Literature and Surprise

We asked about the influence of literature on his work.

"I've always loved literature, poetry, plays, and experimental writers. I was big into Dostoyevsky when I was in high school, Notes from Underground, Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, White Nights.his short stories and novels. 'Each book opens 1000 other books.' At the beginning of college, I got very into James Joyce and remember opening up Finnegan's Wake, reading the first 3 pages, putting it back on the shelf (after seeing what else he'd written) deciding this was too important a writer to dive into his final work, that I needed to go back to his first stories (Dubliners) and poems (pomes pennyeach), some of which I later set to voice and piano.

After reading his other novels, I could finally sink into Finnegan's Wake. It was, and still is, such a great pleasure to read, so funny when you read it aloud. I have memorized parts of it; little twisty phrases keep coming back to mind

From Joyce I started reading Beckett's poetry and prose, and from Beckett came Brecht. I translated some of Brecht's poetry and wrote many pieces 'in the style of,' and put together evenings of Brecht/King songs. I turned his radio play, The Trial of Lucullus, into an evening length multimedia performance with video/dance/slide projections along with a small ensemble and vocals.

From there, I went back to Beckett and wrote a short opera based on his late prose piece Ping. From Beckett I moved into a French poet period reading Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and setting poetry and prose, using a reductive method I called klimax, which uses the rules of a mesostic that Cage developed. But instead of the authors' names running down the middle as with a mesostic, I wrote the names vertically down the left and right sides of the page, with text connecting the 2 vertical names.

This made the text on the page look to me like a ladder, and when I looked up 'ladder' in ancient Greek, the word turned out to be klimax, which made me laugh. (I guess 'climax' is a bit like a ladder.)

Now I'm reading Tang era Chinese poets, including Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei, and find the work so beautiful and concise and pure and always with a deeply felt image of nature.?"

John has spoken about the pleasure and experience of 'surprise.' We asked him to comment on this.

"I love surprises, and it seems to me that that's why I often use chance-procedures or randomization in my works, open forms and allowing for the unknown and unforeseen to enter into my pieces, because then I'm 'surprised' by what happens, and I can hear the work each time as though for the first time. Working this way, I think a certain amount of endorphins are released by the brain, and a kind of euphoria sets in.

I like that combinations of methods and systems (improvisation, composition, and chance procedures), are used concurrently/simultaneously in my work, producing newness, freshness and re-learning each time. I really do try to 'begin again' with each new piece, to try and discover or explore new ways of combining them. I guess it's why I always call my music 'experimental.'"


"When I was younger I thought I should allow for all types of music to come into my being and to explore all I possibly could, and now it's just more of that because there's so much music and sound in the world. More sound, more light, more discovery, more experience and it's all brought inside and passes through my thoughts and then I let them go. In that emptiness which remains, I find something new within that nothingness, and begin again from there."