John Cage: Composed in America. – Review

John Cage: Composed in America. – Review – book review

David Patterson

John Cage: Composed in America. Edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. ISBN 0-226-66056-7 (cloth); ISBN 0-226-66057-5 (pbk.). Pp. x, 286. $45.00 (cloth), $16.95 (pbk.).

In the last two decades, a succession of compilation volumes on the subject of John Cage has appeared in print. The earliest of these typically assumed the form of the popular tribute volume, in which essayists were predominantly friends and colleagues. (See, for example, A John Cage Reader [New York: C. F. Peters, 1982], or John Cage at Seventy-Five [Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1989].) These publications amply documented Cage’s status as idol to succeeding generations of artists, bearing witness to the fierce admiration held for him in certain quarters of the artistic world. However, in actuality, their contents often proved to be not so much essays about Cage as they were highly subjective responses to him; further, these responses accepted at face value Cage’s own recollections of his historical and aesthetic development, recollections that today we recognize as faulty in numerous instances. The nature of these early publications poignantly reflected the condition of the musical community at large at the time, a community that, whether in its exaltation or vilification of Cage, seldom gathered enough reliable factual information to justify either such extreme position.

In that it comprises the first volume of essays on Cage written by members of the scholarly community, the recent collection edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman is groundbreaking. As the editors themselves qualify from the outset in their introductory essay, the collection is “less a book about Cage the performer-composer or Cage the poet than it is about Cage the thinker who, `beginning with ideas,’ worked and lived his entire life in their constant and intimate presence” (p. 3). The ten essays that follow are based on presentations delivered during a week-long Cage Festival at Stanford University in January of 1992, each contributed by individual scholars from fields as diverse as English, Slavic languages, philosophy, history, architecture, and European literature. None of the authors focuses on Cage’s music per se; in fact, only one contributor is a professional musicologist. Instead, the essays concern themselves with the more abstract goal of assessing Cage’s place in “the cultural landscape of the United States in the later twentieth century,” a task directed by the dual subthemes of the nature of Cage’s “American” identity and the relation of composition to ethics in his work. While there is no explicit temporal focus that unifies all of the essays, only two address Cage’s early career to any significant degree; it is Cage the senior statesman as depicted in the striking cover photograph of this collection who is the real focus of this publication.

As with any such collection, particular contributions stand out as especially compelling. Charles Junkerman’s account of a Cage “musicircus” performed at Stanford in 1992 is at once an eyewitness historical account, a philosophic inquiry, and an artistic critique, pointing up the paradoxes inherent in this genre as well as the conflicts from which the Cagean aesthetic derives so much of its dynamic tension. While the ideal musicircus mandates that each individual performer operate within his or her own sphere, for example, what are the ramifications of two or more players coming together to form a spontaneous “ensemble”? Are we to read this as the successful realization of Cage’s social philosophy, or is it antithetical to his purposes? If all performers are ostensibly of equal importance in such an event, what should we make of the fact that Cage himself performed in a separate room in which he could be heard above the sounds of the other participants? And what of the advertising flyers that promoted the event, emblazoned with Cage’s name at both top and bottom in order to highlight the singular “star” of this conceptually “non-hierarchical” event?

Herbert Lindenberger’s essay on the Europeras 1 & 2 is equally provocative. Reading beyond the superficial interpretation of the Europeras as mere parody, Lindenberger instead evaluates these chance-derived works as a poignant clash between Cage’s aesthetic and that of opera, contending that through the use of preexistent operatic material Cage effectively undercuts traditional operatic culture with an alternative culture of his own making. In tracing the means by which Cage undermines the conventional orientations of opera whether dramatically, musically, or culturally, the author ultimately suggests that, in essence, these two contrasting aesthetics and cultures document a transatlantic confrontation between distinctive European and American brands of creativity.

One of the most impressive contributions to this collection comes from historian Thomas Hines, whose straightforward, biographical article focuses on Cage through his twenty-sixth year. Of all the essays in this collection, it is surely the most old-fashioned in its methodology, and yet, under the circumstances, it is refreshing if not outright exhilarating to read an essay on Cage by someone who inarguably has a grasp of the facts. The nearly thirty pages of this essay constitute a great leap toward a thorough understanding of Cage’s earliest and, up to this point, haziest period. Documenting the particulars of Cage’s life at family, social, and personal levels with depth and concision, this essay is a formidable marker by which Cage biographers now must gauge their own work.

In addition to the scholarly contributions in this collection, the revised version of Cage’s own extended mesostic, “Overpopulation and Art” (1991), also appears at the beginning of this book. As one of Cage’s more syntactic mesostics, and as one of the last extended works he wrote in this genre, this text gives full expression to the final phase of Cage’s aesthetic evolution. In an interesting turn, a guide by Joan Retallack appears at the back of the volume, briefly discussing the means by which Cage revised this particular work to eliminate sexist terminology. (How would the composer who loathed all equations of his art with “politics” have responded to an interpretation of these nonsexist mesostic revisions as an attempt to be “politically correct,” one wonders?)

Space does not permit discussion of all the essays in this collection. But at times, their cumulative effect yields the same, recurrent ponderables, demonstrating that the potential hazards of Cage scholarship are the same now as they were twenty years ago. Each individual author in this collection is obviously accomplished and an expert in his or her respective field. Yet while all are clearly successful in using Cage as a springboard by which to discuss social theory, “poethics,” “theories of the global,” and so on, in the final analysis it is still unclear as to whether some of these essays are actually about Cage, or once again are more accurately personal responses to him. In this volume devoted to Cage’s thought, the thinker himself recedes into the background too easily, sometimes to the point where his texts disappear beneath their interpretations, prodding the reader into uneasiness over some fundamental, unanswered questions. What is the depth of genuine, factual knowledge of any given author on the subject of Cage? How many of the contributors know their Imaginary Landscapes from their Sonatas and Interludes, or could confidently summarize the aesthetic progression from “The Future of Music: Credo” to “Lecture on Something” to “Composition as Process”? Have all of these writers achieved the same requisite familiarity with Cage that they would demand of scholarship in their own fields? And if they haven’t, what does this say about the nature of Cage scholarship today?

In short, this publication is deeply noteworthy and a vigorously encouraged read, proving the tremendous progress that contemporary Cage studies have made in recent years while simultaneously implying the staggering amount of work yet to be done before such studies move into full maturity.

David Patterson University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Illinois Press

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