"I'm an old showman...." (John Cage)
Apart from knowing that John Cage could be angered by performers who didn't take his work seriously, I knew nothing about the man before I met him in 1976. His renown as a musical innovator and philosopher preceded him, and so, for the several days that he was at Northwestern, I, like many other students, followed him around every chance I got so that I could observe him.
He visited a Freshman Theory course and talked about cadences in Haydn, went out to lunch with a group of students and shared his meal with an undergraduate who couldn't afford more than a soda. He sat in on an evening improvisation session with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and had us turn out the lights, open the windows, and "fit the sounds into the environment."
And then he visited the Introduction to Electronic Music course where I was assisting. Because we were only a few weeks into the term, the students were still mystified by and terrified of the synthesizers, patch cords, and recording equipment, and their faces showed it. As Cage was introduced, they shifted uneasily in their seats, probably wondering what he was going to say, how he was going to relate to them. He thanked the professor, smiled, took a minute to eye the equipment, the students, and then told the class about the first time he walked into the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, Germany. He talked about how intimidated he felt by the studio, which was "much larger" than the Northwestern studio, and equipment. I don't recall if he used the word "Overwhelming" to describe it, but that was the impression he left with us, that he felt overwhelmed by it. Immediately, I could see the students relax and nod. They wanted to hear more. So he told them how he dealt with his reaction, how he took a piece of paper and drew a series of boxes on it, each one representing an equipment module, and then labeled them. This way, he was able to study them where he was comfortable. The students took out their pens and began to make notes.
Cage had said, at the end of the concert where I sang the Aria, "I'm an old showman." He was supposed to perform Empty Words after the concert, but decided not to because he knew "When not to follow an act." So, without any hesitation, he invited the audience back to the hall the next day for a performance of Empty Words.
Until I saw him speak to the beginning electronic music students, I didn't appreciate how gifted a showman he was. As he had done in the Theory class, at lunch, and with the musical improvisation, he sized up the setting, the circumstance, and audience, figured out almost instantaneously what was needed, and supplied it—not just by identifying with the students' problems, but by offering them tools they could use to solve them. But what struck me as most extraordinary about his gift, was the remarkable spirit of generosity driving it. There was no artifice there, no arrogance, no condescension; there was simply the desire to communicate, entertain, and instruct.
He just wanted to share it.... That was Cage.