• 50 Years - A Million Thanks

American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Interview with Choreographer Merce Cunningham



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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]

It was the summer of 1948 and John Cage and I had been invited to come and teach and be in residence at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. And I can't remember exactly when Bucky first came to the summer session but it was near the beginning of it. He had been there one or two days and he... that evening was to give a talk. And we all came to this in the dining hall which was the general assembly for everything from eating to dancing to whatever, that Black Mountain had available. And there was Fuller, this astonishing looking man, he always made me think of the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. He gave a lecture which...a talk really, which lasted for a number of hours. And on the table, as he was talking, were these models of the various geometric shapes that interested him, with which he worked and which he discussed at great length. It was indelible in my memory, not only because of what he said, and this wide mind that he had, but his manner was...so engaging...some way to...not just for the ideas which were absolutely marvelously opening, but the way he said them, and their kind of sense, and the way of his person that he gave. I remember thinking it's Bucky Fuller and his magic show. It was immediate, I think, with all of us who were there...this immediate absolute adoration and love of this man because of his...ideas, the width of the ideas. The grandeur with which he saw things and the way in which he spoke about them and demonstrated them. He stayed for the rest of the summer session.

[question]

I think I knew of his name, but that would be it. But the impact, of course, was so immediate. It's like some...how do you describe it...this enormous poet who comes into your life and simply expands...is able to expand one's vision in so many directions. As I say, it was that particular lecture, because that is the first time I heard him talk. The impact was so...well it remains.

[question]

The lecture at Black Mountain College that Bucky gave was about his work, but also about his way of thinking of the world even at that time, as a single entity, and that one had to...sort of in a sense open one's mind to that. I remember that marvelous idea of his about how people traveled either with the wind or against the wind. And the first part of the lecture were the ideas that he had been concerned with over his life. And the second part...he began to demonstrate with these small models which were made of paper...they were quite small, on the table...of those various geometric shapes, and about force and...he would pick up one of these, I remember, and turn them around slightly to show us how one...one thing could work against another in that...in that way he had about building. And the lecture, as I said, went on for...I would say 3 hours at least, but maybe even 4. [chuckle] And there was a break at one point, I think between the first part and the second part. It's as though he had spent the first part elucidating his ideas and then the second part in a sense beginning to show...try to show something about the way this could be brought into practice.

[question]

Yes...he built one of those...geodesic domes, one of his dome things out of materials. And my recollection about it is that...he asked for a specific kind of material and a specific width. And what they got I think, what the school got was the kind of material but the width was less. So he was heard very quietly to make this remark as they were trying to put it up, well it won't work but we'll go right ahead and do it anyway. And it was...it did fall down. But I think they eventually did it again, they had got the proper size and built it again. But it was such an experience for any of us who watched. And certainly for the students who were involved in the actual building because the construction was so...what do you say, so interesting, so absorbing, how this was put up, how...I can't remember it in detail except suddenly this thing began to appear.

[question]

Absolutely nothing would daunt Bucky. He would simply continue.

[question]

Well...the play is by the composer, Erik Satie. It's a short play, it's divided into 7 scenes, I think. It lasts about a half an hour. And the Baron is like...I don't know what you'd call, call him. You can't really name, it's more like a Dada character than anything else, to put it that way. And it's...we thought that the way Bucky looked, and certainly he could talk, there was no problem about that, and if he were willing to do this, to appear in this... And he liked the idea so much, when it came to actually doing it, to working at it, he was nervous about being on the stage so to speak, even in this rather sort of simple circumstances. But fortunately the man who was directing the play was a student there, Arthur Penn who, as you may know, the movie director. And he was marvelous working with Bucky and took care of all Bucky's fears. Bucky was marvelous. There are about 6 or 7 characters in the play, including a mechanical monkey. And I was the monkey. The monkey's name was Jonas. And at the end of each scene, instead of a shift of curtain, which we didn't have anyway, but a shift that way, the monkey does a dance. There are 7 short piano pieces by Erik Satie which are used for that. And John Cage played the piano for them. Then the next scene would continue. The monkey goes and sits down or stands on a stool, a sort of stool arrangement, and the next scene begins. So that at the end of each scene, everybody makes this kind of exit except for the monkey who does the dance and then they all come back in again, on or several, and start all over again.

[question]

Well yes, yes. But I thought he wasn't nervous in any sense at the idea of doing it. But when it came to whether people would hear him...of course why he would worry about that ...in that sense, about being on the stage, so to speak, having to play a character. But Arthur Penn was marvelous with him. And what do you say...every time that Bucky halted, during rehearsals or became upset...that's not the proper word because Bucky didn't become upset. He would stop and one could see he was thinking, now what should he do. And Arthur was marvelous about putting out things that Bucky could do in order to think his...in his way through this situation. And...Bucky learned.

[question]

Well, strong the way, the way he has always been, open... What, what do you call it...the instant of course that came where he could talk, then he would continue. But you wanted him to because it was so fascinating to listen to these enormous ideas about the world and about how building could change and of course all of the things that he had worked with over...even up to that time, over his life. Which were ideas which have been since then opened out in different ways by Bucky, as well as perhaps other people. But the ideas were really...one had the sense that this man right from the beginning had some totally different way of looking at the world, which made...given the state of the world even then...made real sense to one.

[question]

I remember, in the lecture, that first lecture at Black Mountain, the words that he used sometimes were lengthened by additions of various...putting one word with another. So you would...or I would...I would get lost. But as he continued talking, I...and these things would come back, I would have some sense of what he was concerned about, and they always were eye opening, fascinating, and to me mind opening.

[question]

Well, I would see him infrequently, of course, but one I remember very much is teaching one summer at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and I was told that I had to give grades to the students, which I wasn't particularly interested in doing. That's not where my concern lies about dancing. But Bucky came that summer on a lecture series to give a talk. And once I found out, I told my students that I would fail them unless they went to hear him talk.

Another one I do remember was once John Cage and I were touring and we were in the airport in Madrid. And we heard this voice across that vast terminal, saying "John Cage!" And we turned and there was Bucky way at the other end of the terminal, with his daughter Allegra. And they were on a lecture tour. He gave hundreds of lectures every year during a great deal of his life, traveling the world over. I think mostly probably to young people but then anybody else who was young enough to be interested in the kind of ideas he had. Those I remember very much.

I remember instances where one would encounter him at some, some evening situation where I would not talk with him very much only because he was busy. But always he was...enlightening. He was a man who, for me, always opened your mind to new possibilities, to new things. The way that he saw the whole world...it gave you a sense of the real possible way the world could continue. Because he was so concerned about the way the world used its resources. All of those things of course he spoke about so often. And the ways to implement this all around the globe. And those...ideas...the one he...in his books where writes about the way people traveled, either going with the wind or against the wind. And that for me is such a...not only widening idea but poetic, the poetic quality to it. I think that's one of the things...part of his spirit that remains so strong. There was such a poetic quality in it.


[question]

He didn't try to say, he said it. He said it and he said it a lot, and very clearly. I think he saw...well I know he did, of course he saw the world as a single entity. The spaceship Earth, but he also saw ways of implementing this in terms of its resources, the way they could be utilized to, to help everybody, so that everybody could survive around the world in a way that was respectable. I remember that that idea he had about using the Bay of Fundy, which is way up in Nova Scotia, which has the most powerful tides of any place in the world, or one of the most powerful. And he said that could be harnessed for energy. Well everybody thought this was...or many people did, thought this was silly. And we didn't need energy, but now [laugh] we need energy, and they're beginning to wonder if maybe there's a way to harness the Bay of Fundy.

[question]

Oh he was very practical, within the world he worked. To travel aroiund the world the way he did, and give as many lectures as he did in any given year, that takes a great deal of practicality, some way, how to organize that, and to do it. I think that his ideas were so...far out is not the word, but wide, in terms of the world we live in, and the way it operates, and the way it could operate. You might say that that was the trouble for people. But on the other hand, if you looked at the ideas, and thought about them, you realized that they were opening, that they gave everybody else a way to think about these kind of situations.

[question]

I think it was the Black Mountain College that was...if I could call it that one of the first interdisciplinary situations. It was a small school, but the disciplines of various kinds, both art and science, were mixed, and I remember one of the pleasures for me was that everyone ate in this large open room, the dining hall. And you sat at tables with people from totally different situations than your own. I was there as a teacher of dance, and I'd give a dance class in the morning, and rehearsing in the dining hall in the afternoon. And at either lunch or dinner you would eat with someone from the Physics Department, or someone from the Visual Arts Department, or someone else...it wasn't really in any sense to me a conventional educational institution at all. It was something where you gained by experience, by observing, by listening, and by talking.

My dance classes were open to anybody, my only stipulation was that they had to come to the class every day, in other words for that, and that they were willing to do that, that was fine. I went there several summers to teach, and one summer the poet Charles Olsen who was there and asked if he could take the class, and I said yes, if you would come every day which he said, I will. I will, and he did. And he was marvelous to watch. It was amazing.

[question]

It was 1948, the summer of 1948, and John Cage and I had been asked to come for the summer course to teach...work with the students, and I've forgotten how long the session was, probably six weeks, and I think that toward say the end of the first week, something roughly like that, Buckminster Fuller came, and he...I knew the name, but that would be all, from my point of view, but I'm sure that other people knew about his work.

Joseph Albers had asked him to come, and the first experience that I have of this man's strength, quality, and whatever else that one can say about him, was that...the lecture he gave. I think it was that... one evening shortly after he arrived, and he lectured for at least three hours perhaps four, and here was this extraordinary man, talking about his ideas that he had worked on over many years about the world, and about the, how to use the resources, even then he was speaking about that, that was the first part of the lecture. The second part he demonstrated with these models made of paper, his ideas about force...forces. How one thing can be supported by another. And for me it was...as I'm sure for many other people there who had not heard him speak before, it was simply a widening of one's experience in...in so many directions, and of course we all fell in love with him. I don't know how else to describe it. For me it was Bucky Fuller and his Magic Show. He was like the Wizard of Oz, really with all...everything with all the gadgets working, and it was a marvelous, deep, deep pleasure, that lecture.

And he stayed the summer, and during the summer John Cage was giving a retrospective, every evening, of the music of Erik Satie, John would play two or three pieces after dinner, and one of the things that...part of the Satie ouevre is this play... called the Ruse of Meduse, and this had been translated into English by Mary Caroline Richards, and there were six or seven characters in it, and one of them was the Baron Meduse...he was the principle character, and we all thought that Bucky should do this, and he was persuaded to try it. Actually I think he liked the idea very much, because he is a theatrical person in a way Bucky. And he was, a very large theatrical being, on a grand scale. And we began to rehearse the piece...it's a half hour piece, there's a number of scenes in it, and he began to get nervous about speaking lines, that kind of thing that one does if one isn't familiar with it, even though he had spoken his lines all his life. But fortunately Arthur Penn who was a student there too, who...and...was the director of the play, helped Bucky, and simply showed him ways to take care of all that, and there. wasn't any problem, and Bucky was...was to put it mildly a smash.



[question]

He was a large...not physically large, but a large man in the sense of the ideas, so that when he spoke of something, it was always...as I remember him, always in this large sense, as though he were trying to convey whatever small idea you may have been thinking about, he immediately turns it into something huge, and I think that's because of this enormous widening of the mind that he had in almost any situation that he might have, certainly when I was with him, encountered. He also wrote poetry, and I have a poem that he gave me when I saw him with his daughter once in Washington DC. The three of us had dinner together, and he proceeded to bring out this poem, and read it during the dinner, while, while the waiter was bringing the food back and forth, and Bucky would...I can't remember him eating...I was trying to eat because I was very hungry, but I can't remember Bucky eating because he was busy reading the poem. The poem was very long, and large, and very interesting.