by Julia Dür

4. Passionate encounters 
                                                                      John and Marcel 


click to enlarge
Figure 3
Photograph of
Duchamp and Cage

John Cage’s and Marcel Duchamp’s (Fig. 3) ways first crossed in 1942. Duchamp, as many European artists, spent the war years in New York. They met in famous Hale House, home of Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst which was then well known as the meeting place for European artists in exile. 30 year-old Cage, originally from Los Angeles was invited by his artist-friend Max Ernst to stay in Hale House. When, after a short period, Peggy informed Cage and his wife Xenia who were penniless at the time, to move out of Hale House, Cage “retreated through the usual crowd of revellers until he came to a room that he thought was empty, where he broke down in tears. Someone else was there, though, sitting in a rocker and smoking a cigar. It was Duchamp.” Cage mentioned that “he was by himself, and somehow his presence made me feel calmer. Although I could not recall what Duchamp said to me, I thought it had something to do with not depending on the Peggy Guggenheims of this world.”(1)

Their first encounter reveals interesting aspects of their prospective friendship. Duchamp, the cool smoking type, sitting in a room all by himself, mumbling something amusingly at a desperate stranger. “He had calmness in the face of disaster”(2), Cage said later. Duchamp could not so easily be disconcerted. The odd encounter scene between Duchamp and Cage somehow conveys Duchamp’s inclination to indifference. Years after they had first met each other, Cage noted in his 26 Statements Re Duchamp: “There he is, rocking away in that chair, smoking his pipe, waiting for me to stop weeping.”(3) Cage obviously experienced Duchamp’s cool indifference first-hand.

Cage, in many interviews, mentioned his friend’s sense for wittiness. As he told Moira Roth,  Duchamp was paradoxically “very serious about being amused and the atmosphere around him was always one of entertainment.” He further remarked that “we get to know Marcel not by asking him questions but by being with him.”(4) The reason why Cage did not want to disturb him with questions was that he then would have had Duchamp’s answer instead of his personal experience. Indeed, the concept of experience, deriving from Zen Buddhism, is central in Cage’s philosophy and should not merely be considered in context of his music. He believed that experience, in most respects, was more significant than understanding. It seems that Cage rather wanted to let things happen when spending time with Duchamp. This philosophy has much in common with Cage’s notion of ideal education, but also with his idea of silence and chance in music. Cage was amazed “at the liveliness of Duchamp’s mind, at the connections he made that others hadn’t (…).”(5) These words undoubtedly give evidence of a unbroken Duchamp admirer. When asked what artist had most profoundly influenced his own work, Cage regularly cited Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp, on the other hand, fondly spoke of Cage as someone full of lightness. “He has a cheerful way of thinking. Not ingeniously (…) He is not acting like a professor or schoolmaster.”(6) I believe that Duchamp did not either want to appear like a schoolmaster, but the respect many people showed towards him, naturally made him less affable. Duchamp, as a consequence of his voluntary artistic isolation, stroke others as aloof.

“Had Marcel Duchamp not lived, it would have been necessary for someone exactly like him to live, to bring about, that is, the world as we begin to know and experience it.”(7) -John Cage

Cage’s respect for Duchamp had blossomed into a sporadic, yet close friendship. In his introduction to 26 Statements Re Duchamp, Cage noted that due to his view “he felt obliged to keep a worshipful distance.”(8) Duchamp’s often mentioned aloof character must have initially had an impact on their friendship. Following Cage’s remarks preceding his 26 Statements, his admiration must have led to dubitation concerning Duchamp. It seems as if he was inapproachable to Cage:

“Then, fortunately, during the winter holidays of ’65-’66, the Duchamps and I were often invited to the same parties. At one of these I marched up to Teeny Duchamp and asked her whether she thought Marcel would consider teaching me chess. She said she thought he would. Circumstances permitting, we have been together once or twice a week ever since, except for two weeks in Cadaqués when we were every day together.”(9)

Cage’s memories leave the impression as though he had long waited for an occasion to ask Duchamp teaching him chess. He later told Calvin Tomkins that Marcel’s quiet way often gave him the feeling that he did not want attention, “so I stayed away from him, out of admiration.”(10) In contrast, it is hard to imagine Duchamp in the role of the passionate admirer. Duchamp rarely spoke about artists that he thought influenced or inspired him. He soon disengaged himself from a model once he grasped it. However, in the case of Raymond Roussel, a writer whose piece Impressions d’Afrique “greatly helped him on one side of his expression”, Duchamp made an exception: “I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter. And Roussel showed me the way.”(11) Duchamp found his models less in art than in literature. He was on the way to erase the borders between different arts.

Duchamp, more than Cage, was the type of artist who, due to his mixture of charm and extravagant aloofness, seduced his admirers into an uncritical adulation of his art. He had more of the cool, indifferent type of character who sometimes preferred not to be understood. Though Cage and Duchamp are often discussed in terms of the same artistic circle--along with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, their characters appeared to be quite different. Duchamp’s indifference among other things served to keep others from getting to close. I can only to some extent agree with Tomkins who wrote in this respect that “his lack of passionate attachments seemed rather to make him more lighthearted, more alert to everything, and less competitive than others.”(12) Someone who is equally passionate about gathering mushrooms and writing ambitious philosophical texts is in my mind more lighthearted than a professional chess player.

John Cage

Cage’s sometimes amusing humbleness expressed in his interviews give evidence of his joyful character and his sense of humour (Fig. 4). As Anne d’Harnoncourt, one of Cage’s favourite scholars wrote, he was indeed a delight to observe observing. “Surveying the ground as he walked in a wet field, he found mushrooms; listening to a roomful of silence, he heard his blood circulate in his veins; concentrating on a game of chess, he enjoyed a nearby waterful.”(13) Cage’s interviews, I am thinking in particular of Musicage with Joan Retallack, are interspersed with laughter. Listening to Laughtears--a conversation on Roaratorio, it is not unduly to assert that both the interviewer and Cage laughed their heads off.(14) Though both Cage and Duchamp are frequently described as humorous, Cage’s optimistic and sometimes self-ironic personality probably made him more approachable:

“In connection with my current studies with Duchamp, it turns out I’m a poor chess player. My mind seems in some respect lacking, so that I make obviously stupid moves. I do not for a moment doubt that this lack of intelligence affects my music and thinking generally. However, I have a redeeming quality: I was gifted with a sunny disposition.”(15)

Isn’t it wonderfully amusing to find someone as Cage philosophising about his ‘lack of intelligence’? Duchamp appeared to be more amusing than humorous as a contemporary described him “(…) His blunders are laughable, but he laughs long before you do; as a matter of fact, you laugh at his amusement, not at him.”(16)After having read parts of Duchamp’s letters and interviews, I must add that I found him very amusing. However I would cagely ;) say that his nature of  humour was more subtle and black than Cage’s. Duchamp enshrouded himself in a cloud of mystery. After having finished this chapter you will understand what Cage wanted to express by the following mesostic in memory of Duchamp:


                                YoU ever want to win?


                                      How do you

                                mAnage to live with

   Just one sense of huMor?

            She must have Persuaded him to smile.(17)

click to enlarge
Figure 5
Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Sélavy by Man Ray, 1921

As already mentioned in the last chapter, Duchamp was a convinced anti-artist. This attitude was expressed by the adoption of various ‘roles’ such as ‘Duchamp, the dandy’ or ‘Duchamp, the chess player.’ As Roth already wrote in her essay Duchamp in America, Duchamp could be described as a dandy who, as Baudelaire once put it, was obsessed with a “cult of self who used elegance and aloofness of appearance and mind as a way of separating himself from both an inferior external world, and from overt pessimistic self-knowledge.“(18) His dandy appearance also found expression in his ‘roles’ …duchamp the intelligent deceiver… such as Rrose Sélavy (Fig. 5), a self-made, female image inhabiting the idea of an artist-substitute for Duchamp. There is nothing particular in taking on another name - many artists still do. However, he could not so easily take on another sex. Duchamp’s enacted deception was meant as a word play: “(…) Much better than to change religion would be to change sex …Rose was the corniest name for a girl at that time, in French anyway. And Sélavy was a pun on c’est la vie.(19) Duchamp, wearing a seductive fur dressed up as a female and posed for Man Ray’s camera. Rrose Sélavy  clearly is the product of an artist  who managed to deceive us more than once. After all, he left no indication he was a homo or transsexual.

The most famous role Duchamp however adopted was that of the chess player which again showed himself as the anti-artist. Both Cage and Duchamp devoted much of their energy to playing chess. Duchamp, however, was the more obsessive player. How addicted to chess must one be to neglect one’s bride by spending day and night playing chess during honeymoon? For Duchamp, chess apparently also served as a way to distract himself. Duchamp’s first wife, Lydie, was said to become such annoyed by her groom solving chess problems one night that she got up and glued the pieces to the board.(20) During his 9-months stay in Buenos Aires, Duchamp wrote to a friend: “I feel I am quite ready to become a chess maniac (…) Everything around me takes the shape of the Knight or the Queen and the exterior world has no other interest for me other than in its transformation to winning or losing positions”(21)

For Cage, the goal of winning was clearly beside the point. His motto could be compared to that of the Olympic athletes, “taking part means everything”, under the premise of Duchamp as the antagonist. He was interested in the Buddhist notion of letting things happen, especially when spending time with Duchamp. Cage could apparently confirm Duchamp’s chess addiction - in his interview with Roth he remembered one game of chess where Duchamp got quite angry with him and ‘accused’ him of not wanting to win:

“The only time he disturbed me was once when he got cross with me for not winning a game of chess. It was a game I might have won; then I made a foolish move and he was furious. Really angry. He said ‘Don’t you ever want to win?’ He was so cross that he walked out of the room, and I felt as though I had made a mistake in deciding to be with him--we were in a small Spanish town--if he was going to get so angry with me.”(22)

Duchamp was an excellent chess player, who, in the role of the tireless thinker even made it to the French national team. After his immigration to the United States, Duchamp was ranked among the top twenty-five chess players in the twenties and thirties. In 1932, he published a chess book titled Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled which was devoted “to a very rare situation in the end game, when all the pieces have been captured except for the opposing kings and one or two pawns on each side.”(23) The book gives evidence of Duchamp’s mathematical gift. Cage, on the other hand, used his mathematical ambitions for chance operations in music.

Duchamp and Cage spent more and more evenings together playing chess. “I saw him every night, four nights in a row,“(24) Cage recalled. What did they do when they were not indulged in their passion? It is certain that they were not talking about each other’s work, according to Cage’s interview with Moira Roth.(25) Meanwhile, they were rather ‘experiencing’ each other simply by spending time together. Cage, rather humble in his statements, often admired his friends’ genius for chess:

“I rarely did (play chess), because he played so well and I played so poorly. So I played with Teeny, who also played much better than I. Marcel would glance at our game every now and then, and in between take a nap. He would say how stupid we both were. Every now and then he would get very impatient with me. He complained that I didn’t seem to want to win. Actually, I was so delighted to be with him that the notion of winning was beside the point. When we played, he would give me a knight in advance. He was extremely intelligent and he almost always won. None of the people around us was as good a player as he, though there was one man who, once in a blue moon would win. In trying to teach me how to play, Marcel said something which again is very oriental, ‘Don’t just play your side of the game, play both sides.’ I tried to, but I was more impressed with what he said than I was able to follow it.”(26)

click to enlarge
Figure 6
Photograph of Reunion performance, 1968

For Cage, chess apparently served as a pretext to spend time with Duchamp.  In 1968, the year of Duchamp’s death, Marcel and his wife were invited to take part in a musical event entitled Réunion by John Cage (Fig. 6). Cage’s idea behind this happening was that, in his mind, chess contained a finality in itself, as its goal was to win. Cage thus wanted to alienate the game from its ‘purpose’ by distributing sound sources each time movements took  place on  the chess  board. He noted that “the chess board acted as a gate, open or closed to these sources, these streams of music (…). The game is used to distribute sound sources, to define a global sound system, it has no goal. It is a paradox, purposeful purposelessness.”(27) The event consisted of Cage and Duchamp (and later Cage and Teeny) playing chess on stage on a board that had been equipped with contact microphones. Whenever a piece was moved, it set off electronic noises and images on television screens visible to the audience. Cage’s alienation of the chess game from its original purpose is an interesting concept in view to both Duchamp’s and Cage’s understanding of art. Alienation indeed played a crucial role in both artists’ lives. I am thinking now in particular of Duchamp’s readymades and of Cage’s Prepared Piano.  Duchamp later amusingly recounted the chess event:  “It went very well, very well, it began about eight-thirty. John played against me first, then against Teeny. It was very amusing.” Asked whether there was any music, he replied “Oh yes, there was a tremendous noise.”(28)

Chess brought in no money for Duchamp, but provided richer satisfaction. After all, he was a réspirateur. But why chess? When I learned how to play chess at about 14, I was fascinated about it and eagerly taught it some of my friends. However, I never aimed to perfect it, to rack my brain endlessly about possible combinations. A friend of mine is a passionate chess player and I was quite curious what he found so fascinating about it. He spontaneously answered: “Chess is completely different from other games--it has nothing to do with chance or luck.” I found this statement quite interesting in respect to Duchamp’s use of artistic tools--chance was not only typically Cagean, but in fact used by Duchamp in his music piece Erratum Musical already in 1912, the year Cage was born.(29) For both artists, chance functioned as a means to escape from tradition, taste and conscious intentions. Thus it appears that chess stood in strong contrast to various methods and ideas both Cage and Duchamp used in art. An instinctive compensation? Cage, according to an interview, was interested in mushrooms and chess as a compensation for his concern with chance.(30) This was apparently also true for Duchamp--after all he was well aware of the contradiction between chess and art: “The beautiful combinations that chess players invent--you don’t see them coming, but afterward there is no mystery--it’s a pure logical conclusion. The attitude in art is completely different, of course; probably it pleased me to oppose one attitude to the other, as a form of completeness.”(31)On the other hand, Duchamp believed that art and chess were in fact closer to each other than they seemed. He thought that the game had a visual and imaginative beauty that was similar to the beauty of poetry. Duchamp ended his remarks by saying that “from my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”(32) When Cage asked Duchamp to write something in his book on the end game, he wrote: “Dear John, Look out! Another poisonous mushroom.”(33) Chess and mushrooms were obviously opposed to the chance operations both Cage and Duchamp used in their art.

What immediately came to my mind when I heard about luck in the course of the chess conversation with my friend, were some thoughts Duchamp wrote to his sister’s husband Jean--on the enquiry, what Duchamp thought about one of his works of art:

“Artists throughout the ages are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery pulls some of them through and ruins others (…) It all takes place at the level of our old friend luck. Artists who, in their own lifetime, have managed to get people to value their junk are excellent salesmen, but there is no guarantee as to the immortality of their work. And even posterity is a terrible bitch who cheats some and reinstates others, and reserves the right to change her mind again every 50 years.”(34)

This statement carries a touch of resignation. Duchamp believed that artistic luck had nothing to do with real genius. According to him, “a good artist is just a lucky guy, that’s all.” It seems that Duchamp refused to take part in the ‘artistic lottery’, in the useless competition between artists. Chess, in contrast, justly rewarded those who had a real talent. His passion required him to ‘work hard’ in order to win. Duchamp apparently forgot about his self-made image of the réspirateur when sitting in front of a chess board.

I found it interesting to observe that both Cage and Duchamp had obsessions which cannot immediately be connected to art. Duchamp did not exclusively devote his life to art, as did Cage not concentrate merely on music. The former had a passion for chess, the latter for mushrooms and cooking. Cage was aware of the fact that many people criticised him for not devoting his life to music utterly. When he began his studies with Schönberg, he told his teacher that could not afford the price. Schönberg then asked him if he would devote his life to music and Cage’s answer was “yes.”(35)  But--why devoting one’s life to art respectively music if all areas are interrelated? Cage, in this respect said that “I still think I’ve remained faithful. You can stay with music while you’re hunting mushrooms(…)”(36) Both Duchamp and Cage expanded the notion of art into areas which were up to that time clearly separated from art itself. Chess cannot be simply regarded as a pastime for Duchamp, as Cage’s mushrooms and cooking passion were not merely an amusement. They did not only function as a counterbalance to their work as artists. Instead, they were integrated within their thinking and philosophy. Both artists transposed the idea of blurring the distinctions between art and life simply by their way of life. A female friend of Cage interestingly reflected on him:

“The months that followed, which extended into years, afforded me close proximity to both the man and his work. What I came to see was that there was very little difference between the two. That is Cage cooking was Cage composing was Cage playing chess was Cage shopping was…You get the picture. All of his daily activities, from the most sublime to the most mundane, were equally infused with a kind of mindful detachment.”(37)

The way Cage devoted himself to an ‘ordinary business’ such as mushrooms and cooking, is certainly remarkable. Much of his experimental writing and also music was dedicated to his mushroom passion. It seems that whatever Cage experienced in his daily life became raw material for his art. Many of his elaborate remarks in A Year from Monday rather reminded me of an affectionate cook. As in the second part of his Diary: How to Improve the World, where he wrote:  “After getting the information from a small French manual, I was glad to discover that Lactarius piperatus and L. vellereus, large white mushrooms growing plentifully wherever I hunt, are indeed excellent when grilled. Raw, these have a milk that burns the tongue and throat. Cooked, they’re delicious. Indigestion.”(38)

Similar to Beuys, who worked with felt, fat and cloth after these materials saved his life after an aircrash, Cage’s interest in mushrooms originated from necessity during the World Depression. He then solely lived on mushrooms for one week and after this experience decided to occupy with them intensely. According to Cage, much could be learnt from music by devoting oneself to the mushroom. “It’s a curious idea perhaps, but a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time.”(39)Cage found many parallels between mushrooms and music. However, he was well aware of the fact that his mushroom passion, like chess, was in fact in conflict to his idea of chance in music.  To leave it to chance whether to eat a mushroom or not could after all end fatal. Mushroom growth is not even determined by chance. They are rather choosy--grow on wet grounds only. Like Duchamp, Cage published a book on his passion in cooperation with two other mycologists. And - surprisingly, he did make money with his mushroom passion. Cage once appeared on an Italian show as mushroom expert and won 6000 US dollars by answering ‘mushroom questions’ correctly ;)(40)

Mushrooms fired Cage’s imagination. His idea was that everything on earth should be audible because of vibration--including mushrooms. “I’ve had a long time the desire to hear the mushroom itself, and that would be done with a very fine technology, because they are dropping spores and those spores are hitting surfaces. There certainly is sound taking place.”(41)Proceeding on this assumption, he made explorations on which sounds further the growth of which mushrooms. Besides being one of the founders of the Mycological Society in New York, Cage taught a course called ‘Mushroom Identification’ at the NY School for Social Research. One lecture he held dealt with the ‘sexuality’ of mushrooms:

“We had invited a specialist from Connecticut, who had cultivated a certain species of mushroom, a Coprinus, in very large quantities to study their sex. In his lecture, he taught us that the sexual nature of mushrooms wasn’t so very different from that of human beings, but that it was easier to study. He explained that there are around eighty types of female mushrooms and around one hundred and eighty types of males in one species alone. Some combinations result in reproduction, while others do not. Female type 42, let’s say, will never reproduce with male type 111, but will with certain others. That led me to the idea that our notion of male and female is an oversimplification of an actually complex human state.”(42)

Would you have thought of mushrooms in terms of female and male? I would not and besides enjoying myself immensely, I am continually amazed at Cage’s affectation of details. He had an extraordinary ability to exploit these new insights and incorporate them into his artistic thinking. And yet at the same I am asking myself how one can possibly have such a playful mind in order to connect sounds with mushrooms…I wonder if Cage was aware of his mushroom passion as something which many people would simply consider absurd if they did not study him thoroughly. To my astonishment I found the answer on the very last page of Cage’s first book Silence. Cage’s thoughts prove that he was hardly someone worldly innocent.

“In the space that remains, I would like to emphasize that I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds. These would involve an introduction of logic that is not only out of place in the world, but time-consuming. We exist in a situation demanding greater earnestness, as I can testify, since recently I was hospitalised after having cooked and eaten experimentally some Spathyema foetida, commonly known as skunk cabbage. My blood pressure went down to fifty, stomach was pumped, etc. It behoves us therefore to see each thing directly as it is, be it the sound of a tin whistle or the elegant Lepiota procera.”(43)

“Isn’t cooking all about mixture and letting individual flavours hold our attention?” -Anne d’ Harnoncourt

In the late 70s, Cage, after serious health problems, began a macrobiotic diet on the advice of John Lennon and Yoko Ono(44). The idea of the macrobiotic diet is to make a shift from animal fats to vegetable oils. What fundamentally distinguishes the macrobiotic diet from other health programs is that, rather than consisting of a fixed list of foods to be consumed or avoided, it provides a structure which applies to the whole range of available choices, an orientation which many adherents of the diet extend to a whole cosmology. For Cage, macrobiotics undoubtedly meant more than just cooking or eating. However, he did not take the diet too seriously--he used herbs and spices which he enjoyed. In the short introduction to his macrobiotic recipe collection in his Rolywholyover - A Circus Box, Cage wrote: “The macrobiotic diet has a great deal to do with yin and yang and from finding a balance between them. I have not studied this carefully. All I do is try to observe whether something suits me or not.”(45) Strictly following a recipe would not sound much like Cage--reading his recipes for chicken or beans indeed sound a bit like his notations in music--they allow enough room for the performer’s interpretation.

Cage’s discovery of macrobiotics is no coincidence--with its oriental origin and its application of yin and yang, the macrobiotic diet fits in very well with both Zen and with the temperament of Cage. He believed he had already been affected by the ideas of the diet before he actually started it: “I accepted the diet you might say aesthetically before I accepted it nutritionally.”(46) As Harnoncourt’s interesting quotation (“Isn’t cooking all about mixture and letting individual flavours hold our attention?”) suggests, cooking has a great deal to do with music where individual sounds hold our attention. After studying Cage, I cannot suppress the impression that he could have utilized all daily activities in his art. Cage’s kitchen probably was one big sound studio:

“In all the many years which followed up to the war, I never stopped touching things, making them sound and resound, to discover what sounds they could produce. Wherever I went, I always listened to objects. So I gathered together a group of friends, and we began to play some pieces I had written without instrumental indications, simply to explore instrumental possibilities not yet catalogued, the infinite number of sound sources from a trash heap or a junk yard, a living room or a kitchen…we tried all furniture we could think of.”(47)

Cage was astonished by the positive results of the macrobiotic diet. “Your energy asserts itself the moment you wake up at the beginning of the day. It remains constant. It doesn’t go up and down, it stays level, and I can work much more extensively. I always had a great deal of energy, but now it is extraordinary. At the same time,” he added, “I’m much more equable in feeling; I’m less agitated.”(48) His improvement so amazed him that he kept up the diet from that time onwards and frequently recommended it in interviews:

“Now, however, after, say, four years of following the macrobiotic diet, my health has so greatly improved that I would seriously advise almost anyone who would lend me an ear to make a shift in diet from animal fats to vegetable oils, to exclude dairy products and sugar, to ‘choose’ chicken only if it actually is a chicken, that is, free from injected hormones, agribusiness, etc., to eat fish, beans and whole grains, nuts and seeds, and vegetables with the exception of the Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, egg-plant, and peppers)”(49)

 Macrobiotics also inspired Cage to a growing concern with nature and ecological matter. Big business and agribusiness, he stressed, damage our meat, vegetable and water supplies. Food which he mostly advised in special books of recipes include proper preparations for brown rice, zucchini, beans and chicken. In connection with the museum project called Rolywholyover Circus(50), John Cage published various macrobiotic recipes. Four of them I will include at the end of this chapter.

“I try to discover what one needs to do in art by observations from my daily life. I think daily life is excellent and that art introduces us to it and to its excellences the more it begins to be like it.”(51) -John Cage

Cage’s devotion to macrobiotics and mushrooms are interesting insofar, as they once again witness his contribution to the blurring of the distinction between art and life. As already suggested, Cage’s passions cannot be simply regarded as pastimes or, as in the case of cooking, in the context of a human necessity--though Cage began his macrobiotic diet on medical grounds, thus out of a necessity. We certainly do not get past spending time to prepare our daily food--nevertheless it is a question of how we deal with those daily routines. Cooking was as much a part of Cage’s life as composing music and poetry. Once Cage managed the shift from ordinary cooking to macrobiotics, he consciously devoted more time to what can be called the ‘act of cooking.’ This is at least the impression he left behind in his elaborate recipe descriptions. As Kuhn wrote in her essay, it was hard to distinguish Cage from his work: “Cage cooking was Cage composing was Cage playing chess was Cage shopping was…”

Cage, in contrast to Duchamp, frequently made his friend the theme in his writings as well as music. Cage’s ‘homages to Duchamp’ give evidence of the importance of this friendship for him. In his book, A Year from Monday he dedicated 26 Statements on Re Duchamp to his artist friend. The Statements are among other things Cage’s reflections on Duchamp’s artistic methods: “The check. The string he dropped. The Mona Lisa. The musical notes taken out of a hat. The glass. The toy shot-gun painting. The things he found. Therefore, everything seen--every object, that is, plus the process of looking at it--is a Duchamp.”(52)Cage continued his reflections on Duchamp in the second and third part of his Diary: How to Improve the World. In the late 40s, Cage wrote the music for a Duchamp sequence in Hans Richter’s famous avant-garde film Dreams that Money Can Buy. The song is called Music for Marcel Duchamp. In his M--writings ’67-’72, Cage composed several mesostics in memory of Marcel. The following mesostic was written shortly after Duchamp’s unexpected death in 1968. Cage remarked, “it was a loss I didn’t want to have.”(53)

the telegraM
I Read it.
Death we expeCt,
but all we gEt
is Life(54)
click to enlarge
Figure 7
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

Undoubtedly, Duchamp’s work and philosophy lived on in the work of John Cage - as in the case of his visual work titled Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel (1969). The work consists of a Plexiglas field on which one may find letters and fragments of words. Anne d’Harnoncourt wrote about it that “Cage characteristically sought to maintain both multiplicity and transparency by setting eight sheets of clear plastic printed with words in stands so that the viewer peered through them; and if he wasn’t careful, his gaze passed beyond them.”(55) The work is indeed very reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (Fig. 7). As the title suggests, Cage did not want to say anything about his artist friend and thus subjected words to chance operations. He possibly wanted to leave the spectator with language fragments in order not to take him in completely. There is no point in attempting to ‘resolve’ Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel. I believe it is a homage to a very good friend.

Another interesting work which Duchamp apparently inspired him to, was the box which I already mentioned in connection with his macrobiotic recipes. Duchamp, in his artwork called Boite, gathered together small reproductions of his artworks unbound in boxed form rather than in an album or a book. So did Cage: Rolywholyover - A Circus is a reflecting box which was designed in consultation with Cage himself. The publication accompanied with a major exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles conceived of by Cage as a “composition for museum.” The box is an artwork fully in keeping with his philosophy. It contains a wide range of materials, printed in different formats--such as reprints of texts that Cage found useful and inspiring. The texts can be read in any order. The box also includes reproductions of works by Cage, musical scores, recipes, advice on healthy eating and photography. As Cage said in discussing the box,

“The world is vast, give the impression that the materials are endless.”(56) -John Cage

Despite Cage’s intense occupation with Duchamp, he always remained a somehow mysterious mind. In the foreword to his alphabet in X-writings ’79-’82, Cage reflected on Satie, Joyce and Duchamp--three artists who greatly inspired him. Cage is quite explicit about his ‘goals’ in respect to those three artists--namely that he is not interested in ‘understanding’ in the sense of giving ultimate answers. His humbleness nevertheless gives evidence of an exceptional bright and free mind. In relation to Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegan’s Wake he wrote:

“When I was in Ireland for a month last summer (…) many Irishmen told me they couldn’t understand Finnegan’s Wake and so didn’t read it. I asked them if they understood their own dreams. They confessed they didn’t. I have the feeling some of them may now be reading Joyce or at least dreaming they’re reading Joyce. Adaline Glasheen says: ‘I hold to my old opinion. Finnegan’s Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes.’ And she says: “Joyce himself told Arthur Power, ‘What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded with mystery.’ Human kind, it is clear, can’t stand much reality. We so fiercely hate and fear our cloud of unknowing that we can’t believe sincere and unaffected, Joyce’s love of the clear dark--it has got to be a paradox….an eccentricity of genius.”(57)

I was impressed by Joyce’s quotation--for reality is indeed often mysterious and inexplicable. In Cage’s interview on his Roaratorio--An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake, Cage remarked that “Joyce didn’t mean Finnegan’s Wake to be understood, he meant it to be a piece of music.”(58) We tend to question everything which is unfamiliar with. Asking questions is one thing but expecting precise answers is another. In relation to Duchamp, Cage thought that asking him questions was the wrong tactic. He had no special intentions when spending time with him. I believe that we can learn a lot from Cage when trying to study Duchamp. Asked on how Cage would circumscribe his friendship with Duchamp, he answered:

“If, for instance, you go to Paris and spend your time as a tourist going to the famous places, I’ve always had a feeling you would learn nothing about Paris. The best way to learn about Paris would be to have no intention of learning anything and simply to live there as though you were a Frenchman. And no Frenchman would dream of going to, say, Notre Dame.”(59)

Nevertheless, there remained a hermetic aspect of Duchamp’s work. Cage once spoke to Marcel’s wife, Teeny Duchamp about this: “I said, ‘You know I understand very little about Marcel’s work. Much of it remains very mysterious to me.’ She answered “It does to me, too.”(60 We must be satisfied with what we are offered by Duchamp--otherwise we will end in a never ending helix. John and Marcel simply enjoyed each other’s presence, without much talking about their work. In order to contribute something to your enjoyment - my suggestion is that you try Cage’s Roast chicken before you continue with the next chapter. In case you are not hungry you will enjoy reading them.

‘Passionate encounters’, this chapter’s motto, is dedicated to the personalities of both Cage and Duchamp as well as their friendship - a friendship which was very much formed by their passions. Though chess initially functioned as a pretext for Cage to spend time with Duchamp, it became an important and enjoyable common amity experience. While writing about chess, I found many parallels in Cage’s passions repertoire and thus tried to examine it also in view to the central notion of the essay--the blurring of the distinction between art and life. Moira Roth’s interview with John Cage has helped me a lot to get an insight into their nature of friendship. However, this only gives a one-side impression and as Duchamp’s documented statements on Cage were comparatively rather rare, it is far from completing the puzzle. I am writing this with the humble precaution of a historian who was taught to take all possible historical resources into account.

As I am writing these lines, my thoughts lead me to Duchamp, the perpetual intelligent deceiver. I am thinking of the Duchamp who was never willing to give away too much. While listening to the last beats of Cage’s Music for Marcel Duchamp I am constantly reminded of the Duchamp who managed well to surround himself with mystery. One should be a clairvoyant rather than a historian.



“Cage’s scores for music, scores for prints, recipes for chicken, all exist for realization by the artist in real time, and he invited his audience (or his dinner guests) to realize that listening, cooking, and eating are also creative acts.”(61) -Anne d’Harnoncourt

John Cage’s recipes are an interesting experience in view to his whole philosophy. His cooking advices are precise and clear, but far from elitist. They give evidence of his pedagogical gift not to impose his ideas on anybody. Cage, for example did not use the imperative form of “you do …(such and such)”, but instead used the self-referential “I” when explaining the cooking procedures. Interesting also, that his recipes are be inspired by various cultures. The following recipes should offer a possibility to ‘experience’ John Cage. I found it quite interesting what Cage said about experience:

“I think that there is a distinct difference between…. I think that the most pointed way to put this distinction is by using the word “understanding” as opposed to “experience.” Many people think that if they are able to understand something that they will be able to experience it, but I don’t think that that is true. I don’t think that understanding something leads to experience. I think, in fact, that it leads only to a certain use of the critical faculties. Because…say you understand how to boil an egg. How will that help you in cooking zucchini? I’m not sure. One could make the point more dramatically by saying, “How will that help you to ride horseback?” But that probably goes too far. I think that we must be prepared for experience not by understanding anything, but rather by becoming open-minded.”                                           

Roast Chicken

Get a good chicken not spoiled by agribusiness. Place in Rohmertopf (clay baking dish with cover) with giblets. Put a smashed clove of garlic & a slice of fresh ginger between legs and wings and breasts. Squeeze the juice of two & three lemons over the bird. Then an equal amount of tamari. Cover, place in cold oven turned up to 220°. Leave for 1 hour. Then uncover for 15 minutes, heat on, to brown. Now I cook at 170°, 30 minutes to the pound. Or use hot mustard and cumin seeds instead of ginger. Keep lemon, tamari or Braggs and garlic. Instead of squeezing the lemon, it may be quartered then chopped fine in a Cuisinart with the garlic & ginger (or garlic, cumin & mustard). Add tamari. The chicken & sauce can be placed on a bed of carrots (or sliced 3/4-inch thick bitter melon obtainable in Chinatown)

Brown Rice

Twice as much water as rice. If you wish, substitute a very little wild rice for some of the brown rice. Wash or soak overnights then drain. Add a small amount of hijiki (seaweed) and some Braggs. Very often I add a small amount of wild rice. Bring to good boil. Cover with cloth and heavy lid and cook for twenty minutes over medium flame, reduce flame to very low and cook thirty minutes more. Uncover. If it is not sticking, cook it some more. If it is sticking to the bottom of the pan, stir it a little and then cover again and let it rest with the fire off. When you look at it again after ten minutes or so it will have loosened itself from the bottom of the pan. Another way to cook rice: using the same proportion of rice, bring to a boil and then simply cover with lid without the cloth, reducing the fire to low. After forty-five minutes, remove from fire but leave lid on for at least 20 minutes.


Soak beans overnight after having washed them. In the morning change the water and add Kombu (seaweed). Also, if you wish, rosemary or cumin. Watch them so that they don’t cook too long, just until tender. Then pour off most of the liquid, saving it, and replace it with tamari (or Braggs). But taste first: you may prefer it without tamari or with very little. Taste to see if it’s too salty. If it is, add more bean liquid. Then, if you have the juice from a roasted chicken, put several teaspoons of this with the beans. If not, add some lemon juice. And the next time you have roast chicken, add some of the juice to the beans. Black turtle beans or small white beans can be cooked without soaking overnight. But large kidney beans or pinto beans can be cooked without soaking overnight. But large kidney beans or pinto beans, etc. are best soaked (So are the others.) Another way to cook beans which has become my favourite is with bay leaves, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. You can cook it with some kombu from the beginning. I now use the “shocking method.” See Avelines Kushi’s book. And now I’ve changed again. A Guatemalan idea: Bury an entire plant of garlic in the beans without bothering to take the paper off. Cook for at least 3 hours.

Chick-Peas (Garbanzos)

Soak several hours. Then boil in new water. Until tender. They can then be used in many ways. 1. Salad. Make a dressing of lemon or lime with olive oil (a little more oil than lemon), sea salt and black pepper, fresh dill-parsley, and a generous amount of fine French mustard (e.g., Pommery). 2. Or use with couscous having cooked them with fresh ginger and a little saffron. 3. Or make hummous. Place, say, two cups of chick-peas with one cup of their liquid in Cuisinart. Add a teaspoon salt, lots of black pepper, a little oil and lemon juice to taste. Add garlic and tahini. Now I no longer add salt, but instead a prepared gazpacho. >>Next


page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1. Tomkins 330/331.

2. Kostelanetz, 11.

3. John Cage, A Year from Monday-Lectures and Writings (London: Calder & Boyars Ltd, 1968) 71.

4. Roth 74.

5. Ibid. 73.

6. Stauffer 201.

7. John Cage, A year from Monday 70.

8. Ibid. 31.

9. Ibid.

10. Tomkins 411.

11. Ibid. 91.

12. Tomkins 176.

13. Anne d’Harnoncourt, “Paying attention” in  Rolywholyover-A Circus (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993).

14. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in enjoying a live interview with Cage. I found it in the Internet:

15. Cage, A year from Monday x (Foreword).

16. Tomkins, 151.

17. John Cage, M-Writings ’67-’72 (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1973) 27.

18. Roth, “Marcel Duchamp in America“ 19.

19. Tomkins 231.

20. Ibid. 282.

21. Ibid. 214.

22. Roth, “John Cage on Marcel Duchamp“ 78.

23. Tomkins 290.  

24. David Revill, The Roaring Silence. John Cage: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 1992) 214.

25. Roth 74.

26. Ibid.

27. Cage, For the birds 168.

28. Jennifer Gough-Cooper & Jaques Caumont, Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy  1887-1968 (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993) no page references!

29. Erratum Musical is a musical composition which was Duchamp’s first implementation of chance--Duchamp jotted down the notes as he drew them out of a hat; he was supposed to sing the resulting score with his two sisters, Yvonne and Magdeleine.

30. Kostelanetz, 18.

31. Tomkins 253

32. Ibid. 211.

33. Roth 81.

34. Francis N. Naumann , Affectionately Marcel  321.

35. Kostelanetz 5.

36. Ibid.

37. Laura Kuhn, “John Cage in the Social Realm“ in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

38. Cage, A year from Monday 61.

39. Kostelanetz 5.

40. Cage, Biography in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

41. Kostelanetz 89.

42. Cage, For the Birds 226.

43. John Cage, Silence (Middletown/Connecticut: Wesleyan, 1967) 276.

44. I must smile at this point--a good friend repeatedly told me in high school  that no matter what I write about, I always include John Lennon. It seems as if I hold up to this tradition ;)) John Lennon and Yoko Ono were friends of Cage and sent him six cookbooks on macrobiotics.

45. John Cage, Macrobiotics Recipes , in Rolywholyover - A Circus (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993).

46. Revill 259.

47. Daniel Charles, For the Birds-John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles (London: Marion Boyars, 1995) 74.

48. Kostelanetz 30.

49. Daniel Charles, For the Birds 233.

50. Cage, Macrobiotic Recipes in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

51. Anne d’Harnoncourt, “Paying Attention” in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

52. Cage, A year from Monday 70.

53. Revill 230.

54. Cage, M – Writings ’67 - ’72 34. 

55. Anne d’Harnoncourt, “Paying Attention“ in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

56. Cage, Introductory Notes in Rolywholyover-A Circus.

57. Cage, X-writings ’79 - ’82 54.

58. Interview Roaratorio.

59. Roth, “John Cage on Marcel Duchamp” 74.

60. Roth 73.

61. D’Harnoncourt, “Paying Attention“ in Rolywholyover-A Circus


Figs. 5, 7
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.