November 20, 2010


The Zen of Silence: a review of BEGIN AGAIN: A Biography of John Cage By Kenneth Silverman (JOHN ADAMS, 11/19/10, NY Times Book Review)

John Cage was one astonishing individual. A composer we commonly associate with coin tossing, whose most famous piece called for the performer not to make a single sound, he upended long-held conventions about the listening process and prodded us to re-evaluate how we define not only music but the entire experience of encountering art. He was, in the words of Kenneth Silverman’s new biography, “driven by an ideal of nonmythic listening and seeing, of perceptual innocence”; his goal was to compose “a prelapsarian music untainted by history.”

The only child of a father who was a professional inventor and a mother who wrote a society column for The Los Angeles Times, Cage counted among his ancestors Daniel Boone and a namesake who apparently helped Washington survey Virginia. His father held patents on every­thing from submarine designs to anti-cold nasal sprays, but he never managed to turn his ideas into commercial successes. Perhaps his one great success in life was to pass on the gene for original thinking to his son, the inventor of the “prepared piano,” for whom the act of composing was always a matter of careful process and method rather than the romantic one of spontaneous inspiration and self-expression.

Throughout his life, John Cage (1912-92) combined a Leonardo-like curiosity with a uniquely American optimism that enabled him to persevere in a stubbornly unconventional career, which culminated in his being one of the most instantly recognized names in 20th-century culture. He was endlessly, almost absurdly creative, producing a body of work that spanned music, poetry, painting, printmaking, politics and philosophy. In a country that has been blessed with many “maverick” minds in both the arts and the sciences, there is simply no one to compare with Cage for the variety of his ideas, the breadth of his interests and the radical implication of his thought.

No one wrote better about Cage than he himself. “Silence,” his 1961 collection of essays, manifestoes and wry anecdotes, proved to be one of the most widely read and influential texts ever written by a composer. I read this book as a 20-year-old aspiring composer and found what Cage had to say about the nature of noise, about how we listen (or don’t listen), and about how tradition and habit threaten to deaden our capacity for discovery, the musical equivalent of the young Martin Luther’s nailing his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

A Luther who believed in the possibility of prelapsarian Man?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2010 9:05 AM
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