Winter 2006-7

INTERVIEW - Gregory Stephenson

Skating On Thin Air: An Interview With Mitch Corber

(Editor's note: When Mitch Corber goes to a poetry reading in one or another of the downtown venues in Manhattan, he rarely travels alone. That's because Corber -- a recipient of a NYFA (NY Foundation for the Arts) 1987 grant in the field of emerging artforms with a weekly poetry-arts cable show running since 1989 on Time-Warner Manhattan Cable, airing weekly at Wednesday Midnight in Manhattan, Channel 34 -- has usually got his video equipment tagging along with him.This summer, 2006, Corber presented a multimedia event to illustrate aspects of his work. The event, a one-day only affair, was held at the Gathering of the Tribes Gallery, impresario Steve Cannon's legendary venue. On August 24, 2006, from 4 pm to 8:33 pm, Corber presented "Cage Live Mix: Four Hours and 33 Minutes."The title “Four Hours and 33 Minutes” refers to Cage’s notorious silent piano sonata of the late 50s, “Four Minutes and 33 Seconds.” Spread through different areas of Tribes Gallery, it was, said the artist, "an opportunity for chance events and audience participation." Corber called it a "multi-screen, multi-speaker, multi-room, ambience of Cage video, audio, interview, poetry and various inserts, some chance-oriented, some audience participation, and having my own huge bag of tricks."Based on a previously distributed 60-minute documentary video JOHN CAGE: MAN AND MYTH, Corber invited viewers to see the work presented in a brand new way, as a live mix installation. The program included interview sequences with Cage and the many avantgarde artists who contributed homage interviews, run not as in the edited documentary, but in what the videographer describes as 'a surprising new interactive way.'Our interview with Mitch Corber, conducted recently to learn more about his ideas for the one day project, follows)

Q: What is the idea behind your project 4 Hours 33 Minutes?:

A: Many have heard about John Cage, but know little of his actual life and work. My aim was to create an interesting and informative piece. Because Cage is, well he's still "everywhere," as a kind of seafaring compass for all forward thinking artists. He isn't just "Music" or "Noise." He isn't just macrobiotic food. He isn't just "the gay companion of Merce Cunningham," who both shared that great loft in Manhattan on 6th Avenue and 18th Street on the 3rd floor.

He's the man who helped found the “happenings” with Kaprow, and created his “Variations” series which occupied different parts of an art gallery with himself and David Tudor and audience participants variously tuning radios, or plucking various instruments, mostly on the direction of Cage, while leaving space for random “chance operations.”

In addition to the Cage documentary, I drew from video interviews he conducted with David Antin, Philip Glass, Richard Kostelanetz, Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, Allen Kaprow, pianists Joshua Pierce and Grete Sultan, Marjorie Perloff, and microtonalist Johnny Reinhard.

And like Cage, it is my notion that the audience can choose to participate, with musical instruments, noisemakers, or “happening” ideas. People who attend are free to come and go.

Q: When did you first meet John Cage?

A: I met him that time at the Bang On A Can Music Festival in May 1989, when I was first not allowed to video his piece "Five Stone Wind" by the authorities there. Another videographer named, oh who gives a shit, he was in cahoots directly with Merce Dance Co and Merce bankrolled the dude's interesting film which I later did see. It used much Merce dance archives and not so much Cage but focused on them both, and because Cage was in the final piece which was shot on a kind of hi-def video at the time and turned into projectable big-screen video -- well because Cage was in his video, of course it had more clout than if just Merce, I mean if even his great wild archives were solely in it.

Anyway, okay that was 89 but Bang On A Can 88 the year before I did video (note that Five Stone Wind piece really was "boring" and with Cage, "Boring" takes on a different meaning and concept, but let's say it wouldn't have made good video). However back a year later at BANG, I had no problem whatsoever videoing the incredible theater piece which the avantgarde troupe California Ear Unit teamed up and performed.

So I already had that in the can so to speak.

Q: And is that where you got the idea to video him:

A: Uh....... well, encouraged by a nutty female Cage-lover from New Haven who I still know who was sitting up in the balcony with me, I decided, since Cage was sitting there, that I would introduced myself at intermission. Not being able to pull out my camera, at that time, a very rare event well, Cage was great and gave me his phone number, was gracious, funny, looked me in the eye. He had a twinkle in his own eye, he was sitting alone, right in the front row, and then I said I'd like to interview him. It must have been Wednesday May 9, 1989

Well he said okay that's great, we can do it in ten days. But with his fading memory at 76 he said remind him when I call him what this was about.

Q: And this fit in with your own notions of yourself as an artist at the time?

A: Remember I was a UCLA film/television grad, studying from 69 to 71, and later getting film/conceptual art background in 74-75 at California Inst of the Arts (Cal Arts). And immediately after that, taking my education and bolting for New York, finding my cheap apartment, making a splash in late 75 in the avantgarde performance art world -- Reciting Poetry Under The Influence Of Onions -- which the Village Voice wrote up in Feb 76.

Well, at the time I had three video interests -- art world, music world, poetry world. And being a competent and out-there and underappreciated performer myself it was my idea that somehow I could include documentations of myself performing various pieces, performance art, poetry, music. For those to be included side by side with major name performers in a growing archives -- at the time one of my wishes.

Q So how did you prepare for the interview?

A: Cage was said to be nuts for not having an answering machine, not having an agent nor go-between, for answering the phone either by himself or by a live assistant at his loft. But that all worked out.

Okay, well the thing is I needed good questions.

I had interviewed Leonard Cohen the year before -- August 88 -- which audio the New York Public Library did purchase as is in their collection. And I had interviewed Randy Newman before he was a superstar back in LA in 1971 thanks to the Daily Bruin newspaper's arranging it. And having driven to his swank place, he helped me patiently during the interview because in 71 I hadn't yet mastered my interview technique, by any means, however being a great fan and "student" of all his songs I was prepared in that way.

Well, for the Cohen interview, which his press people at Stranger Music in LA had set up for me thanks to my persistence and the Downtown Magazine article I was to write, that all worked out, and I didn't need any help, because I knew all his songs backwards and forwards and could sing all of them on guitar, so he was impressed. "You really did your homework".......he said afterward.

But in the case of Cage I really wasn't that up, however for years I'd been videotaping the NY Microtonal Music group founded by Johnny Reinhard who lived in the upper East 70s and had been a fired Columbia music teacher who went on to burst on the scene with symposia, one-on-one teachings, microtonal concerts he would team up to give one in spring, one in fall and for a couple years I was his videographer.

He was strong on the idea that HEY MITCH YOU DON'T GET THE MASTER, I GET IT BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE CONCERT AREA, THEN WE'LL ARRANGE HOW YOU MAKE ME COPIES later...etc etc. Okay, I can see his point, but I was uncomfortable with that, because if I'm videotaping anything, I've got to get all my shit together, and the least reward would be for me to own the thing.

Well, but Johnny did play a pivotal role here. When I called him about the future Cage interview, it proved totally right up his alley and I almost didn't have to turn anywhere else besides myself and my own research for the needed great questions. He knew about the friction between Harry Partch and Cage. He knew of Cage's performance with electric cactus. He knew of a piece for cello, sand and broken glass. He knew the 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence and he also knew about the alternate idea 0 minutes and 0 seconds of silence piece. And those pieces weren't just for piano, they were adaptable for any instrument or noisemaker, or any performer.

So by the time the interview happened, Johnny had primed me with info and proposed questions. And mixed with my own love of Cage and thirst for knowledge, I had my 32 Questions.

Q: So, how did the interview go?

A: I arrived Saturday May 19, 1989 under a sunny skylight in his giant loft with his whole room of personally cared-for plants, his Jasper Johns number series, and his Rauschenbergs, and Cage's own artwork, which were like zen stuff of a water-color Japanese brush having outlined some "stone" onto art paper, and it had a kind of rustic look. Then there was the Nam June Paik violin sliced in half piece framed on his wall too.

Merce was gone that day until 6 pm, so I'd arrived around 4 but we hit it off great.

And this time, I really got my shit together video and tech-wise and for once did a fantastic job videoing the fantastic interview. First Cage alone, and sometimes with his beloved black cat Losa as he reminisced and theorized.

And later after that was in the can I had miked both him and me each with small tietack mikes, so both our voices were exceptionally clear. After that interesting part was done I got the idea with a little more time of reframing it and so I framed it for Cage and myself in the same frame. And well, I found it's incredible difficult and awkward to try to video yourself, but that's another story.

So all in all, it went fantastic. I was cuter and younger with great wavy hair, thin then and him being gay, yet more than anything a super avantgarde artist thinker, and that of course transcended everything, well we did hit it off for the questions and he was so charming.



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