Spool Five

Cage and Feldman in Conversation

Author: Eoin Carney Published: Mar, 2021

The 4 hour conversation, taken from youtube: Cage & Feldman (.opus)

I originally wanted to upload this here so that I could talk about some of the topics that Cage and Feldman discuss. I realise now that that would be a futile task. This isn’t a conversation that can be ‘summarised’ or ‘talked about’ very effectively.

I used to listen to this when going to sleep. It was uploaded to Youtube (that particular version has since been taken down), so I would just skip to random points and let it play. It is that kind of conversation (or series of conversations). You can just listen in at any point and things will make sense. It’s like an endless conversation, the best kind. Well, in a way, all dialogues are endless/remain ‘unfinished’. This one just leans into that even further.

The philosopher Hans Geog Gadamer once wrote about a common phrase regarding conversations. We sometimes say ‘we conduct a conversation’. But, Gadamer argues, the more genuine a conversations is, the more it ‘conducts us’. Once an idea or subject matter begins to take shape between two partners in dialogue, it starts to take on a life of its own. Soon, we find ourselves saying things we’ve never even thought before, new ideas are conjured before our minds as if by magic. We are caught, to use Gadamer’s sense of the term, in the ‘play’ of language.

Just as any kind of game can compel you to act or express yourself in new, unforeseen ways, a genuine dialogue can do the same. In play, it’s as if we become ‘someone else’, someone a bit separate from who we usually are. We may become more aggressive, more affectionate, more shrewd; some other part of our self is unlocked, but only for the duration of the game. The ‘play’, where we ‘loose ourselves’ is, paradoxically, the only time we are most like ourselves, according to Gadamer at least. This is because the ‘self’ is something that is, in its essence, dynamic, creative, playful, and, most importantly, only really  when it is confronted by another self, a partner, be it in conversation, in play, in love, etc.

The conversations on tape here exemplify this kind of play and self-discovery. The best conversations are open to interruptions. They are flexible enough to allow tangents, changes of venue, unanticipated ideas, even changes in context. We not only find these conversational virtues at work in these recordings, but they are also reflected in the work of the artists themselves.

For example, and maybe most famously, the dialogue opens with a discussion of the “intrusions/interruptions of culture”. Morton Feldman had recently visited a beach, and was plagued by the racket of multiple transistor radios. This, of course, is a universal experience that occurs to any person who is part of a culture. Culture evolves, changes, and does so with plenty of noise. Today, people using Gemini might feel similarly ‘intruded upon’ by the harsh ‘noise’ of the modern web - the trackers, the adds, the scripts, the styling. This is especially the case if all you want to do is simply read some text. Feldman, too, just wanted a peaceful walk on the beach.

Cage, however, counters with an alternative perspective. What if we, the ‘irritated’, ‘intruded-upon’ ones, are the actual intrusion (both in a positive and negative sense). He references Satie, who said that he wanted to write music “which would not interrupt the sounds of the environment”. Our desires (to go for a quiet walk, to simply read some text) are internal, our /reality/ is the environment we exist in (even if it is an environment populated by transistor radios and tracker bots).

Cage’s response to the dilemma was to try to find the intrusions ‘interesting’. And by doing so, he created art (his piece “imaginary landscape No.4 for 12 radios”)

The piece mentioned above, performed by students of Hunter College (NYC): Imaginary Landscape No.4 (.m4a) The broader point here is that, as reflected in both Cage and Feldman’s work, they are open to many perspectives, to intrusions and tangents, and this makes them great conversationalists.

Below, is information about the recording, taken from archive.org:

Information about the recordings:


John Cage / Morton Feldman: Radio Happenings I - V Recorded at WBAI, New York City, July 1966 - January 1967

John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended conversations at the studios of radio station WBAI in New York. These meetings spanned six months between July 1966 and January 1967, and were produced as five “Radio Happenings”. Both were at transitional points in their music. Cage had completed Variations V in 1965 and Variations VI and VII in 1966, and would publish “A Year from Monday” in 1967. Most of Feldman’s important work was yet to come. These conversations between two old friends, relaxed, smoking, and throwing out ideas, are full of laughter and long ponderous silences. They form an incredible historical record of their concerns and preoccupations with making music, art, society, and politics of the moment.

In 1993 these conversations were transcribed and published as “Radio Happenings I-V” by Edition MusikTexte in Cologne, Germany, with a German translation and a preface by Christian Wolff. However, the printed page loses so much that can only be experienced by hearing these two speaking together again - even those long, meaningful silences.

I: July 9 1966

On intrusions - is it reality or culture? The role of the artist - deep in thought. Is it possible to avoid the environment around us? Being constantly interrupted? Larry Rivers, Bob Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez, Black Mountain College. On boredom and Zen, Buckminster Fuller.

II: July 1966

Governments, modern music, freedom from being known. Writing for large or small ensembles. Boulez and Stockhausen’s reactions. Writing for Christian Wolff and electric guitar. de Kooning. Lukas Foss. Cage comments on Feldman’s soft sounds. Having stamina to make an action. On working alone. Working “at home”. Being asocial and the telephone. Edgard Varese. The question of death.

III: 28 December 1966

There is so little talk these days. Talking in England. The ICA lectures. Kitaj. David Sylvester. English pompousness. Cardew. Compositions as “work-in-progress”. Thinking about Mozart. Webern and other possibilities for new music. Differences between Boulez and Stockhausen piano pieces. Varese and process. Space, silence, notation, scales. Finding the vertical. Grandeur of Varese. Stockhausen’s refusal. Looking into the future. Buckminster Fuller’s ideas on ending war.

IV: 16 January 1967 (Part 1)

Design in a disposable world. How our sense of time has changed. “How do we spend our time?” Conversation as enjoyment. Impermanence and music. “Do you prefer the composition, or hearing the music?” Feldman working on “In Search of an Orchestration”. Composers silent on Vietnam. Painters are not. Protests in Europe. Fuller’s views and World Resources Inventory. Global Village.

V: 16 January 1967 (Part 2)

Varese or Webern? On Boulez. On an upcoming concert in Cincinnati. Problems, stories of performances. “Why do you continue to compose?” Creating new notation. Students making compositions. The way things are done nowadays. Things are “less narrow now”. Children, and the Middle Ages. “If we apply ourselves to the social situation… as composition rather than criticism, we’ll get somewhere!”

Thanks to the Estate of Morton Feldman and the John Cage Trust for permission to share this historic interview. All Rights Reserved.

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