Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, October 21, 2010

“Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage” by Kenneth Silverman

I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to consider John Cage as the single most influential figure in non-popular music during the second half of the 20th century. Love him or hate him, he changed the way “art music” is written, is heard, is notated, is presented, is danced to; well, you get the idea. He set into motion several balls which haven’t stopped rolling yet. Even so, to the public at large - at least that portion to which his name has any meaning whatsoever - he is known almost solely because he composed a “silent” piece of music.

John Cage lived 79 years, 79 intense years filled right to the very end with almost feverish activity, creativity, an unstinting lack of compromise and, in the end, after decades of struggle, world-wide fame and all the others perks which come with long-fought-for acceptance. He lived a complicated, controversy-filled life, one which would be impossible for the average biographer to make sense of. But Kenneth Silverman is not just any biographer. His previous accomplishments include highly regarded books on Houdini, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel F.B. Morse, Cotton Mather - all easy subjects to write about superficially, but difficult subjects to put into their proper perspective. John Cage, a complex man who never seemed to comfortably settle into one mode of expression or one personal philosophy for very long before he was off on another artistic quest, might very well have been Silverman’s most difficult task yet.

But Silverman tackled the job with a diligence that less thorough authors might spurn. He searched through hundreds of print sources, interviewed people who knew and/or encountered Cage, pored over correspondence, checked facts, compared opinions. The result is a fresh, comprehensive, uncensored, meticulously detailed, carefully explicated examination of a man whose life was filled with contradictions, stubbornly held convictions, and difficult to fathom twists and turns.

We learn that “our” John Cage was the son of a previous generation’s equally enigmatic John Cage, a scientist/inventor quite well-known in his day, but also a bit of a crackpot. Cage, Jr. decided early on to study with Arnold Schoenberg, thinking he would be his entree into musical modernism, only to discover that Schoenberg wanted his students to have a thorough grounding in classical music theory and harmony, the very things Cage was hoping to liberate himself from. His need to shake free of harmony led him to begin composing percussion music. It is almost humorous in retrospect watching him naively and over-optimistically trying to convince people to listen to new music as well as his lectures on the subject.

But Cage was not easily dissuaded. Silverman carefully follows him as he quickly moves from innovative style to innovative style, prepared pianos, electronics and tape manipulation, the beginnings of what would come to be called “Happenings”, graphic notation, indeterminate music composed with the crucial aid of the I Ching (Silverman’s explanations and illustrations of this process is invaluable) and later with the aid of computers, the concept of “time brackets”, and on and on. The author traces the development of Cage’s decades-long collaboration with his gay lover, choreographer Merce Cunningham, as the two try - in vain for quite a long time - to build enough of an audience for modern dance and modern music composed in inseparable conjunction with each other to pay the rent and put food in their stomachs. We see Cage taking on a variety of students, including a Japanese composer who was married to Yoko Ono at the time, which helps to explain what I had previously considered to be the unlikely connection between Cage and John Lennon.

As he aged, John Cage never mellowed, never played it safe. He had long since discovered that his compositional concepts could be expressed textually rather than being set out on staff paper, to be repeated the same way each time a piece was performed. So it should not be surprising to find him turning to the writing of texts for their own sake - as one might expect, texts of a rigorously unconventional nature. His interest in the writings of kindred spirit James Joyce are examined, as is the Irish author’s influence on Cage. We also follow the development of the Cage-originated poetic form, the mesostic, which made him as much an innovator in the literary field as he was in music.

Silverman looks at Cage’s consuming interest in mushrooms, his artistic experiments with stone lithography, his friendships with many world figures in music and art, friendships which often turned prickly after awhile. Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of twentieth-century avant-garde culture discussed within the 400-plus pages of this densely-written, but eminently readable book. It is difficult to imagine there will be any need to write further books about John Cage in the future.

The review copy was an advance copy (due to a variety of circumstances, this review is appearing after the publication date), so it had no index. It should be obvious that the index, which will be in the finished product, will be exceedingly helpful in keeping the characters straight. (Silverman does the reader the favor of summarizing every so often, to remind the reader of people and events which were had not been mentioned for a while). There is also a reference to a CD on the Mode label. I’m afraid I simply do not know if the CD is included with the regular copies of the book, or if it is available as a separate entity. But looking at the CD track list at the back of the book, it seems clear that the CD will be an invaluable adjunct to the text.

I can’t imagine anyone with a interest in John Cage or with a more generalized interest in twentieth-century composition not wanting to read this book. Curiosity seekers should also find much to chew on here.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home