Remembering Merce


Merce Cunningham
Photo: Annie Leibovitz

[Ed. Note: While Merce Cunningham was and will remain an icon of contemporary dance, he will be remembered fondly in the new music community for his lifelong collaboration with John Cage as well as for commissioning musical works from a very wide range of composers—in fact, Cunningham commissioned more music for dance than anyone else in the 20th century. One of the most unusual scores created for Cunningham in recent years was the score for eyeSpace, for which audience members were given iPods to listen to during the performance, each with a different soundtrack. That score was created by Mikel Rouse who knew Cunningham for many years before they worked together on that project. So we asked Rouse to write a personal reminiscence.—FJO]


Having been among the last composers to collaborate with choreographer Merce Cunningham, I’ve been reflecting over these past days on the impact Merce has had on me both personally and professionally. Certainly, there are a number of living composers/collaborators who had a longer history of working with Merce. Takehisa Kasugi, John King, Christian Wolff, and David Behrman instantly come to mind but the list is long and varied, from Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars to Radiohead and Sonic Youth. My own story with Merce started as a friendship and turned into a number of wonderful collaborations, experiences, and life altering moments, which I’m only now beginning to fully appreciate.

I first met Merce through Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust. I had met Merce a number of times through my wife Lisa Boudreau, a 14-year veteran of the company (Lisa and I even met at a Merce Cunningham benefit in 1997). But it was my friendship with Laura that introduced me as an artist to Merce, and we started sharing dinners and conversation at Merce’s place on a regular basis.

Merce was a great storyteller and while many people would know his iconic stories, it was all the more powerful to hear it from Merce himself. For instance: how John Cage discovered macrobiotic cooking from Yoko Ono. Or his fond memories of touring with his company in an old VW bus (which John bought for the company using his winnings from a game show; his topic? Mushrooms). Far too many wonderful evenings to recount here, but I’ll never forget when Margaret Selby arranged with Laura to have the legendary Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones over to Merce’s for dinner. Margaret was working on a documentary of Chuck Jones. It’s impossible for me to describe what it was like to see these two men finding common ground in their work and interests. It was a truly memorable night that ended with Chuck drawing a picture of Bugs Bunny (in a tutu) in my sketchbook.

Ultimately, Lisa was invited into the mix, and it became a kind of extended family. Over the last decade we spent almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas at Merce’s—more holidays than we ever got to spend with our actual families. And over many dinners I met folks like collaborators Charlie Atlas, Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg; composers Pia Gilbert, Daniel Lentz, and Charles Amirkhanian, and various luminaries in the arts including Betty Freeman, Alex Ross, Marguerite Roeder, and Larry Larson to name a few.

Between Lisa and Laura, I found myself tagging along with the Cunningham Company on as many tours as I could when I wasn’t on the road with my own work. It was revelatory seeing pieces such as Ocean, Biped, and CRWDSPCR numerous times. Often we would all go out to dinner, and while Merce always brought his own meal (because macrobiotic cooking was hard to find on the road), he was delighted when a good cous cous restaurant could be found (close enough I suppose). Without Cunningham, Paris wouldn’t have become our second home. Without Cunningham, I wouldn’t have met the wonderful Bénédicte Pesle and Julie George. Without Cunningham, I wouldn’t have had a willing and able cast for the film portion of my own piece, The End Of Cinematics (shot in Paris with many of the dancers on location). This started collaboration with many of the dancers in the company and culminated in their involvement with the iPod score I would eventually create for Merce, International Cloud Atlas, for 2006’s eyeSpace.

From about 1998 to the present, Merce kindly attended almost every performance I did. But it was a performance in 1998 by the Alvin Ailey Company at City Center of Ulysees Dove’s Vespers (using my LinnDrum percussion score Quorum) that prompted Merce to tell me we would one day work together. But the nepotism factor was high and I resigned myself to not reminding Merce of his offer, hoping against hope that he’d file it away for the right moment.

In the meantime, I had been commissioned by the John Cage Trust to realize/compose a sound score for Cage’s James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, which would embark on a six-month tour beginning at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. For the performance, Merce played Eric Satie with Cunningham archivist David Vaughn in the role of Marcel Duchamp. I performed the sampling “sound effects” keyboard while playing the role of James Joyce.

Prior to the tour, the core group of performers would often meet for readings of the script at the Cunningham studios or at Merce’s apartment. These were great opportunities to see Merce’s wit and delight with his character. It was amazing to everyone how his unaffected reading of Satie suited the role. In the course of these rehearsals, I also had the opportunity to work with both Merce and Jasper in the recording studio. It was truly special to have the recorded voices of John Cage, Jasper Johns and Merce realized in the same piece.

When the performers for Alphabet arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, we all got the news of what was happening in New York on our hotel televisions. Berlin was mad with sirens and blockades, but we forged ahead with that night’s first rehearsal with the local cast under Laura’s direction. I remember seeing Merce sitting in the wings alone rehearsing his lines, and I went over to see how he was doing. I’ll never forget what he said to me: “Aren’t we lucky we have this to do.”

In fact, my fondest memories of Merce were just those kind of small and simple exchanges over numerous glasses of wine at his apartment. His stealth and resolve were constant inspirations to me as I tried to maintain my life and work in a city that was increasingly less creative and tied to the arts. I remember being nominated for an award that I ultimately didn’t get. I was bummed out and, looking for any possible rationalization, I told Laura that maybe not getting the award meant I was still ahead of the curve. When she told Merce this story he laughed and replied: “Oh, he’ll be fine.” I know it’s a small thing, but coming from him it really meant the world to me.

In 2005 I was approached by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to compose a piece of music for iPods. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to employ the “shuffle” characteristic of the iPod as a compositional device, thereby allowing each audience member to have his or her own unique sequence of the score. I saw this as homage to the aesthetic of chance operations pioneered by John Cage and Merce (in particular the idea that music, choreography, and décor could be created independent of one another). I told Merce it was like Cage/Cunningham on steroids and he laughed at that.

I also wanted to include all the dancers in the recording of the iPod score. The dancers contributed vocal, instrumental, and spoken word performances. I am extremely grateful for the creativity and enthusiasm that the dancers brought to these recording sessions. I think it was the second night after we opened at the Joyce that I learned that Merce was chuckling in the wings with earbuds in place listening to the score. In typical form, he told me it was “marvelous.” After wondering for almost ten years if I’d ever get to do a score for Cunningham, it was Lisa who summed up the irony of it all best: “Great, you do a score for iPods and I [as well as the other dancers on stage] don’t even get to hear it.”

One of my fondest memories of touring eyeSpace with the Cunningham Company was being invited to Rauschenberg’s studio in Captiva for a picnic. After plenty of wine and food, the dancers did an impromptu performance on the grass outside of the studio. It was beautiful to see Merce and Bob sitting together watching, almost as if it were for the very first time. Bob’s assistants and staff were the kindest hosts and before we left they measured the ring finger of each person for rings using the titanium material that Bob had used in his latest series called “Runts”. Then they soldered the rings together and sent them to us in NY. I’ve never taken mine off.

On a recent occasion, I went to Merce’s for dinner knowing he was having a difficult time with his newest piece, Nearly Ninety. It was a good opportunity to let him know how his good humor and counsel had helped me through some tough times. He responded by saying, “Now maybe we’ll help each other.”

When I went for dinner for the last time, I told Merce I would send him an IOU for all the wine I drank at his house. He laughed. Lisa and I sat with him, the three of us each with a glass of wine to toast our coming together. Laura was in the wings, preparing some food and managing the unmanageable. This was a few days before Merce passed away and we all knew it was probably the last time we’d be together like this. And for that brief moment, we were all present.

As I’m writing my thoughts are with the dancers, the musicians, the staff at the Cunningham Dance Foundation and all the collaborators and friends. I’m wishing them all the best as they move forward in their creative lives. And I’m thinking we are all one very lucky group of people.

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Mikel Rouse

Mikel Rouse is a New York-based composer, director, performer, and recording artist. His works include 25 records, seven films (among them Funding and Music For Minorities), and a trilogy of media operas: Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland, and The End Of Cinematics. His new CD Gravity Radio will be released this fall. Mikel Rouse’s music is available on iTunes.