Virtually all writing, talking and thinking about American experimental music in the 20th century turns eventually to the defining genius of the era, John Cage. His life, his anarchic music and his writings upended traditions beginning in the third decade of the century, continuing without interruption into the last.
Today, music students study his explosive innovations and his seminal works; young composers follow in his footsteps; and yes, crusty older generations sitting in his concerts get up and walk out.
John Cage, drawing by Michael Johnson
Controversy merely energized John Cage. He found humor in his mixed reception, laughing off those who saw nothing of interest in his music. In one letter he tells an associate of a concert he just attended, “People either loved it or hated it. I myself had a fine time.” He once wrote pieces for toy piano, the result of which he found “hilarious and magnificent”. It is still in the repertoire, taken seriously by today’s young musicians. And of all the raw noise associated with his compositions, it is curious that his best-known creation is 4’33” for solo piano that is never played. The “music” comes from the ambient noise in the concert hall, rustling, murmuring, coughing.
Cage’s lifelong struggle to break down the European influence in music and the arts – in his view a tradition that was totally spent -- is a tale engagingly told in his own words in a new 650-page book, The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Dr. Laura Kuhn, published by Wesleyan University Press.
This project evolved over five years, originating from research by Kenneth Silverman for his recent biography Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage. But the trove of letters grew to more than one thousand, and gradually Dr. Kuhn, professor of performance arts at Bard College and executive director of the John Cage Trust, plunged into it and greatly enriched the project with more than a thousand fascinating footnotes. Her final selection was whittled down to about 600 letters. The basic material was already stashed at Northwestern University, in the John Cage Correspondence Collection, initiated by Cage himself. But as research expanded, Cage friends and acquaintances were invited to share the letters they had treasured. “People were unbelievably gracious about having their letters included,” she tells me in an email.
As Kuhn writes in her preface, this collection is intended to reflect Cage’s wide and egalitarian reach and his preoccupation with complex compositions and ideas. She also wished to ensure that the various periods of Cage’s life be covered, and that all six decades of his creative activities – composing, performing, writing, teaching, painting – be covered. She has succeeded brilliantly. This book feels like the world of new music as seen through Cage’s eyes. The material is broken up in roughly ten-year periods, with a helpful introduction for each decade summarizing his work.
Cage was on friendly terms with some of the most creative minds in the arts of this transformative period. He moved in rarefied circles, as his letters attest, corresponding with Pierre Boulez, Adolph Weiss, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, Edgard Varese, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, , Nicolas Slonimsky, Marshall McLuhan, Luciano Berio, La Monte Young, Colin Noncarrow, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Virgil Thomson, Lou Harrison, Earle Brown, Luigi Nono, David Tudor, Harry Partch, Lukas Foss, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Yoko Ono and others.
Some of the correspondence provides readers a sort of guilty pleasure, containing intimate thoughts of his private life with professional associates and with lovers of both sexes. His longest affair, with modern dance innovator Merce Cunningham, lasted some fifty years. His yearning for love is expressed in the most graphic and lyrical terms. As he wrote to Cunningham, “Send me some little twig or a hair from near enigma (private parts) or a piece of grass you touched and sunbathed with, mon prince.”
And yet getting to grips with Cage’s elusive persona is not possible from these letters. Kuhn, who spent three years working the material, warns that “taken as a whole, they do not suggest a biography”.
Cage was indeed something of a will o’ the wisp. “If one gleans a biographical arc,” writes Kuhn, “it appears without a single, overriding descriptor: Cage is by turns enthusiastic, intelligent, consistent and caring, as well as unwavering, repetitious and dogmatic.” Summing up the man, she concludes that one thing becomes clear: “John Cage began life as John Cage and finished life as John Cage.”
In one of his letters he sets some boundaries. “My methods of work are innately my own,” he wrote. “I see no value in being an ‘idea man’ and not having a finger in production. For at the present time in this society, nothing is done as one intends unless he does it himself, or stands closely by its being done.”
The sweep of his imagination is evident in his mastery of percussion which he describes in a letter from 1940 to Henry Cowell. He lists dozens of “instruments” he would require for a project, including bells, whistles, drums, thunder sheets, four triangles, a metal pipe, three brake drums nine chopsticks and five gongs.
Perhaps the most interesting letters are those addressed to Boulez with whom he had forged a close friendship. Insights into his creative process emerge as he talks shop with “dear Pierre”. In 1950 he wrote to Boulez that “since knowing you, our music sounds feeble to me. In truth, it is only you who interests me.” And he often turned technical in his descriptions of his work, as in one letter from 1951. His new “String Quartet”, he wrote, “uses a gamut of sounds, some single, some aggregates, but all of them immobile. That is, staying always not only in the same register where they originally appear but on the same strings or bowed or produced in the same manner on the same instruments.”
Cage had written to his parents earlier that “Boulez is crazy about my music, and I about his.” During a trip to Paris, he said, Boulez took him around town to meet painters, poets, critics, musicians and arranged the private concerts for him to give.
John Cage left an indelible mark on new music, building on early studies with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schonberg. He remained active to his dying day at the age of 79, leaving several ambitious works and performance projects unrealized.