Virgil Thomson in chaos & bed: defining freedom & fun

the rigidities of the modern world are to be found in the strict application to politics and sociology of Das Kapital of Marx and the techniques of psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud – not by the others. The scientific world has boh the spontaneous discoveries expounded mathematically and mathematics itself, which, in the quantum theories and the relativity equations, has been both rigid and imaginative. So one can approach modernism through the extremes of spontaneity, as in Freudian analytical procedures, or the extremes of planned and preachable explanations, as in Marx, which is closer to the rigidities of Calvinist Protestantism than to the freedom of Catholic confession and repentance procedures.

– Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) interviewed by Peter Dickinson, Chelsea Hotel, New York City, July 1, 1987, in CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage, edited by Peter Dickinson, Uni. of Rochester Press, NY, 2006, p. 119

– Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein

He [John Cage] used to sit playing my Hymn-Tune Symphony [1928] at the piano and saying, “Oh, this is so beautiful!” It corresponded to his memories of southern childhood. There is a remarkable sort of praise for my opera Mother of Us All[1947].

– Virgil Thomson, Four Saints

He was much more skeptical about the rigid elements in Four Saints [1934, Thomson’s first opera with Gertrude Stein] because, although he had a certain respect for Gertrude as a modernist, she was far too free for his taste.

Peter Dickinson: We’re talking about Cage as rigid when the impression given to a wide public is that anything goes.

Virgil Thomson: [laughs] Provided it has no intention!

PD: He talks of the pleasure of chaos.

VT: The necessity of chaos, I should say. Pleasure he sort of omits in his theory.

PD: But you don’t find the necessities of chaos in Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez…

VT: Chaos can be a hell of a lot of fun!

PD: Doesn’t it get boring after a while?

VT: Well, anything does. I was a friend of Boulez from the very beginning – I was the first person to write about him. It was in the Flute Sonatina when he was twenty-one. Boulez, by a rigid method, followed a certain French model, which is actually that of Marcel Duchamp. By a rigid application of your method you make, before you’re thirty, a half dozen unforgettable works. Your rigidity gets ahold of you, and you’re incapable of arriving at forty with freedom.

-John Cage & Merce Cunningham

VT [contd.]: A bit of that applies to Cage.

– John Cage & Merce Cunningham, Variations

VT [contd.]: He doesn’t have the freedom in his music writing today that he was sort of promising himself. So he’s been the tail to Merce’s kite – willfully.

PD: The theory is that the freedom comes after the discipline.

VT: It comes after the discipline. There is no freedom unless it’s a freedom from or through discipline. Freedom is not a matter of chaos. It’s an ability to create imaginative compositions in your life or in your work.

– Virgil Thomson

VT [contd.]: Marcel Duchamp, whom I knew extremely well, became a sort of guru of Cage’s later life. He was jealous of the artist who had freedom – very jealous of Picasso. He could do anything he wanted to do and it would always come out. Marcel said to me once, “The trouble with Picasso was that he was sexually excited by the smell of turpentine, so he had to work every day!” Marcel was a pretty sexy guy, with women all over the place, but he was deeply excited by planned chaos. But again, as he said to me very frankly, “There was room for two cubist painters, and those spots were occupied by Picasso and Braque who were five years older than I was.” So Marcel, being deeply ambitious, had to make a kind of theory of how you become an artist by not working. Cage is very close to that, and I still consider it a heresy. It comes from his facile handling of rigid ideas rather than his being a musical natural. Now, Pierre Boulez is: he has a fantastic ear. Cage does not have that ear. Pierre is stymied by his ear: it’s too good. Cage is forced into arithmetic and doctrinaire ideas by his lack of that kind of musical ear. Many of the great composers in history, such as Mozart and Beethoven, have had extremely good ears.

– Virgil Thomson

VT [contd.]: But I like Cage and I like his music. The career has been spectacular, and very probably a good deal of the music will remain.

– Ibid., pp. 118-121

– Virgil Thomson & Orson Welles