When John Cage blew up at Buffalo’s gay scenemain
From a 2016 article by Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News, reprinted with his permission:
The most dramatic thing I ever covered for this newspaper was a shocking explosion of temper and bewilderment by Cage at a seminar during Morton Feldman’s first “June in Buffalo” festival. What enraged Cage was a performance of some pieces from his “Song Books” by the S.E.M. Ensemble in which ensemble member Julius Eastman “brought out a young, blond man and a young black woman and proceeded to spiel out a broadly funny new ‘system of love’ with virulent homosexual overtones. At the end of it, the young man was undressed and the subject of the performer’s (Eastman’s) gay advances.”
That’s my description of the event according to Renee Levine Packer in her new book with Mary Jane Leach, “Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music” (University of Rochester Press, 246 pages, $34.95). I had reviewed that concert.
“Cage was furious,” Packer writes in her biography of Eastman. “In his seminar the next morning, he was visibly agitated, stamping around the room, breathlessly raising his voice in an uncharacteristic way, even pounding the piano with his fist. He expressed disappointment and immense frustration that his work could have been so misunderstood, especially by such experienced performers, and in a place where he thought surely he could rely on a knowledgeable and sensitive reading.”
His work, Cage said at the seminar I later wrote about, called on performers’ huge freedom but only if what they did was in the philosophical spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Eastman’s improv sex comedy in provocative comic service to gay liberation was hardly that.
Anyone who had marveled at Cage’s writings in his books “Silence” and “A Year from Monday” couldn’t help being shocked that a man who had devoted so much of his life to contemplative equanimity, could explode so helplessly in such rage. The emotional distance between what I knew of Cage’s philosophy and his fury that day was the most dramatic gap I have ever witnessed after encountering a major cultural figure. I was witnessing in Cage the dark side of the moon….
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