Playing Chess with John Cage

Food for Thought

While in college, I attended every John Cage consort I could find. On January 26, 1989 (I still have the ticket stub), on the way to Symphony Space, I saw Cage sitting alone in a subway car. “Oh, hi, I’m on my way to your concert,” I said. He then gave me a free ticket. I had the honor of walking into the venue with the composer himself, one of the most New York moments of my life.

But it was a matter of time since he attended almost all performances of his work. One evening, at Alice Tully Hall, I spotted him sitting among the audience. I walked up to him and asked if he could teach me chess. He had done the same to Marcel Duchamp, so I figured, why not? He took out a receipt from his wallet and wrote down his number.

His loft on West 18th Street and Sixth Avenue had skylights. We walked through tall plants that formed a narrow winding path to the chess table. He is known for his love of chess but wasn’t particularly good at it. Although I was a beginner, I was able to beat him sometimes. He gave me a book entitled “Chess Praxis” by Nimzovich.

We played chess regularly, and he took me along to many Merce Cunningham performances. One time, we went to an after-party at the Cunningham studio. It was funny to see avant-garde performers having a good time listening to loud nightclub music; of course, they wouldn’t blast Cage’s music at a party. Cage was playing chess with someone in a corner of the studio under dimmed light.

A few times, I shared my ideas for music, but he wasn’t intrigued. Around that time, I had began writing my thoughts down, and I showed him some of them; he was intrigued enough to show it to Merce. It started with:

If the only constant in this universe is change, nothing could be true forever, as it must become untrue at some point.

They say, “Never meet your heroes,” for good reasons, but with Cage, it wasn’t true. After I finished college and started working, I saw him less frequently. He called me on weekends every once in a while. He died in 1992. On my desk, for many years, I kept a large photo of him smiling. It saved me through the difficult years of my youth.