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John Cage

by Julia Robinson, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA  London, UK. 2011
240 pp., illus. 34 b&w.  Trade, $35.00; paper, $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01612-4; ISBN: 978-0-262-51630-3.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Thinking about this review of John Cage, I had a strong temptation to write a “non-review” consisting of 750 blank word spaces, echoing his (in)famous composition 4':33.” However, after serious consideration, I realised this would not be an accurate representation of the book or Cage's work, because, despite the use of silence in his compositions he actually spoke a lot, wrote a lot, and made a lot of noise.

This book is a collection of eight scholarly essays written between 1959 and 2009. There are numerous black & white illustrations, mostly of Cage's original scores, together with a few rather nostalgic photos of Cage and the Cage-Williams' house. Inevitably some of the essays cover the same ground, but all are very well written, accessible to the general reader and leave the reader with a true sense of Cage's life and work. Essay titles will help give an idea of the approaches of the various contributors:

1 – John Cage, or Liberated music.
2 – Chance as Ideology.
3 – Looking Myself in the Mouth
4 – Cage and Asia: History and Sources.
5 – John Cage and The Architecture of Silence.
6 – Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the Event Score.
7 – The Formalization of Indeterminacy in 1958: John Cage and Experimental Composition at the New School.
8 – John Cage and Investiture: Unmanning the System.

Most essays seem to situate Cage accurately in an historical sense. This is very important in helping the contemporary reader understand the influences affecting Cage's project, his various associates, and the cultural milieu in which Cage developed his minimalist, non-music — New Music. The essays also provide, in most cases, well-balanced, critical discussion of Cage's revolutionary avant-garde approach to the whole field of musical composition and modern art.

All those who pioneer new methods and try to show us new ways to hear or see attract both just and unjust criticism. Cage was no exception, variously being derided as a fool, seen as rather ineffectual, to being lauded as a genius. “As Adorno viewed it, a Cagean aesthetic amounted to little more than an ineffectual revival of Dadaism.” “In contrast to its Dadaist grandparents,” Adorno cautioned, “it degenerates at once into culture, and it cannot remain unaffected by this” (p. 81).

Boehmer's essay, Chance as Ideology is unrelenting in ripping Cage and his complete project apart, limb from limb. There are far too many instances to discuss; however, I think the following quote will whet the readers appetite to read this book. Cage said, “I find my taste for timbre lacking in necessity, and I discover, that in the proportion I give it up, I find I hear more and more accurately. Beethoven now is a surprise, as acceptable to my ear as a cowbell” (p.22). Boehmer's response to this comment is, “No composer is obliged to feel affection for Beethoven. But his ideas remain questionable when he cannot distinguish between Beethoven and a cowbell and cannot refrain from imbecilic comments such as, “Is what’s clear to me clear to you?...Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?...People aren't sounds, are they?” (p. 22). Hmmm!

Both Dada and Cage have degenerated well and truly into our culture, and  from our post-postmodernist position seem a little like, “well what else can you show me?” I have a number of Cage's CDs that I enjoy - anti-art turned into a marketable art product? And I would hate to think of how much Duchamp's original “Fountain” would sell for at an international art auction? Nevertheless, these pioneers, if they did nothing else, they helped us to see and hear with fresh eyes and ears. The work of very few avant-garde artists can remain insulated from being consumed by the relentless tendrils of capitalism and cultural mediocrity - perhaps Stelarc and some of Joseph Beuys’ work are examples. Artists such as Cage walk a thin paradoxical knife edge, “Cage’s lifelong project – of deskilling, disempowering, unmanning – brought him to the precipice of giving up music altogether in order to leave behind him an expanded concept of composition” (p. 208).

Art historians, art educators and contemporary avant-garde artists will find this book informative, interesting and, perhaps, inspiring.

Last Updated 1 May 2012

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