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Give Our Regards To the Atomsmashers Silence: Lectures and Writings

by John Cage
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2011
312 pp. Trade, $30.00; ebook $14.99
ISBN-13: 978-0-8195-7176-2; ISBN-13: 978-0-8195-7177-9.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


John Milton Cage, Jr. (1912-1992) is often regarded as the most influential American music composer of the twentieth century. His pioneering work with chance and indeterminacy in musical compositions, the use of tape recordings and other forms of electroacoustic music, and his use of non-standard or specially prepared musical instruments positions Cage as one of the leading figures of the musical and performance avant-garde. His many challenges to assumptions regarding music, the role of the musician, and the musical experience continue to influence our understanding of how we make and appreciate art and performance.

Affiliated with Wesleyan University from the 1950s until his death, Cage taught courses in experimental music. In October 1961, Wesleyan University Press published a collection of Cage's lectures and writings. This was Silence, Cage's first book, the first of six, and remains his best known, translated into more than 40 languages. Now Wesleyan University Press celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Cage's landmark book with a special hardcover edition: Silence: Lectures and Writings.

As with the original, this anniversary edition of Silence collects 23 articles, essays, and lectures written by Cage from 1939 to 1961, several of which are presented in unorthodox methods. "The Future of Music: Credo," for example, presents two paragraphs of different texts. "Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?" was originally presented as four magnetic tapes running simultaneously, each with a different text read by a different reader. In Silence, these four different voices are represented by four different typefaces.

Most works in Silence feature an introduction providing some historical background. Many include an afternote, usually an anecdote. Several include detailed instructions from Cage regarding their performance. For example, his instructions for "45' for a Speaker" tells the speaker exactly when and how particular sentences and/or phrases should be read so that the lecture finishes in exactly 45 minutes. "Indeterminacy" is a collection of anecdotes from Cage's life and readings, which, as Cage explains in his instructions, are to be read one per minute. To achieve this goal, the speaker must either speed up or slow down, depending on the length of each anecdote.

These writings, along with "Lecture on Nothing" and "Lecture on Something" are, in essence, performances, to be read aloud and heard, each sound of the speaker's voices savored independently between the pauses, silence, and audience environmental noises surrounding, contextualizing them. Carrying this idea of entertainment further, in the afternote to "Lecture on Nothing," Cage writes, "In keeping with the thought expressed above that a discussion is nothing other than an entertainment, I prepared six answers for the first six questions asked, regardless of what they were." When the lecture was first delivered, 1949 or 1950, Cage says there were six questions. Following the second delivery, in 1961, "the audience got the point after two questions and, not wishing to be entertained, refrained from asking anything else" (126).

Cage, however, does not see entertainment as unrewarding. Instead, the seeming logical meaninglessness of entertainment can lead to enlightenment and/or direct perception of reality, following his deep interest in and use of Zen Buddhist philosophy and practices. To start out writing a musical composition with the idea that it must be profound, is, Cage, argues, a recipe for tediousness. The idea that no music could be great unless it was profound (and generally that meant not understood) was, according to Cage, a great hurdle for contemporary composers.

To remove himself from this struggle, Cage began, in 1951, experimenting with the I Ching to determine, through chance rather than personal taste, the disposition of his musical compositions. On one hand, Cage's stance was seen as an affront to the traditional ambitions of the composer. But, to those, like Cage, uncomfortable with the approach that musical composition must needs be profound, Silence, and its call to make musical composition fun, and risky, and humble was surely a cause for its immediate success.

The success of Silence has continued over 50 years as artists, composers, designers, and performers have adapted or drawn from Cage's thoughts and ideas. Why? As music critic Kyle Gann notes in his foreword to this fiftieth anniversary edition, Cage's writings did not instruct anyone how to think. Rather, they free readers, practitioners, to think for themselves. "Begin to follow him, and even if you can't follow everywhere he goes, you find yourself somewhere different from where you started out" (xxv). As it was when first published in 1961, Silence is now, still, 50 years later a book to think about.

Last Updated 1 May 2012

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