How composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham changed the art of collaboration

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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When composer John Cage met dancer Merce Cunningham at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle in the late 1930s, they began a lifelong collaboration that changed the art of collaboration itself. Three of their close collaborators reflected on their work with Cunningham and Cage before presenting a performance tribute, Music for Merce, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“A nice piece of chance”

Viola Farber, Marianna Preger-Simon, and Merce Cunningham in Suite for Five for which Christian Wolff composed the music. (Photo: Louis Stevenson, 1956)

Both Cage and Cunningham are remembered for using chance as part of their creative process. Curiously, a chance encounter with composer Christian Wolff is what is what encouraged Cage  and Cunningham to explore chance procedures in new ways.

In the early 1950s, Cage lived in a loft above Wolff’s piano teacher. “When I first met Cage and Cunningham, I was very young. They were kind of like parents, kind of like older siblings.”

Wolff was eager to study composition but he could not afford to pay for composition lessons. Cage agreed to teach Wolff, then only 16 years old, for free. “Since he wasn’t charging me,” Wolff said, “I liked to do nice things for him when I could,” including giving him books.

Cunningham’s Suite for Five with music by Christian Wolff

The child of publishers, Wolff knew “Cage was very interested in and familiar with Asian art and thought, and my parents had just been involved with the publication of a new English translation of the I Ching, which I gave him. It was a very elegant book.”

The I Ching, an ancient Chinese system of divination that relies on chance, had a profound impact on Cage’s compositional method. “He was always trying to work out ways to proceed by chance, but he hadn’t found a mechanism that was satisfactory until he discovered the I Ching. It was a nice piece of chance, it fit the bill exactly.”

Wolff described Cage’s early work as “very experimental. But it was meant to be expressive in a traditional musical way. He later reached a point where people weren’t getting the expressive part. They were either amused or distracted by the percussion he used, or the prepared piano, which was a complete novelty at the time.”

Merce Cunningham. Suite by Chance (Movement Chart II C-D-E Extensions) (1952) (Source: MOMA)

“You had the feeling in 1950 that the new music scene was in the doldrums. Serialism and neoclassicism didn’t appeal (though Stravinsky and the others we like – the originals). It felt like a time to try to start from scratch, and that’s what we imaged we were doing. Everyone thought we were out of our skulls.”

Wolff composed the music that Cunningham used for his first dance that incorporated chance operations, Suite by Chance, which premiered in 1953.

“We were never told what to do”

Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time which featured music by David Behrman and sets by Jasper Johns

“It was through Christian Wolff that I got to know Merce and John and Morton Feldman and the whole crew,” composer David Behrman said. “The first gig I had with them was at the end of 1967. They asked me, which was a great surprise, if I would want to do the music for an upcoming dance, Walkaround Time, which premiered in 1968.”

“I did feel very privileged that I was invited into a very special circle of artists. They were so ready to take a risk with a young artist like myself. Before you know it, Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johnson were working with us, and I was the lucky young guy chosen to make this piece.”

Cunningham and Cage assembled some of the greatest artists across all disciplines to create new work. Though how they collaborated was just as important as who was collaborating.

Set elements of Walkaround Time by Jasper Johns

“We were never told what to do, which was an amazing experience. Occasionally I’ve had collaborations with other dancers and it’s usually nothing like that,” Behrman said. “They always want to change your score – fix things here, change things here. It’s usually like being a lighting designer where you’re helping with the main vision of the main artist.

“But they thought that one element shouldn’t be subservient to the others. Almost no one is following that path right now as far as I know. It just brought across a feeling of trust which was a wonderful thing. I’ve done other pieces for Cunningham since 1968, but it was always the same.”

Berhman was also delighted by the crowds that these collaborations brought. “With the Cunningham company, they would fill big theaters. That continually astonished me. I would be there in the pit in the theater before the performance, and people poured in and the whole place filled up. If it weren’t for the Cunningham company, we would have had tiny audiences.”

Nothing has to be prearranged

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft (Photo: Michael McKenzie, 1976)

“I first met John Cage in 1972,” said Joan La Barbara, whose own work as a singer and composer has influenced diverse artists from Björk to Caroline Shaw. “I was working with Steve Reich. Cage was on tour with David Tudor. We all arrived in Berlin around the same time.”

“There was a big performance of Cage’s HPSCHD at the Berlin Philharmonic. The whole thing was so chaotic to me. I was furious. I walked up to Cage and I asked him, ‘With all the chaos in the world, why do you make more?’ The people around me gasped. I marched out of the hall. There were thousands of people there, though a few minutes later, he tapped on my shoulder and smiled beatifically and said, ‘Perhaps when you go out into the world, it will be less chaotic.’”

“I realized this thing happened to him quite often,” she said. “People would say nasty things about him, or ask questions, and he always had a response. I worked with him for 20 years and I never heard him not respond.”

Gordon Mumma (playing horn) and Joan La Barbara rehearsing with David Behrman for his piece Rebus in Cunninghman’s studio at Westbeth, summer 1974 prior to performances in Paris for the Festival d’Automne. (Photo : Mary Lucier)

Later, Cage comforted La Barbara when faced with criticism after performances in La Rochelle, France. “The orchestra had an attitude, let’s put it that way,” La Barbara said. “Some refused to play, some just talked to each other. By the end, Cage was purple with rage. Being in France, we were confronted by the press. But he came up to me and said, ‘You did your job beautifully, and I want you to know that I am with you always.’ From that moment, he was completely open to me and my questions. He became my mentor from then until about a week before his death.”

Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace

La Barabra recalled one of her early collaborations with Cunningham which also took place in La Rochelle. “Cunningham invited me to participate in one of his ‘events’ using my own music. We used three of my works including Circular Song and ThunderWhen I did my solo piece Circular Song, Merce came on and did a solo that seamlessly flowed together with it. When we did Thunder,” scored for voice, electronics, and 6 timpani, “the dancers told me they previously performed the choreography to music by Morton Feldman and that they felt like fawns in a forest. But when my music to Thunder came on, it was like being in a jungle.”

“To me that illustrates how Cunningham’s theory of putting together music and dance and just deciding on an overall time frame works so beautifully,” she said. “Nothing has to be prearranged because we, the audience, will fit the work together no matter what.”

Music for Merce was presented as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time,  a major retrospective exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center. In true Cunningham fashion, the exhibition occurs simultaneously at both the Walker and the MCA.