My first encounter with John Cage changed my life. I had known about Cage from quite an early age as Dr. (“Bud”) Ramsey, the extraordinarily enlightened music master at Goole Grammar School, had told me about the prepared piano and about 4’33” – the so-called silent piece – things which he found interesting, though puzzling.
But it was seeing the Cunningham Company at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1966 which really opened my eyes. The first piece I saw was called “Solo”, danced by Merce behind a white scrim, with a brilliant white décor by Robert Rauschenberg , accompanied by the five piano Nocturnes of Erik Satie, played with great delicacy by Cage himself. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. But the second piece, “Variations VI” was simply astonishing. It involved the whole company performing seemingly random actions with great elegance, all interacting with an array of electronics in the pit, overseen by the benign team of Cage, David Tudor and Gordon Mumma.
I decided that this was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.
I met Cage briefly during this visit to England and a couple of years later found myself working with him in America. It was through his personal generosity that I was able to stay there so long – I only had a visitor’s visa and couldn’t do any official work but he took me on as an assistant, paying me out of his own pocket. However it is his intellectual generosity that I value above all. Cage didn’t have any ‘students’ in the strict sense, just people who worked with him. It is a measure of his greatness that those who are composers never end up sounding like him (unlike with other composer/acolyte relationships). He gives you permission to be yourself. Anything goes, provided –as he would always say – that you take “nothing” as the base.