonous they are, who
grew them and under what circumstances).

Cage’s cheeky positioning of “clear” next to “nothing can be defined,” emphasizes the fundamental vagueness of definition itself and opens up the dangerous and/or mysterious potential of something as seemingly mundane as carrots (“how poisonous they are”; “what we think they are”). Cage struggles with what vagueness might mean for art throughout Diary:

… Art’s socialized.     It isn’t
someone saying something, but people doing
things, giving everyone (including those
involved) the opportunity to have
experiences they would not otherwise have

While Cage is not necessarily defining or trying to define art here, he edges toward a description of what it is through an understanding of the artistic avant-garde’s emphasis on possibility and experience. Elsewhere, for example, he writes that the fluidity and flexibility of the avant-garde allows for creation or invention:

… People ask what the
avant-garde is and whether it’s
finished.          It isn’t There will
always be one.            The avant-garde is
flexibility of mind and it follows like
day the night from not falling prey to
government and education.    Without
avant-garde nothing would get

Here, Cage emphasizes focusing on process rather than on a more teleological sense of product. In another moment on the topic of art, he writes in riddles:

Art’s obscured the difference between
art and life.      Now let life obscure
the difference between life and art.”

At the same time, however, and equally a conundrum: 
… Sometimes
we blur the distinction between art and
life; sometimes we try to clarify it …

This blurring of strict demarcation returns through “life” and through “art.” According to Cage, art has at once no purpose and many; art is life and art is separate from life. This vagueness does not culminate in chaos; as Italo Calvino writes in his essay on “Exactitude” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, “The poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude […] since the search for the indefinite becomes the observation of all that is multiple, teeming, composed of countless particles.” The yielding to chance; the blurring and separation of binaries; the indefinite definitions of life, art, the avant-garde, the carrot — it all needs some sense of form and requires, by way of Calvino, the beauty of the vague, “exact and meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details, to the choice of objects, to the lighting and the atmosphere, all in order to attain the desired degree of vagueness.”

This meticulous attention is found in Cage’s wonderful description of the sounds of traffic that keep him awake at night:

… The traffic never stops, night
or day.             Every now and then a siren.
Horns, screeching brakes.       Extremely
interesting; always unpredictable.      At
first thought I couldn’t sleep through
it.      Then found a way of transposing
the sounds into images so that they
entered into my dreams without waking me
up.      A burglar alarm that lasted
several hours resembled a Brancusi.

Listening to see and imagining the abstracted forms of Brancusi’s sculptures and their simple and sinuous curves as an alarm bending in sound, reduced to one continuous blare or beep that edges toward and around is maybe the reason to read Cage’s diary, if not for his valuable insights into art, language, and humorous prose on why paper should be edible or how he describes himself as an “open cage.” Somewhere in the middle of the unfinished Part IX of the diary, Cage writes “The church bells still ring. The swallows make music before breakfast. All is not lost.” The music, like Cage’s musings with all its relevancy and innovativeness, continue.


Perwana Nazif is an independent writer and curator in addition to her work as the art director for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Perwana Nazif­­­ is an independent writer and curator in addition to her work as the art director for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in The QuietusArtforum, SFAQ, and the Vinyl Factory, among others. 


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