As was reported on a post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times by Michael Cooper, last night the Baryshnikov Arts Center announced the formation of a new Cage Cunningham Fellowship after having raised $1 million to launch the project. As one who followed the activities of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during the late Sixties and early Seventies, it is difficult for me to process this news without a tinge of irony. Fortunately, John Cage captured that irony far better than I in one of his “micro-anecdotes,” which he contributed to Dance Perspective 34, an issue devoted entirely to Cunningham and his work: “When the information was released that Merce Cunningham had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, someone asked him what he was going to do with all that money. His reply was one word: Eat.”
By most accounts it is clear that, for most of the twentieth century, Cunningham and those who sailed under his flag learned how to live from hand to mouth. It is also worth remembering that Cage was the original manager of the group. He seems to have been good at his job, reminding us all that he could appreciate that the philosophy behind his aesthetic activities could be kept separate from his business management skills! By the middle of the century, the group was beginning to build up a core of wealthy patrons. However, many decades would elapse before Cunningham’s name was generally recognized; and, even with the support of Public Television, it is unclear that Cunningham’s work was ever regarded as “mainstream.”
So now there is an endowment created to remember the contributions of both Cage and Cunningham, and last night’s announcement also named the first Fellowship recipient. The name of that recipient may be familiar to those who have been following this site for a while. He is the Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov. A young Lubimov first met Cage in July of 1988, when he was invited by the Composers’ Union of the USSR to take part in the International Contemporary Music Festival in Leningrad. By that time Lubimov was familiar with Cage’s work. In an essay he wrote for his two-CD ECM New Series recording of Cage’s music, Lubimov observed that by 1988 both scores and performances of Cage’s music had been circulating in the underground for about twenty years.
The significance of the Leningrad Festival was that Cage’s music would rise from the underground and be presented for the first time to an “official” audience. Cage was 75 at the time. He had grown used to similar “rituals of retrospective” in the United States. At best, he was patient with them; but I recall a visit he made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at which he read a lecture he had prepared for an occasion at which he had been given some prestigious award. While the wording was admirably polite, the subtext could not be missed. The message of his speech was, “Where were you when I needed you?” Thus, I am inclined to agree with Lubimov’s assessment that Cage was bored with the performances of his music in Leningrad.
Lubimov seems to have done well enough for himself that he will not have to use his Fellowship money they way Cunningham used his Guggenheim money. His award was $50,000; and he will use it to commission new pieces from five composers, three Russians (Anton Batagov, Pavel Karmanov, and Sergei Zagny) and two Americans (Bryce Dessner and Julia Wolfe). Cooper was observant enough to remind readers that Wolfe won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for her oratorio Anthracite Fields, whose recording has a nomination in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category of the 58th annual GRAMMY awards.
This leads one to wonder whether Lubimov, who, in his youth, championed the music for Cage and his colleagues with his “notes from the underground,” has moved too close to the mainstream after having been recognized for his own pioneering efforts. In his highly perceptive essay about Edgard Varèse, Henry Miller reminded us to “make room for the others, the coming ones, the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes.” Has Lubimov checked his window-panes lately?