• 50 Years - A Million Thanks

American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Interview with Composer John Cage


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These excerpts were taken directly from Simon & Goodman's interview transcripts, and were edited lightly for clarity. The notation [question] indicates that a question was asked. However, the transcripts most often did not contain the actual question, so the filmmakers could assess the usability of the interview segment.

[question] When did you first meet Bucky and what were your first impressions of him?

It's very curious, but I don't any longer cultivate my memory. And when I'm asked a question like that, I come to a kind of blank wall. I have...I have both the feeling that I never began to know Bucky, but knew him always. Just as now that he's gone I don't have the feeling that he's absent. If I try to get more precise and find out when I...if there was some time when I...I know of course there was a time when I didn't know him, and that it's true that I did know him...that life changed when I knew him...

[question] In what way did it change?

Well, through the liveliness and and optimism and generosity of his mind.

[question] What kind of person was he?

He was full of a kind of affirmative joy in everything that he did. And if he found that there was something missing, even if it was a bottle of whiskey that someone else wanted, I remember at Black Mountain College, he simply disappeared momentarily, from the group that we were in and drove all the way to Asheville, I think it was...I don't know how many miles, and back, and shortly there was a bottle of whiskey that had been desired by one of the people in the group.

[question]

What was important it seems to me about Black Mountain was the dining hall, because everyone had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. And the classes were less important than the meals. Because people lingered over the meals and it was there that the conversations took place. Every time that it's attempted to make Black Mountain over again, it's not understood that that all the meals should be shared by all of the people. But that I think was the secret of the success of Black Mountain.


[question]

Well he was, as I say, very lively. I had arranged a Satie festival, the music of Erik Satie, and among those was a play that Satie had written called The Trap...Medusa's Trap in English, or Le Piege de Medusa in French. And the central character was Baron Meduse. And we asked Bucky to play that part. And he did so without any question. He had never acted before. But he did this beautifully. Later he said that experience of acting in Baron Meduse gave him the ability to give all the speeches that he subsequently gave throughout the world, universities.

[question]

I would not say so...he was...his, his head was like a globe and his eyes were very sparkling, so that there was a kind of dynamism that came from him. And I would never...I'm surprised to hear...that he was withdrawn. (Or shy?) Or shy. I wouldn't have connected that with him.

[question]

He said that acting in that play gave him the ability to give the talks which he subsequently gave in so many different places. It may be that he was shy before, but he was certainly not shy afterward. He always gave me the feeling and he, I've asked other people and they had the same reaction that I had, that is that he was talking to me. And each person I talked to thought the same thing, that he was talking to them. His eyes moved over the whole audience. So that each person had the feeling that the lecture was given to him personally.


[question]

You mean while he was at Black Mountain? When he put up his first dome there, and it immediately collapsed, and instead of being unhappy, he was delighted. He said, I only learn when I have failures. And it reminded me of my father who was an inventor, who also said what Bucky said...that he welcomed failure because that way he was led to his discoveries.

[question]

Bucky had an extraordinary energy which I don't think I have. He was able to make the extensive travels that he made and without any hesitation he could go into action in front of a large public giving a talk without sleep, with nothing but the fact that he had reached the audience. It's hard to say how much energy he had or where, where it came from, or how it is that it was...that he's not with us in that way any longer. When he was alive he said that he would live to be 120, and we all believed it. And we were surprised how...actually not unhappy when he died because his life was so important that it shines...almost with the same intensity now that it did when he had it.

[question]

The one I know is that he was holding Anne's hand, visiting her when she was in the hospital.

[question]

As I've heard it, he went to visit Anne who was in a coma in the hospital, and while he was holding her hand, he died, and still holding her hand, some hours later, she died. I went with Merce Cunningham to Boston to the memorial service that was held for both of them and there the two caskets and a beautiful enlarged photograph of them when they were young, running through the forest together.

[question]

As I recall his family was on one side of the church and her family was on the other side.

[question]

It seems to me she was devoted to Bucky. Bucky...it was hard to say what she was like other than that she was devoted to him. Because if there was any talking done, he did it. And she was, she very patiently, I wouldn't even say patiently, she simply listened. Though she must've known what she was going to hear quite well. Bucky always talked spontaneously, but within the limitations of where his mind brought him. So that after each talk which he would give spontaneously at a university, a typescript or a tape would be sent back. And it became possible for someone acting as his secretary, to recognize an idea that Bucky was developing as ideas with such and such a number, say the 23rd idea.

I don't know how many ideas that one could distinguish in a talk by Bucky but it was possible for a secretary to recognize, say 100 or 200, and to then be able to identify from a typescript that will come from one place and then from another, what the order of the spontaneous talking had been.


[question]

I think the ideas of both Buckminster Fuller and of Marshall McLuhan about the world as a single place are essential to the possibility of our solving problems now. And will always be at the basis of a good life, if we have one, on this earth. In other words, seeing the earth not as a plurality of sovereignties, as Bucky said, but as a single place. For me, it became clear when I went to Oahu in Hawaii...

When I went to Hawaii, I noticed that between Honolulu on the southern side of Oahu, and the sections of Hawaii on the north side of Oahu, there was a tunnel, and at the top of the tunnel there were crenellations as on a medieval castle. And I asked what they were for. And I was told that formerly the people to the north or to the south used those crenellations to protect themselves while shooting poisoned arrows at the people on the other side. Now they share the same utilities, and that they were ever at war with one another is laughable. This then, I, brought me to thinking of Bucky's map of the of the world which shows that the whole earth is a single island and that were we to do as they now do in Hawaii, share the utilities with all the other people on the planet, anything like war would be out of the question. It seems already, with our recent news, that war is becoming increasingly questionable. But still we don't have the, the sharing of utilities. And I think we have many corners of the earth that the powerful nations give little thought to.

[question]

Well I think that it should be one place rather than a place requiring...divided patriotism. When I was in high school, my valedictorian talk was international patriotism, again a word that Bucky would not have accepted. He didn't like the word international. But if we're going to have the notion of patriotism then we would want it for all of the countries, all of the patriotisms together, rather than just one of them.

[question]

Yes, entirely. And it begins with my devotion to Buckminster Fuller's work and to the work of Marshall McLuhan. And it begins with the experience that I had in Hawaii. And it has been interrupted for quite some years now, due to the fact that the news has been so, as it were, numbing. I don't, I don't know how to, how to express it. Because though there was a period, as I say, of the news being numbing, lately there's been a period of it's being the opposite of numbing, of giving us a kind of breath, breath for new possibilities. There is still though a confusion in the air. And I think it comes from the absence of, I hesitate to say it, but an absence of spirituality among the people. So that the news, if you listen to the news over the radio, which I do in order to find out what the weather is going to be, I hear that several teenagers last night, for instance, this was yesterday's news, simply came into a group of people in Brooklyn, and were shooting just carelessly and killing several people. And the, the question is, why do they do that? One wonders too what answer Bucky would have given to the news that is increasingly heard by us. That comes from very young people, people 15, 16 and 17, doing thoughtless things that show no care for the rest of humanity, not to mention care for the world itself. It's an opposite of Buckminster Fuller's spirit. His spirit was one of love and devotion to the well being of each person on the planet.

[question]

Well, he used, as we do too, words. But he seemed to have a direct relation to each one of us, which gave us that feeling.

[question]

I think that it may be connected with his hope that, and his belief that, the problems of the whole globe could be solved by people who have not yet been accepted as active members of the society, but who were still free, as it were, to live their lives independently of society. And I think it's true that average...if you want to find the largest number of people that are the majority of people living...that it, that majority has been going down in age. So that if it reaches the level of the students, then we can have a revolution for the good, among those young people who are not yet engaged in the society itself, who have nothing to lose by changing it.



[question]

Well, I think the important thing about it architecturally is that it gives shelter without weight. So that as we, as we have more and more people who need more and more shelter, and we get it with the use of less material than we would if we used heavy things like stone and wood. I'm sure that that principle of, of Bucky's dome can be extended to other shapes, but the important thing is the absence of weight. Which he always pointed out was characteristic of ship architecture. And that it was wrong not to have it as part of land architecture.

[question]

Well he put up his first dome and it fell down. So that taught him something, which he obviously learned because later, for the World's Fair, for instance, in Montreal, there was a beautiful dome which is still up, and which hasn't fallen down, even though it burned. I hope that dome in some way will become a monument to Buckminster Fuller's work. It could become a very instructive center for his work.


Well, as I've said, any future that we have will be based on his ideas and those of Marshall McLuhan, because they're ideas which see the life of all of us on earth as being one life to the problems attacking which must be solved. One of the things that interests me at the moment about Bucky was his concern not with politics but with economics. He said that the best newspaper to read in New York was not the Times, but the Wall Street Journal. And if we connect that with the fact that the only people who are really acting in a global way are the industries, whose advances are retailed to us in the Wall Street Journal, we see what he was talking about. What we would like is that kind of energy without the greed that is associated with it. And I think that, that absence of greed and the presence of complete generosity is what Bucky had.

[question]

Not random, but chaos.

[question]

I was concerned about that because when I was writing one of my books and it was about to be - I was actually proofreading the final galleys - it occurred to me that he might disagree with what I was saying. And so I went, I took a small airplane and flew from Cincinnati, where I was, to Carbondale to talk with him about it. And he, he was not opposed to my ideas about chance. He said that he was trying to bring about a society in which those chances could play harmlessly.

And there was later someone else, some I don't know, I'm sorry, I don't know the name of the person, whether he was an architect or an artist, but he was, he was interested in both the use of I Ching, in the chance operations, and also of Bucky's geodesic dome. And he was able to make a model which showed the inter-, the almost, the identity of chance and geodesic mathematics.

[question] Can you define Bucky in one word?

Bucky...(chuckle)...Oh, I don't think you have to say any other word when you know him. If you don't know him you might have to say more than one word. And it's hard to know where to begin. It could be energy. He was very interested in energy himself and liked multiplying it with synergy to bring about greater energies than we had imagined simply by putting two things together that then brought about a mysterious other power. Energy is certainly one of the things, and the other is optimism. Generosity. And solving, I don't know, solving all the problems, even those which we are not aware of. Realizing that there could be problems that we're not aware of and that if we make our solutions radically enough that they will have solved those problems even though we don't know them, I think. He often used the word confidence; I am confident that such and such is the case. And his confidence cut through, say, the absence of information. Not on his part, but if on anyone's part who didn't have all, all the facts at hand.


Bucky thought the important thing about his work was that it existed in book form, in the idea form and that the seeds of it were both planted and distributed throughout the earth. I think that's very true. You could say when we come to our senses or when we come to the need for him, we can have quickly resource to him. He used to compare it to the Fuller Brush Man. If you know that those brushes existed, you could get one...even if you didn't buy it right off.

[question]

Yes. Rather than to any politician. In other words it was something that you knew existed that you could have recourse to.

[question]

Well I enjoyed being with him. And I neither tried to...I never tried to escape him. I always tried to be with him when it was practical. I enjoyed it.

[question]

He was completely devoted to his work. And you knew perfectly well that he was not devoted to your work but to his own work. So that if you were going to be with him you would have to listen to his work and interrupt your own work while you were doing that. If you could think of his work as part of your work, then you could go on with your work by being with him. But if you thought of them as two different things, then it was like an interruption. If you have heard 100 speeches by Bucky, there'd be a remarkable similarity from one to another. And that's why the secretaries were able to put the ideas in the boxes where they belonged...idea fifty-three always went into idea fifty-three. So in that sense it was...there was an end to the fun and it would become a kind of work to always hear the same ideas. But the energy and joy that he had in his work and its importance for all of us is undeniable.

[question]

Of course, how, why would I not (chuckle). Makes me think of the question that was put to Erik Satie, "Are you a Frenchman?" And he said, "Of course I am, how would you imagine a man of my age not to be a Frenchman?" No, I think he had of course all the good qualities that we hope for in people.