CageTalk: Earle Brown Interview with Peter Dickinson

CageTalk: Earle Brown Interview with Peter Dickinson

The following interview with Earle Brown took place in Rye, New York, on July 1, 1987, and is reprinted from CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage edited by Peter Dickinson, pp. 136-145.
Copyright © by Peter Dickinson and published by the University of Rochester Press.
Used by permission of the author, publisher, and the Earle Brown Music Foundation.

  • READ an interview with author Peter Dickinson.


    Earle Brown was born in Lunenberg, Massachusetts, in 1926 and died in Rye, New York, in 2002. He was one of the four principal members of the New York School of composers centered around Cage in the 1950s. He grew up playing the trumpet, largely jazz, and he studied in Boston—engineering and mathematics at Northeastern University, composition at the Schillinger School, and privately with the twelve-tone composer Roslyn Brogue-Henning. In the early 1950s, through the influence of artists such as Pollock and Calder, Brown pioneered graphic notation and open form, and, as his career developed, he was recognized as a leading avant-garde figure in both Europe and America. In the 1960s he worked for record companies, lectured at Darmstadt, taught at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and held visiting posts with American universities and organizations in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland.

    Brown first went to Darmstadt in 1958, but four years earlier David Tudor had played some of his earliest open-form pieces there.1 During 1958 Cage gave his three lectures at Darmstadt, the second of which included discussion of works by Brown, Feldman, and Wolff. In “Indeterminacy” Cage discusses Brown’s Indices (1954) and Four Systems (1954) for unspecified instruments. The latter has no score but is a diagram of rectangles that can also be read upside down or sideways. Cage must also have been intrigued to discover that performances could be superimposed and that there was no specified time-length.2

    In 1985, looking back at their association, Cage thought it was his love of theater that distinguished him from Brown, Feldman, and Wolff. He said Brown’s music “seemed to me, oh, more conventional, more European. He was still involved, you might say, in musical discourse (or soliloquy), whereas I seemed to be involved with theater.”3 It now seems hard to regard Brown’s work as in any way European, except in the serial techniques of his earliest pieces. Further, his derivation from the New York abstract expressionists and from jazz makes him a distinctly New World phenomenon.


    Peter Dickinson: When did you first become aware of John Cage?

    Earle Brown: My first wife, Carolyn,4 and I were in Denver, Colorado, and I had a studio for arranging and composition teaching—Schillinger5 techniques as well as jazz and pop. Carolyn was dancing with Jane McLean, and Merce Cunningham and John came through on a tour. I had heard about John before that but had no musical information at that point. Jane’s pianist had gone to New York, and he came back to Denver saying he’d met this weird composer and had been to a concert of really strange music. Merce gave master classes, which Carolyn took, and she impressed him mightily. We went to a concert of John playing his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano: that’s the first music I remember hearing. I was working with various notations, including the beginnings of my open-form developments. I thought the Sonatas and Interludes were gorgeous, but they had very little to do with what I was doing. There were a couple of parties at Jane’s studio where Carolyn and I met John and Merce. I remember the very first thing I said to him was, “Do you think your music has anything to do with Anton Webern’s music?” He looked at me and said, “What do you know about Webern?” Evidently, in 1951 it was very unusual for him to run into somebody in Denver who knew about Webern!6

    PD: You were ahead of John in providing notational opportunities at this stage?

    EB: Yes, that’s right. For one thing, I came out of jazz, so improvisation and flexible relationships among scoring, performers, and notation were very natural to me. I had done a graphic score in 1949–50 in Denver and had already been influenced by Calder’s mobiles, and that was the key to what became my open-form scores.

    PD: What happened to Cage around 1951—the upheaval when he wanted to get himself out of his music?

    EB: I don’t really know, and I’ve thought about it a lot. He once said to me that he came to a kind of crisis, not only in his music but also in his life.7 He had to accept either psychoanalysis or Zen Buddhism, and he didn’t believe in psychoanalysis [laughs] so he accepted Zen, and I think that was the whole turnaround point of his development of chance composition. I can’t say that definitively, but I don’t think he was joking. His earlier music up to the String Quartet shows choice, finesse, care, and detail until the acceptance of a philosophical point of view. When I first met him in Denver he was talking Zen and working on Music of Changes. Then he went deeply into bringing about music rather than composing it. That’s what you do when you don’t choose.

    PD: That’s the time when he was going to Suzuki’s lectures.

    EB: He started probably before I met him. Merce was struck with Carolyn’s dancing and John was really astonished at my music, so I think there was a kind of bipartisan desire to have Carolyn dance with Merce and me work with John. We came to New York in 1952, and I started immediately working on the electronic music project that we called Project for Music on Magnetic Tape, because we wanted to include all possible sounds.8

    PD: I don’t think you wanted to take yourself out of your music. Were you under any pressure to follow Cage’s views?

    EB: Oh no. He disagreed with me a lot. My music has a history through me being a trumpet player working with jazz combos, with a feeling of warmth toward the musicians. I believed it was possible to make scores that would allow flexibility and improvisation that would not be shoddy. John disagreed and thought you couldn’t trust the musician, who would play his favorite tunes. But he’d never been in an improvisation situation, and I knew there was a stage beyond quotation that was real creative music making at an instant level.9

    PD: If you get an Ornette Coleman, but for most people…

    EB: I was very idealistic and thought I could bring it about with classical musicians, and I have. I could play you things in my own music and not tell you whether they were written or not and you won’t be able to tell the difference. But I have guided rehearsals, and classical musicians react brilliantly. John didn’t believe that.

    PD: With the advent of chance in his works from around 1950, where is his personality?

    EB: I think Virgil [Thomson] said that no matter how John does it, it always sounds like John Cage. Lou Harrison was asked what he thought of Cage’s chance music. His reply was classic: “Personally, I’d rather chance a choice than choose a chance!” Very profound.

    John chose the elements like setting up a program, which is then activated by his chance procedures. The program describes the kind of outcome you will get. At that point the musical personality became more a sociological or philosophical one, but he still chooses the potential, the statistical outcome.

    PD: Another way the personality is assessed is through the public relations: he’s been news for a long time.

    EB: Yes. He’s a great publicist himself—I’m not saying that in a derogatory fashion. He makes news in a certain sense of being very audacious. If he were not in music but in sociology, it probably wouldn’t be quite so extraordinary. I think all the hullabaloo is because it’s so shocking in the art world that an artist does not choose to control the details, shape, and poetic aspects.

    PD: He’s gone so far as to say that art’s day is over.

    EB: He’s speaking for himself. Even though I respect and admire him and look back with fondness, we did argue and he would get angry with me because I’d tend to push him on a point of view I didn’t agree with. We never became unfriendly and still are good friends. We don’t see each other very often because we both travel so much. Since I first met him I’ve gone very much my own way. One of things that brought us together—Feldman, John, and myself—was a deep interest in the other arts. I’ve always been tremendously influenced by visual arts and literature. But we all have very distinct personalities. We differed at the beginning and continued to differ, but we still maintained this friendship.

    PD: What did it feel like to be part of what we now call the New York School in the 1950s?

    EB: There were the three of us—Christian Wolff was not around much. He was at Harvard studying classics. Morty, John, and I were together nearly every evening. John and I worked on opposite sides of a long table from ten in the morning until about five in the afternoon. John and I would talk. I’d push him a bit about my interest in my kind of thing, and I’d challenge him about chance. He used to say about the tape library we were working with that any sound in the world could go into the piece. I used to argue and say I’d think about sounds that couldn’t possibly go into these pieces! [laughs]

    In the fifties it felt like we were in this alone. John—fourteen years older than Morty and myself—already had some kind of reputation, but at that point his reputation in the standard academic world of composition in New York was very low. He was not getting invited to a lot of places like he is now. A lot of people just thought he was off his rocker!

    There was the feeling that we were doing things nobody else was doing—all three of us were on different tracks, which were compatible. Morty was never interested in chance composition or Zen; I was interested in Zen philosophy—Carolyn majored in philosophy at college—but Zen never influenced me. Most of the things I did were done for aesthetic experimental reasons to see if classical musicians could be brought into a more spontaneous world of music making. I had already written severe twelve-tone serial music, which Boulez saw and admired when he came to the United States in 1952. But I always wanted to bring about a balance between calculation and spontaneity, which is still the story of my life as a composer.

    We also felt very close to painters we admired. I was powerfully influenced by the immediacy and spontaneity of Jackson Pollock and Bill de Kooning.10 I wanted to bring the spontaneous gesture into music, and I finally did with the open forms. We were looking for a new way of musical expression.

    PD: So were you New York abstract expressionists?

    EB: Somebody called Philip Guston11 an “abstract impressionist,” and that’s certainly what Feldman is—sort of. Morty’s very quiet, very gentle, slowmoving, gorgeous things were completely different from what I was doing at that time, with broad gestures and intricate weblike musical results. John was influenced by Duchamp, who did chance music in 1913;12 Morty was influenced by Philip Guston; I was more influenced by Calder, Pollock, and de Kooning—the singular moment of the instant making of a sound-piece. We felt we were the sonic extension of potentials we inherited from James Joyce or Gertrude Stein, and I was much connected to Ives and Varèse. We were doing something that had to be done—to hell with it if nobody really pays attention at the moment!

    PD: There were other painters such as Rothko?13

    EB: We all had connections with Rothko, Feldman especially. In a certain sense it strikes me that Feldman’s music is the music of an imagist. His music from the early fifties until now has—kind of—the same image as Rothko’s paintings, working with different colors and orchestrations of a singular and single image. Whereas I want to try a lot of different things and go off in a lot of different directions. And John has stuck to composing music by chance all that time.

    PD: Are there any particular writers who were important?

    EB: To me the writings of Gertrude Stein—not so much her essays like Composition as Explanation or What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them? But her piece called Tender Buttons was one of the first things I ever set.14 We were all caught up in James Joyce, who was like a twentieth-century revision of the whole concept of continuity. I could make open form and John could compose by chance: one thing we shared was that anything can follow anything. In other words, you can start Finnegans Wake at any point and read around back to that point. What you get is a kind of circular whirl. We were the first musicians, maybe, to think of our sound worlds as an environment.

    PD: You mean it’s got to be circular to allow for something like the timescale of Stein’s The Making of Americans?15

    EB: That’s exactly it. Gertrude Stein once said, “Life is not built around a beginning, a middle and an end.” You’d never know when the middle is and when the end is. That influenced me in the whole concept of time. In my early notebooks I have written that the next thing to happen interestingly in music is a revision of the nature of continuity, rhetoric, and time.

    PD: None of the three of you went as far as La Monte Young in his Composition 1960 series—extreme gestures on a long timescale.

    EB: I think there are aspects of that in John and Morty and in my music too. The early 1952 and 1953 Folio graphic works of mine really are timeless. The instructions say they can be played by any number of instruments, any kind of instruments and/or sound-producing media, for any length of time. This fractures the idea that we have to have a beginning, middle, and end. We were quite consciously convinced that the Tchaikovskian, Wagnerian, and Schoenbergian way of speaking was not necessary. We didn’t need a telegraph or a message.

    PD: How does this affect normal concert giving? Some of John’s pieces have had a rough ride—the New York Philharmonic playing Atlas Eclipticalis in 1964, for instance?

    EB: I was there, and my Available Forms II was in that concert too.

    PD: What was the audience hostility like?

    EB: I was critical of John and used to argue with him. Up until 1958 I think John didn’t do anything that allowed the performer any latitude. He says he started doing indeterminate music with the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Coming from a background of jazz and orchestral playing, I had a feeling that John was not giving enough information to the musicians to allow them to have the confidence to do what he imagined they might do. I told him they could take advantage of him tremendously—and they did. I’ve seen John so upset about orchestras in Europe and in this country. From my point of view, the conditions he presents to the musicians are ambiguous and in a certain way some of the things he does are insulting. I’ve seen the musicians revolt, as they did in that performance with the New York Philharmonic.

    I’ll tell you why. One of the things John did in Atlas Eclipticalis was give the musicians clusters of notes—maybe seventeen or twenty—and say “choose any five and play them.” The big mistake was his thinking, because he’d had so much experience with David Tudor, who was really a Buddha, that he was going to get eighty-five Buddhas in an orchestra. He was not dealing with what I knew to be the psychology of a group of musicians—and he didn’t recognize the acoustic difference between a viola and a trombone. What happened was that Jim Tenney16 was in front of the string section doing chance operations by manipulating potentiometers. Each player was miked with, say, five contact mikes going into one box. The rehearsal started out with the musicians being very careful and concerned. Then, after a little while they discovered that their microphone might be on or off according to a chance procedure. So the player could be playing his five notes with diligent application, then find his microphone was turned off! Over a period of time at that rehearsal, the players wondered why they were trying so hard if nobody could hear them, and they really got angry. It was naive to assume that the orchestra would go along with a philosophical idea that either you are heard or not and it doesn’t make any difference! He set up a contradiction. If you’re a Buddha you don’t care whether your selections are heard or not, but if you’re a musician…

    PD: He’s gone on doing it in other pieces such as Cheap Imitation, where he deliberately specifies a rehearsal schedule that would be impossible within the budget of a professional orchestra. Why does John attack the administrative structure like this? Or is he trying to convert people?

    EB: I don’t know if he’s that conscious of trying to convert them. He really wants to change the world, but, as he said in the subtitle to his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).17 That’s what we used to argue about. Psychologically speaking, are you making rules and regulations that are compatible with the nature of a performer? You can’t be angry with them if you do not deal responsibly with their professionalism. There’s a big difference between John and Morty and me in that they both play the piano, which is not an orchestral instrument. I’ve sat in all kinds of orchestras playing the trumpet, and when I write my scores I do it from my knowledge and background as a performing musician, not as an idealist or a philosophical revolutionary.

    PD: John does want to change the world, but he’s obsessed with political issues and at the same time says he likes chaos. How does all this fit together?

    EB: Years ago I thought John would get away from writing music. Dealing with an orchestra is such a social institution. I like to work within their terms rather than put them in a situation that gets their backs up. He promised Schoenberg he’d be a composer so he applies these things to music, whereas chance procedures could be involved with a lot of things that didn’t involve eighty-five people.

    PD: His use of chance has also been applied to virtuoso pieces like the Etudes Australes.

    EB: And the Freeman Etudes for Paul Zukovsky18—one of the toughest pieces I ever had to sit through! But chance procedures can point to extreme virtuosity or ultimate simplicity—a piece that could be played in grade school.

    PD: Could one say that if sections of a composition are done by chance this can be absorbed, but if the whole thing is chance, then something is lost that is essential to communication?

    EB: No. I agree with John that communication is not only in the hands of the artist but also in the ear of the beholder. The mental inertia of most music-goers’ mentalities stands in the way of really understanding and appreciating my music—and John’s, Christian’s, and Feldman’s.

    I think it’s very difficult to integrate in a deterministic composition an area where the results are obtained by chance. Chaos is easy, but we have to realize that open-form and improvised music is not chance music. Otherwise all jazz would be chance music, and it’s not true. You are making a very fast decision in improvisation. When you hear a jazz solo, the next note you hear is not by chance, it’s through a whole web of procedures—history, imagination, extension, development, and taste. In my open-form pieces, when I lay out forty-eight possible sonic elements, which I have written, and the conductor can play element 33 followed by element 1, he is making a decision. I am very adamant that those things are not chance music. Chance has to have an exterior technique to eliminate the composer’s and the performer’s choice.

    PD: Would you, like Virgil Thomson, see this as very rigid?

    EB: John sets up these processes and is very disciplined and pure. But I think he made a miscalculation in 1957.19 Before that, the pieces were fixed by flipping coins, which operated on a chart of possibilities. Once the chance operation with the coins indicated that this sound will go here, that sound went there and the performer played it there.

    PD: What about the extreme of indeterminate spectaculars like Musicircus,20 where all those independent concerts are simply assembled under one roof? Is that liberating?

    EB: I don’t see that as very important. I think John’s most distinctive music is when he was really doing music by chance, before he allowed the performer’s subjectivity or aggression to come into the piece. Once he did that, the music becomes a little anonymous. I’ve heard such radically different performances of Concert for Piano and Orchestra that they are totally unrecognizable from place to place. People think, “He’s not serious about that, he just gave us this stuff and we can do anything we want with it.” Whereas actually John is very pristine with his concept of how this piece should be realized.

    PD: Is it at all like Stockhausen in Aus den Sieben Tagen, where he expects his players to fast for four days but doesn’t provide a single note?21

    EB: Well, I think that’s very pretentious. [laughs] Before John or Karlheinz or anybody else, I had these graphic scores and there are certain ways to bring them about. There are certain things I can control and some I can’t. I don’t make the mistake of criticizing the musician because he is doing something I didn’t prohibit him from doing. I think meditating or fasting, like a lot of John’s things, has more to do with psychology or sociology. One of the last serious discussions John and I had was at the time of my Available Forms 1 (1961), the first orchestral open-form piece. I said to John, “What you’re saying is that you’re not really interested in music but are writing experimental psychological and sociological works, experimenting with people’s minds.” And he said, “Yes, but you keep telling people what to do. You’re still interested in art, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” Everything I’ve done is about modifications of the way music is composed, performed, and conducted from an aesthetic point of view. John is more involved with the potentials of performers’ minds: whether he can get them to do what he wants them to do. His means are very inefficient—in some cases.


    1For details about Darmstadt in the 1950s see “Earle Brown,” in Richard Dufallo, Trackings: Composers Speak with Richard Dufallo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 103–5.

    2John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 37–38, 52.

    3In Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), 105.

    4Carolyn (1927–) and Earle Brown met Cunningham and Cage in Denver in 1951. She then studied with Cunningham in New York and first danced with his company in 1953. She took part in the premiere of Cage’s Theatre Piece at the Circle in the Square, New York, on March 7, 1960. Some sources cite this performance wrongly as May and not March, including Richard Dunn, ed., John Cage (New York: Henmar, 1962), 42. March is correct—I was there and reviewed that concert in the Musical Courier (May 1960, 36). Brown recalls his first meeting with Cunningham and Cage in Denver in James Klosty, Merce Cunningham: Edited and with Photographs and an Introduction (New York: Limelight Editions, 1986), 75–77.

    5Joseph Schillinger (1895–1943), Russian-born theorist and composer who moved to the United States in 1928. Brown studied at the Schillinger School of Music, Boston, from 1940 to 1946. See “Earle Brown,” in Dufallo, Trackings, 103–24.

    6Anton von Webern (1883–1945), Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, whose works, with their fragmented aphoristic brevity, inspired both the post-Webern modernists and the avant-garde. In 1980 Cage told Joan Peyser that he would go to a Webern concert in the late 1940s “with my hair on end and sit on the edge of my seat. It was so completely different from anything I’d ever heard . . . he shook the foundation of sound as discourse in favor of sound as sound itself.” In Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 46.

    7See interview with Cage [Ed. Note: in CageTalk], chapter 1, 35.

    8Cage describes their laborious method of working in “Edgard Varèse,” Silence, 85.

    9Brown was consistent: “There’s no real freedom in John’s approach. I think that a really indeterminate situation is one where the self can enter in too. I feel you should be able to toss coins, and then decide to use a beautiful F sharp if you want to—be willing to chuck the system in other words. John won’t do that.” In Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (New York: Viking, 1965), 74.

    10Jackson Pollock (1912–56), leading figure in American abstract expressionism; Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Dutch-born abstract expressionist painter who moved to the United States in 1926.

    11Philip Guston (1913–80), American painter, initially and finally figurative, with an abstract phase in the center of his career.

    12Marcel Duchamp and his two sisters drew the notes of the scale at random from a hat and called the resulting composition Musical Erratum. Cage remembered this incident in 1989 as “a fairly simple but interesting way of working.” See John Cage, I–VI (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 50–51. However, Duchamp stressed, “Your chance is not the same as my chance, just as your throw of the dice will rarely be the same as mine.” In Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 33–34.

    13Mark Rothko (1903–70), Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter.

    14Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914); Brown’s Tender Buttons for speaker, flute, horn, and harp (1953). Stein’s Composition as Explanation (1926) starts: “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking.” What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them was delivered at Oxford and Cambridge in 1936 and published in 1940.

    15Written 1906–8 but not published until 1925.

    16James Tenney (1934-2006), composer, pianist, and theorist.

    17For a list of components see the interview with Lederman [Ed. Note: in CageTalk], chapter 6, 107n17.

    18Paul Zukovsky (1943–), American violinist and conductor. See interview with him, [Ed. Note: in CageTalk] chapter 15, 175.

    19With the indeterminacy of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra.

    20See “About Musicircus,” chapter 19, 211.

    21Stockhausen, Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days), Vienna: Universal Edition UE 14790, 1968. The score consists of fourteen separate pieces, with indications about the attitude the performer should adopt toward playing but no musical notation.

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