There’s a 45-minute lecture by John Cage deep in the Other Minds stacks at the Internet Archive (archive.org). In fact, there are many Cage lectures in the Archive, but for today let’s pay attention to the one with the prosaic title, “John Cage Lecture Reading: on Rauschenberg, Duchamp, Johns etc. at L.A. County Museum of Art, 1965.” It was recorded just after the beginning of 1965, a little over four decades ago, with Cage in high spirits; apparently his audience was, too. He opens with a brief description of his early academic career, and the format is not dissimilar to that of a stand-up comedian, including the regular punctuation of laughter from listeners. Cage talks about his early exit from undergraduate studies at Pomona College (his critique is that higher education can only really teach one skill: writing), and his subsequent attempt at a series of artistic careers, in architecture, then painting, then music.
Like a comic, and Cage was one of the original stand-up philosophers, he introduces jokes, only to repeat and then upend them. When pursuing a course in architecture, he is flummoxed by the suggestion that he dedicate his entire life to its pursuit, saying he wasn’t about to just give up his existence to one thing. And when he recounts how, later, the composer Arnold Schoenberg asks him to dedicate his life to music, the audience laughs at the idea that he has again been handed an aesthetic ultimatum. It’s a moment worthy of Bill Cosby, or Bob Newhart. Of course, as their laughter fades, Cage introduces that he agreed to the elder composer’s request. The tenor of the laughter that follows that particular turn of events is worth listening to closely. It has a timbre that says much about the kind of oratory Cage specialized in. It’s not the laughter that even our most thought-provoking comics, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, whomever, often received. There’s a lot of non-verbal meaning packed into the audience’s response.
After the autobiographical riff, Cage moves to readings from his most famous book, Silence. He emphasizes the introduction to his essay about the painter Robert Rauschenberg, in which he makes it clear that Rauschenberg’s white paintings preceded his own silent composition. He also jokes that his writings about music were published long before his music itself ever was. It’s an anecdote that might not have been lost on his old Pomona professors. Check out the lecture at archive.org; search for “cage 1965 duchamp” in the Other Minds Archive.