When Gary Wilson Met John Cage
Fans of the legendary DIY home recording pioneer Gary Wilson may be aware of his interactions with artists like Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore, the Residents, and Earl Sweatshirt, but many may be unaware of a relationship that goes back to Gary's early teen years, and remains a strong influence on Mr. Wilson's music even today. That relationship is with John Cage, widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. I recently sat down with Gary and his dog Shadow, and asked him how the two met.
Bobby Weirdo: Can you tell us how you met John Cage?
Gary Wilson: I was very interested in avant-garde classical music, avant-garde art, and avant-garde theater. I was also in the school chamber ensemble in the youth orchestra. All the Wilsons had to play an instrument. From grammar school to high school, I stayed active in the chamber ensemble, and I would write experimental music for our chamber ensemble.
At one point, when I was 14 or something, my teacher said, “You should try to get a hold of John Cage”. I didn’t think it would be possible, but I went to the post Endicott post office, and they had a New York City telephone book there. He was listed in the telephone book, so I called him. He gave me an address to send my scores to, and then I followed up with another call to him. At that point, strangely enough, he invited me to his house. He gave me a particular day to come. My mother had to drive me because my father was working.
He was living in Haverstraw, New York at this point, which was outside of New York City. It was out in the middle of the woods or something. My mother and I got lost the first time, looking for him. We stopped at a little general store, called Mr. Cage from a telephone booth, and said, “We can’t find your place”. He was nice enough to come down in his car and pick me up. My mother waited at the general store, and he took me to his house. Here was a 14-year-old boy with someone I consider a real genius in the music world – John Cage!
He lived in a community, almost like a co-op of modern houses in the woods, with a community garden. Another time I was there to visit [John Cage] with Frank Roma, I got to meet David Tudor, who was there doing some gardening. I don’t think he was living there, but maybe he was just visiting. Anyway, he was in the garden.
He went over the classical music I was writing, and corrected certain notations I had made that he didn’t think the orchestra would interpret [accurately] from what I wanted. He was a very gentle man. His house was very sparsely furnished. He had some kind of Buddha figure in the corner of the one room.
He was a great man, and I still can’t figure out how it all happened – how a little boy from upstate New York could [meet him] when grad students from the finest universities of music would have loved just a one-one-one, let alone go to his house and sit with the guy. It’s a great thing in my life.
BW: Had you just spoken with him on the phone once before you met him, and then arranged the meeting?
GW: Pretty much. I didn’t bug the guy, even though I used to be persistent with other things in the music biz. I wish I had taped it or gotten pictures, but this was the 1960s. You didn’t have a lot of these things. But yeah, for some reason he invited me to his house for three meetings.
When I met David Tudor, he and John Cage were proving music for the dancer Merce Cunningham, so Frank Roma and I said “Hey, do you need other players to play with you?” Hoping, you know. I was a young teenager at the time, and David Tudor said he didn’t have a big budget or something [laughs]. But anyway, that was cool. They were my heroes.
BW: What do you think it was that about John Cage and David Tudor that appealed to a 14-year-old-Gary Wilson?
GW: Well, again, my fascination with getting into weird, experimental music. I had been listening to 12-tone music like Schoenberg. And of course TV-- I always say, horror movies had kind of eerie soundtracks…weird music that probably never got credit within modern music. Being in a rock band, at that time in the 60s, rock bands had open minds about music and stuff. During the psychedelic era, a lot of bands had interludes on albums. It was experimental – the wilder the better. John Cage became my hero.
BW: Do you think that [John Cage] influence survives in Gary Wilson’s music today?
GW: I think it does. I think the idea of it all carried on with me. Like I always mention, it took me a while to hit that point because as I say, I’ve into pretty avant-garde stuff since I was 13. I always felt there was a lack of personality in a lot of very avant-garde music. It needed a center, a teen idol like Frankie Avalon or Bobby Rydell in front of John Cage kind of performance.
I think I achieved that recently in one way when I performed in New York with a string section, horns, and an opera singer. I was rolling around on the floor, and I was thinking, “Oh, this is kind of what I thought about 20 or 30 years ago.” I do incorporate music – it’s not totally avant-garde. I have keen interest in Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, and one of my favorites – Ralph Vaughan Williams. Somehow it all has to be incorporated. It all turns into Gary Wilson music, and that’s the way it’s developed.
BW: Finally, you met John one time in the 80s at UCSD (University of California, San Diego), right?
GW: Oh yeah. My girlfriend was a grad student at the time. Her final was coming up, and her advisors were there, and I think John Cage was an artist-in-residence at the time, so he was hanging around on the campus anyway. One of her advisors, János Négyesy, was a virtuoso violinist and professor up there. He was a friend of John Cage, and told me that the crowd used to throw tomatoes at them when they would perform their real experimental music (laughs). John Cage was there, and I had a chance to talk with him and give him one of my albums. I said “Mr. Cage, do you remember me from 30 years ago?” (laughs). I’m not sure if he did remember me, but he said he did, and I told him he inspired that album. He died a couple years later, but I did get that chance to see him again.
But yes, one of my biggest influences is John Cage.
Gary's Christmas album, It's Christmas Time with Gary Wilson, comes out Oct. 28 on Cleopatra Records, and a collaborative album with R. Stevie Moore is due to be released early 2017.