Monday, July 27, 2009

"No Immediate Survivors"

ETA: Please note Allan Kozinn's response in the comments! And see my more recent post here.

Just a few months ago I noted that Merce Cunningham and Pete Seeger were nearly exactly the same age, and, at age 90, were still going strong. Alas, the Times is reporting today that Merce has passed away. It's hard to imagine someone who lived a more satisfying life. I saw him in person only once, at a performance by his company in Los Angeles a few years ago. He came onstage afterwards, rather frail, to answer questions from the audience. I can't say I learned much; he told stories I had already read before, and stalled when pressed about specific points. But it's not often you get to bask in the presence of a legend like that, and it was thrilling just to be there.

The tributes are starting to flood in, and already, it is a pleasure to see how much things have changed since 1992, when John Cage passed away. What do I mean? Well, as we all know, the two were life-long lovers in various configurations from the 1930s until Cage's death. It was one of the most enduring partnerships in the history of the arts, bringing the idea of collaboration to new heights. Every single piece of music or dance either of them produced was done in the company of the other. Sure, not everything Cage wrote was to accompany a dance, but most of it was, and their lives and philosophies were so intertwined that you can't speak of one without speaking of the other. It's really kind of one of the great love stories of the twentieth century.

And yet, when Cage passed away, there was a great silence about Cunningham. Perhaps the most egregious example was Allan Kozinn's obituary for the oh-so-liberal New York Times. The essay is about 2800 words. I just did a little search, and the word "Cunningham" appears about eight times--and that overstates the quantity of the discussion. Kozinn simply mentions that Cage had been a "central influence" on Merce since the two had become "friends" at school. Later he mentions their "lifelong collaboration", and then finally at the very end, Kozinn gives a scant overview of Cage's personal life that is the only hint that he and Merce were more than "friends", even as he brutally dismisses the meaningfulness of their relationship:
Mr. Cage's marriage to Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff ended in divorce in 1945. From 1970 until his death, he lived with Mr. Cunningham.

There are no immediate survivors.

Shocking. One can only imagine how this obituary would be re-written if the two lovers and collaborators were a man and a woman. Sometimes I think my own scholarship on Cage is a little screechy, constantly pointing out that the man was in a same-sex relationship and that this might have affected his music. But you can see what I have to deal with! However, seventeen years later, appreciations of Merce are already doing a much better job of not cloaking his life with the veil of homophobia. Either that, or dance critics are better human beings than music critics, which might be the case.

It's true that Cage and Cunningham were reticent about their personal relationship. Cage's famous answer to such questions was, "I do the cooking, Merce does the dishes." And their music and dance is famously anti-expressionist, so it takes a little work to learn more about the men through their art. But, it's actually not that hard. I mean, just think about all of those early dances that Merce choreographed to John's music, back in the 1940s. Tamara Levitz has done the work to show intimate the relationship is between the music and the choreography, both Merce's and other choreographers--despite Cage's later disavowals, he followed the dance just as much as the other way around. As Tamara wrote, "he came to know their bodies as intimately as his own sounds."

Their relationship surfaced at other times too. One of my personal favorite moments was Cage's Sixty-two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham, a spoken-word piece written in 1971. It is simply a set of mesostics read in succession. Each mesostic is based on either the word "Merce" or the word "Cunningham." Mesostics, as you know, are like acrostics, except that instead of aligning on the first letter of each line, the chosen word is aligned down the middle, and Cage further made a rule that the letter along the spine must not repeat until after the next letter. For these particular mesostics, Cage used chance procedures to choose words from Merce's own book Changes, and further subjected the words to fonts and sizes according to more chance procedures. So, for example, the third mesostic of the set:

This all might seem pedantic to the uninitiated, but Cage was obsessed with finding ways to speak that broke the prison house of language. "Syntax," Cage liked to quote from Buckminster Fuller, "is the sound of marching feet." From the performance directions to Sixty-two Mesostics:
Speaking without syntax, we notice that cadence, Dublinese or ministerial, takes over. (Looking out the rear window.) Therefore we tried whispering. Encouraged we began to chant. (The singer was sick.) ... To raise language's temperature we not only remove syntax: we give each letter undivided attention setting it in unique face and size; to read becomes the verb to sing.

With all that can be said about mesostics, it can easy to forget that these ones in particular are in essence love poems. Filtered through layer after layer of modernist pretensions, but love poems at their heart. Like many of their generation, Cage and Cunningham saw no need to display their relationship to the world, but it wasn't simply a matter of the closet. Often, it was an attempt to build something even more powerful.


giantpanda said...

I like your take on dance critics being better human beings than music critics.

also, NO, we do not all know what mesostics are, nerdpants!

Rebecca said...

Eh, I'll find you some cranky and cynical dance critics if you like...I know of at least one choreographer who could use a major attitude adjustment. :)

Beautiful post, this.

Kozinn said...

Since you've commented on my obituary of Cage, I'd like to mention that when I wrote it, I called Merce Cunningham's representatives and asked whether he wanted to be listed a) as Cage's partner and b) (therefore) as a survivor. I was told in very clear, even forceful terms, that Mr. Cunningham did not wish to be so identified. In these cases, we defer to the wishes of the person who remains alive.

Anonymous said...

i can only say this about dance critics:

someday, deborah jowitt (one of the best-regarded ones out there) will write a review about a piece involving a trio that doesn't assume it's a straight love triangle. and maybe one of a one-dancer-one-audience-member piece that doesn't assume it's about sex work. i recall one Village Voice column when she managed to do both in the space of, oh, 20 column inches.