John Cage Remembered

It is hard to know whether the “Row” in the “Historical Row” feature in the latest Wesleyan magazine should rhyme with “owe” or “ow.” The students’ response to the 1955 concert presented by John Cage and David Tudor was so vastly minute in comparison to the Parisian response to the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps earlier in that century that our beloved Dick Winslow’s [’40] characterization of it as the “$100 Riot” may miss its true delicacy.

I was there. Like many who watched the developing spectacle from the south side balcony of the Chapel, I was neither convinced that I was, to quote Winslow, “in the presence of Art” nor more “unhinged in my sensibilities” than usual. We balcony dwellers were fairly noncommittal, sort of like those students who sit in the back of the classroom and feel superior. We did think the concert was jolly good fun, after a slow start.

University Archivist Leith Johnson’s account of the concert seems to omit how it began. Memory tells me it started with John Cage reading a prefatory essay explaining his musical methods and intentions in a quiet and unemotional monotone. It may not have been fully audible where I sat. It seemed to go on for a long time. Surely, fireworks had to follow so boring a recitation.

Well, they did, but at a leisurely pace. A thump here, a twang there, many moments of near silence, some buzzy sounds. Professor Winslow’s suggestion, after the fact, that it is best to listen to Cage’s music with a vacant mind, was a non-starter for most of us. We had learned, early in our college careers, that having a vacant mind was not the best way to succeed at Wesleyan.

Like many of the people sitting in the balcony close to the stage and far from the stairs, I didn’t try to reach the stage during intermission. After intermission, when the Cage piece was being performed, some of the students in attendance tried to avoid being seen making noisy responses, because the music faculty clearly felt those were unseemly and distracting. Instead, we balcony folk resorted to converting our programs into paper gliders, which could be inconspicuously launched to drift down upon the audience below.

It was reported to me by some friends who were music majors that at a reception following the concert, some of the music faculty had solemnly apologized to Messrs. Cage and Tudor for the students’ rowdy behavior. Cage allegedly gently explained that the student behavior needed no apology, because it, or the sound generated by it, was part of the total musical experience.

Much more of an “ow” kind of historical row had occurred just short of 11 months earlier, on May 2, 1954, when a combination of sincere protest, satire, and general high jinks turned a Loyalty Day Parade organized by the Connecticut VFW into a mess when it came by the campus. I was present at that, too, and became one of the designated few singled out for court appearance on breach of the peace charges and one of the fewer who were formally suspended for two weeks. That, however, was a $5 Riot, for that was the amount of the court fine meted out to each of us. Perhaps the 1955 Cage concert should be characterized as a “Three Penny Riot.” Like the Three Penny Opera of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill, it was rife with grotesquerie, but, all in all, ended well. The Three Penny Opera has a somewhat contrived happy ending. A long and productive relationship seems to have been the happy ending created by Cage and Wesleyan.

Hats off, by the way, to Dick Winslow who taught us all that making music and listening to it are acts of great passion and amore.


In the fall of 1960 I experienced Cage, then a resident fellow at CAS, for myself. As part of my freshman Western Civ course (one that was “integrated” with English), I was required to take something that I remember (perhaps inaccurately) as being called Humanities Workshop. The purpose of these hands-on studio experiences in drawing, wood carving, and music making was to show us that we could do things we didn’t think we could do, to stretch our boundaries, to transform the abstraction of the verb “educate” into a reality.

John Cage was the impressario of the music workshop. After assembling various important instruments, e.g., chairs, pots, sticks, a resident piano, and identifying fixtures such as steam radiators for use in the performance, Cage gave each participant his part and his cue. Or maybe not his cue as a portion of his purpose was to make seemingly random sounds coalesce within a structure, time. Cage, of course, conducted, not with a baton but first with a stopwatch and then with his outstretched arms. Much banging and crashing ensued.

We were perplexed. Was this “music”? But it turned out to be an indelible experience, as he and Wesleyan intended, because it opened us to experience music in ways we had never before considered.