“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”
—John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992)
One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology in his artistic practice. And yes, silence. His seminal composition, 4’33” (1952), wherein musicians sit in silence and do not intentionally make sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, taught us all to listen more deeply.
Our paths crossed a few times. Once, while I was on tour in the mid-1980s with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in France, I sat in a hotel lobby with him watching the French Open on television, and then shared a taxi with him to the theater. On the drive over, he repeatedly lowered and closed the window, amused by its squeaky sounds.
Then in 1990, when I worked at the Walker Art Center, I invited him to do a reading to celebrate the opening of the Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols exhibition. Cage had written about Johns earlier in their careers, and for this performance, he randomly rearranged his text utilizing his computer and presented this.
We had gotten a request for ASL interpretation. Cage was concerned, warning the interpreter the speech did not really make any linear sense. During his performance, he repeatedly stopped and watched the interpreter, who, of course, also stopped. The bemused Cage then continued reading. Afterward, Margaret Leng Tan performed Cage’s compositions on a toy piano.
While his public artistic persona was expansive, Cage was reticent about his private life. When asked about his relationship with life partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, he would often politely reply, “I do the cooking, and he does the dishes.” Although openly gay, neither of them chose to discuss their homosexuality publicly.
However, The Selected Letters of John Cage (2016, Wesleyan University Press), with more than 500 letters, brings readers intimately into his personal life, beginning in the 1930s when he was a 17-year-old dropout traveling in Europe and Algeria to shortly before his death in 1992. His affable nature resonates throughout this luminous collection and gives the reader insight into his prodigious intellectual and artistic pursuits.
When a nascent musical student, we read his pleas to study with Arnold Schoenberg, acquire expertise on Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson’s music, and build relationships with Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and other emerging mavericks. These composers performed each other’s works in concert, and often wrote about the other, since few critics understood the new aesthetic frontiers they were fomenting.
Frustration is present in Cage’s missives to orchestral and museum directors around the world as he struggles to earn a living and be taken seriously as a composer. For decades, he was his own booking agent and asked people to help underwrite concerts. As well, he pleaded valiantly trying to establish a center for new music at Cornish School, Bennington College, and Mills College—all for naught. Tellingly, he wrote to young composer, “I never made enough money (from my music) to live on until I was fifty. Interrupted my music in order to do odd jobs in order to eat, etc.”
Throughout his life, Cage remained a cultural omnivore. Interwoven into The Selected Letters of John Cage are details as to how his study of the I Ching and Zen Buddhism, his burgeoning interest as an amateur mycologist (love of mushrooms), and his embrace of a macrobiotic diet informed his life and art. He aspired to have “all distinctions between art and life removed.” This blending of eastern and western traditions put him at the epicenter of the American avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.
His early notes to Merce Cunningham are beautifully innocent, “I think of you all the time and therefore have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you… I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”
Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and together they disrupted prevailing notions of modern music and dance. Aiding their revolution were visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often collaborators on scenic and costume elements. These relationships, and the masterworks they created, are gloriously annotated throughout the book.
Cage did so much more than music for the Cunningham dance company. Early letters show him writing to festival promoters to book engagements, sending fundraising appeals to donors and funding agencies, and pleading with fellow artists to donate artwork to make up shortfalls from touring.
His persistence, entrepreneurship, and unequivocal questioning of the status quo as evidenced in this volume could in fact be a textbook for modern day artists struggling to forge a career. Ever the courageous anarchist, Cage states, “I think my activity in the arts is analogous to political activity. It gives an instance of how to change things radically.”
The Selected Letters of John Cage is revelatory, illuminating his creative processes, as well as the heart and mind of this multifaceted individual who has influenced generations of artists—essential reading for understanding 20th century American art history.
John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.