Merce Cunningham: Moved by the Music of Our Time

Dance Independent From Music

FRANK J. OTERI: In an essay you wrote about a decade ago you listed four things that were life-changing to you in terms of your creative work, the Life Forms program being the fourth of those things. I want to take a few steps backward and talk a bit about the other three, starting with the first, which is the notion of rhythmic structure: music and dance sharing the same space and time but not necessarily being related to each other.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: And how that enabled you to think of dance independently.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, that was working with John Cage, of course… You see he had composed a number of pieces prior to this for modern dance soloists. And he also knew that there was some conventional way of taking a piece of music and then putting a dance to it. He didn’t like either one. He said that way one dominated the other. So I thought, well, that’s a very nice idea, that they should somehow be made independent. So he had devised this rhythm structure, which was the square root system, numbers say, whatever number, the first sequence in the first however many, 10 seconds they would count, then the whole thing would be 100, 10 times 10. And the first solos I remember when we worked this, we had figured out a given path of a given soloist, what the structure would be and then he went away to the piano and I was in the studio and began to work and this was very peculiar because I had no support in that conventional sense. I had to depend on myself and in that way I also got to know exactly what I was doing! So at some point, and it was difficult, very difficult to work at those early pieces, but at some point in one of the dances, one of the songs, we came together, I wasn’t finished nor was he, but he had composed a certain part of it and I had enough of a dance so we could try this out. It was difficult because, there was nothing to count against eventually… but there was one remarkable thing that happened for me. It was so-to-speak a dramatic dance and there was this one point where I made a very large strong movement and there was total silence and a fraction of a second later came this sound and I thought, “Oh, I get it. I get how it could work.” Because they each relied on themselves they didn’t rely on each other.

FRANK J. OTERI: But by that same token, would you say that seeing something, in terms of an aesthetic, watching it happen on stage and hearing it, would you say, “Well, gee, those two things just don’t work together?”

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, yeah. Because they’re not together! But if you think that that is a possibility then you also can see that there’s no reason why they need to be together so that they could happen independently.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, using that same notion, is music necessary for dance?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes. And, no, not necessary. I don’t know if that’s the proper word, but life is full of sound and do you want to be without it? Since it’s there?

FRANK J. OTERI: The very first silent films had no music to them and very soon music became a convention.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: That’s true, that’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it sort of morphed into this sort of ambient role with the talking pictures. It was still there but not throughout. I’ve seen dance performances where there’s no music and it’s disconcerting. It doesn’t feel right.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Well, there really is sound all the time as John said so often, and if you think it’s silent, then…

FRANK J. OTERI: Like all the planes going overhead right now!

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yeah! So what are you going to do, say, “Go away?” No, sound exists, but I don’t think the question is about doing it without sound, I think it really was the idea that they could really be independent. Each could have an identity that when put together could do something that neither one of us could have written, could have thought of previously. And in the same sense, with the visual, with the artist the same principle was used although there often the artist wants to do something. I have no objection to it. I just say, would you be interested in working this way, and then what would you do.

FRANK J. OTERI: But what is so interesting, of course, in how music is used in our society is that music written for dance will exist independently. You can buy a recording of The Rite of Spring, which was created for dance, and listen to this music and have no idea what the dance was and it exists separately. But the dance doesn’t exist separately; the dance always has the music with it.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: You’re right. But I think there’s a very curious thing that happens on the television now where they run a series of short clips of things they’re going to show—something out of a movie, something out of a play, something out of music, with an orchestra—that are all five seconds long. They can’t change the music because each segment is too short and they put a single work underneath. So it fits everything. But they’re going on to all these—you see somebody you saw in a film where the person you see is Fred Astaire dancing, where the music was something out of Gershwin, but the music that they’re using for this segment is something else.

FRANK J. OTERI: So in that sense the dance is existing separate from the music that it was written for.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yes, yes. And I also think having sound in particular be on the radio, that tells you it’s there. [laughs] Otherwise, you wouldn’t know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things I always find an interesting trick with whether it’s dance or music videos, when I’m watching on television or a video tape, is to turn the sound off. And, once again, it’s very, very disconcerting.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, yeah. Well, I like old movies, so sometimes, not frequently, they have silent films, but then now I think they have music to them, something so this kind of vacuum is filled. I suppose on the radio when it’s on you have to have sound. Well, in the sense with the television, it’s not so much sound but with the television you have to change your vision to see it. So you produce that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So then, do you listen to music independently of working with it?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. Not often, in fact, not often enough. I like to listen but there’s always so much to do. I don’t have time to listen to music, but yes I have a tape machine, you know, to play things on, you know, things I’ve heard before. Things that people send me. Oh, yes. Not as often as I would like to…

FRANK J. OTERI: What do you enjoy listening to in particular?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: If I can make a blanket statement in that way, I like contemporary music. That is music that may tell me something about the time I live in that I didn’t know about before. I get very tired with the 19th-century forms. I find that they seem to work very poorly. They’re not for me. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you hear music, whichever music it is that you hear, since for you music and dance share the time-space but they exist independently, do you envision dances?

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. Sometimes. You see, I used to be a tap dancer when I was an adolescent, that was my beginning and I learned the waltz clog and the time step and I noticed lately I couldn’t remember them, so whenever I hear something on the television that maybe was comparable to the three for the waltz clog, I’m trying to learn them back. But I suppose that’s the extent.