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

Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.