Oct 5th 2016

The intimate John Cage

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Nov 28th 2018
French pianist Bertrand Chamayou [in the drawing by the author, Michael Johnson] plunges into major composers one by one, reading works by and about them, traveling to their favorite haunts, and absorbing their art almost into his blood.  As he told me in an interview, he tries to immerse himself in the era of the composition, and to think of it as “new” for its time. In the past ten years he has done this with Liszt, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. 
Sep 24th 2018
The rich culture of the proud and ancient Basque people is sadly underexposed outside their homeland, a remote bi-national region where Southwest France meets northern Spain. Their language, Euskara, is a world in a bubble with no relationship to other living languages. Most outside interest in recent decades has sprung from the sometimes-violent Basque independence movement. Basque music, however, does travel well across cultures, and is worth a detour. The French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque, born in Bayonne, grew up with Basque melodies and lyrics in their ears. Now an established two-piano duo, their new CD (KML Recordings) Amoria” groups14 disparate pieces of Basque music they researched over several years. It is a departure from their usual classical repertoire.
Sep 11th 2018
I know several professional pianists who will admit under pressure that they find their work ultimately unsatisfying. Not because of the crowded marketplace, the dreary practice rooms, the clapped-out pianos or too many exhausting tours. No, they are tired of something more basic — the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else. True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to “own” their work. But written music places strict limits on all but the most marginal departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers whose teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page. This may explain why so many pianists and other professional musicians also paint.
Sep 7th 2018
With a large cast, full orchestra, and incredible jazz-inflected music, “Porgy and Bess” stands alone as the one American opera that is recognized around the world. Written by George Gershwin and premiered in 1935 on Broadway, it had to wait until mid-1980s to become a standard of the operatic repertoire. The jazz idiom that Gershwin used was surely one of the reasons that “Porgy and Bess” was adopted slowly by the operatic world. But another roadblock was the story, which told about the love between a crippled beggar, Porgy, and a drug-addicted woman, Bess, who live in an impoverished African-American community in the South.
Sep 5th 2018
Frederic Chopin left detailed markings of tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, even some fingerings, for his 21 Nocturnes to guide interpreters. Yet no two versions – and there are dozens of them -- are anything like the same. The essence of playing Chopin today is deciding how far to veer, how sharply to swerve, from the master’s ideas today without losing sight of his artistic intentions. The player must ask, “When does Chopin cease to be Chopin?” Now comes the rising French pianist François Dumont with a stunning new version that sets him apart (Aevea Classics). PICTURE: Dumont by Johnson.
Sep 5th 2018
Princeton University in the United States is best known for its big thinkers, top scientists and heavyweight historians but now is embarking on a determined effort to make a splash in the arts. Princeton’s new Lewis Center of the Arts is going about it in the most American manner, with millions of dollars upfront investment and a business plan to attract young talent into its music program. Nothing is left to chance. This fall, a new crop of music students have full access to 48 freshly minted Steinway pianos, a large enough stock to attract global attention among pianophiles.
Jul 19th 2018
San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011.......
Mar 26th 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Mar 15th 2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Mar 9th 2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Feb 21st 2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Feb 4th 2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Jan 31st 2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Jan 26th 2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Jan 13th 2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Dec 30th 2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Nov 29th 2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Nov 29th 2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart.