Review of The Selected Letters of John Cage | Leonardo

Review of The Selected Letters of John Cage

The Selected Letters of John Cage
edited by Laura Kuhn

Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2016
674 pp., illus. 9 b/w. Trade, $40.00; eBook, $31.99
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7591-3; ISBN: 978-0-8195-7592-0

Reviewed by: 
Ellen Pearlman
February 2017

The Selected Letters spanning the life of legendary composer John Cage is akin to two books running neck in neck with one another. The first is the vast cache of missives Cage wrote that reveal his hidden struggles and insights with notables the world over. For scholars of Cage's life it's the ultimate treasure trove, and for the rest of us simple admirers its a jaw dropping read of the mundane and profound trials on the road to achieve, maintain, and reconcile avant-garde fame and notoriety. The second book, much less noticeable, is written in nine-point type and runs along the bottom of practically every page. It is the 1159 meticulous and phenomenally well-researched footnotes about those letters put together by editor Laura Kuhn. It's a heroic effort where every person's station in life, and specific relation to Cage is identified. I suspect it took more time to fact check and collate those notes than it tool to actually edit the letters themselves. But without these critical signposts at every turn the book would not make as much sense. They are the key to who Cage knew, how he framed his world, and how, in turn, his world framed him.

Selected Letters is full of surprises. Cage was, despite his eventual professed homosexuality, at one time in love with two women, both over twice his age. Xenia, his ex-wife who was a quarter Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq (Eskimo), had, at one point, been the lover of photographer Edward Weston. By the time Cage was twenty-one he was savvy enough in the ways of the world to hit up important contacts who could further his career, including asking Adolph Weiss to be his music composition teacher. He wrote touching letters to Weiss regarding his progress studying with his newest mentor - the grand master of twelve tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1939 during the depression, times were hard, and while teaching in Seattle he laments to fellow composer Henry Cowell, "I had to go around and beg for money to purchase percussive instruments." In 1940 Cage tried to establish a center for experimental music begging anyone and everyone for funds - to no avail. He compared his found percussion instruments to "what many 'Negro' street musicians in New Orleans had done" and "defined music for my self as organized sound."

Bauhaus artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, teaching at the University of Chicago, invited Cage and his group of percussion players to perform, but lack of funds prevented that excursion. He did manage to bring Cage to Chicago to teach in 1941, accompanied by Xenia. She kept busy by translating Italian Futurist's Luigi Russodo's manifesto, "The Art of Noises", and Cage remarked it was about "the importance of the machine and of electricity " in contemporary music. It was also in Chicago, before Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham became seriously involved, that he noted "Merce has a serious inferiority complex'. Yet by 1943 that did not prevent him from writing love letters to Cunningham about his 'enigma' and little friend (penises) and compare Cunningham to the muse Calliope, highest of all. Which, by 1944, caused Xenia to up and leave him.

Distraught, Cage traveled to Paris where he met composer Pierre Boulez, and introduced him to American composer Aaron Copeland. Soaking up French culture, Cage dined out with the haute demi monde like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Rothschilds. When not ascending the heights of French society, he was showering at the public baths as he was sans washing facilities at his spartan living quarters. He even wrote his mother asking her to send him towels because he couldn't find any decent ones in Post War Paris. Enamored of the work of composer Eric Satie, he spent days at the Bibliotheque nationale de France devouring every piece of music Satie ever wrote, and penned rebuttals to critics who dared slander him. In the end, though, The City of Lights lost its allure and Cage decamped back to New York.

He then began a legendary correspondence with Boulez lasting from 1949 to 1954 that turned into the book, The Boulez - Cage Correspondence. He wrote pianist David Tudor about how musicians and composers Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff were booed and hissed when they played their compositions, then admits to Tudor that he loves him. In other letters he outlines, in excruciating detail, how he threw the I Ching to create his compositions, and in the next sentence complains he is constantly working at composing, but just not getting paid for it. This was not just empty bitching. He is so broke he tried to sell shares in his yet uncomposed works. Eventually he managed to raise five thousand dollars from Paul Williams to create the magnetic tape piece "Williams Mix". He gave advice to his friends, dropped names all over the place, arguing with, and correcting critics like Peter Yates. In 1954 he acknowledged the controversy he had stirred up from performing the silent piece 4' 33" saying, 'I attempt to let sounds be themselves in a space of time". He pondered the morphology of sound - how it begins, continues, and then dies away, yet in the next breath whips out a profit and loss statement about his last concert.

In 1959 he wrote charming letters to friends and mentors like Morton Feldman, Christian Wolfe, and even Nam June Paik, who he refered to as a "Korean living in Cologne", and alluded to Boulez dropping their friendship because of Cage's embrace of chance operations. By 1960 he grew confident enough in his own fame to conduct a brisk business by unabashedly asking for money. He mentions the class he was teaching at the New School, crowing about his best pupil Tosh Ichiyangi who married Yoko Ono and ignited a new movement in contemporary music in Japan. He praised his other students like Alan Kaprow, who went on to created Happenings, and Fluxus progenitor George Brecht. He referred to himself as a 'decomposer', because after 4' 33" he has already 'moved on'. He also revealed he was afflicted with arthritis so painful it was kept him up at night.

Despite outright success he was constantly burdened by money woes, so chunks of the letters are chock-a-bloc with requests for money, access to rights, bookings, and corrections on translations. His personal responsibilities mounted; first his father passed away, and then he had to support his mother who had a stroke, and finally he had to make his never-ending alimony payments to Xenia. In 1962 he was excited to be going to the Orient, but in the end it was a bit of a disappointment. In a 1963 letter to Lou Harrison he complained he was unable to just live his own life because he had to give lectures and play the piano despite his disfigured arthritic hands that can't pick up anything anymore. He moaned about returning home with no money to pay the bills. He was constantly in debt, and had to borrow funds to pay his taxes. Despite issues with time management, he assumesd the administrative arrangements for the Mycological Society, and those letters are fastidious with details for the society's aims and ambitions. In 1964, always prescient about the next wave, he wrote that Lejeran Miller was beginning to compose music for the computer. In 1965 Cage read Phillip Kapleau's book on Zen, and remarked he could never imagine sitting crossed legged.

By 1967 he was taking a course twice a week in the survey of computer music, and thrilled to find out that a program in Fortran was being written for the I Ching. He told Yoko Ono he was not interested in her bottoms project (films of buttocks) or in cellist Charlotte Mooreman's tops (breasts), or in anyone's projects of 'fixed ideas and feelings', which decades later caused Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown to accuse him of hiding his feelings behind his music. He talked about leasing, not owning creative works, comparing them to cars, a very innovative approach that contemporary performance artists like Tino Sehgal now employ. He complained bitterly about having to fund-raise but then turned around and wrote an elegant fund-raising request to a potential patron. By 1971 he began performing less often, but when he did, those performances lasted up to five hours.

The final section of the book is focused on the last ten years of Cage's life (1972-1982). He cataloged his work, figuring out what collections should go where, and wrote that one day he will die. In 1973 he said "As far as music goes I for one no longer need it; I find it all around me. I hear it all the time and it clicks." In 1975 he finally answers a letter, sitting around for decades, from poet Jackson Mac Low. In his lengthy response he mentioned he still used the I Ching, but it is now computerized. He complained he does not have enough time to accomplish anything, and vowed to stop listening to unsolicited manuscripts cassettes. He embraced a macrobiotic diet, which helped to cure his arthritis, and demanded special diets as part of his worldwide engagements. In 1997 he wrote about his exposure to one of the first computer bulletin boards (BBS). He mused endlessly about wills, foundations, requests, his health, and again, his diet. He took great enjoyment in telling people he was 80 years old and has no time.

And then, unexpectedly on July 28 1992 his cranky, wondrous voice ceased. This time he was spot on: he truly and tragically had finally run out of time.