Review: The Selected Letters of John Cage

First published in Gramophone, October 2016

The Selected Letters of John Cage
Edited by Laura Kuhn (Wesleyan Press)

These collected letters — more than 500 of them, long and short, serious and daft — are an engrossing read and a valuable resource. We get detailed correspondences variously to and about Pierre Boulez, Henry Cowell, macrobiotics, the I Ching and Buddhism, David Tudor, Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan, mushrooms, all that ever intrigued and inspired John Cage. We get Satie, lots on Satie, all through Cage’s life, and we witness the wit and sweetness between Cage and his partner Merce Cunningham. (For me there’s an element of intrusion that comes with eavesdropping uninvited on the intimate whisperings of other people — these love letters weren’t written for our eyes — but we do glean a lot about the artistic worlds that Cage and Cunningham moved in).

The editor is Laura Kuhn, who knew Cage well at the end of his life and who instigated and still directs the John Cage Trust. Each decade of letters is introduced with un-precious biographical narrative: how in the mid 1930s “Cage was broke more often than not”; how in the late 1950s he won an Italian TV game show with mushrooms as his special subject then bolstered his teaching at the New School with a course in mushroom identification; how in the early 1980s his neighbours John Lennon and Yoko Ono recommended he take up a macrobiotic diet.

There are letters to friends and family and performers and to famous people — Bernstein, Copland, Yoko Ono. Cage writes to the artist Cy Twombly in concrete poetry though we don’t get any of his own drawings. The first letter dates from the summer of 1930, addressed to his family (“Dear Denver Cages and the other Outlying Cages”) from Biskra, Algeria and brimming with the adventuresome, inquisitive, careful and generosity qualities that would come to define his music. The last letter dates from 28 July 1992 and is addressed to the French pianist Martine Joste. It is remarkably businesslike, detailing how to best perform pieces including Two4. He died a fortnight later.

There are a few Cage biographies already out there (by Rob Haskins, David Revill, Kenneth Silverman) and there is Chance and Circumstance — an illuminating account of Cage and Cunningham by the dancer Carolyn Brown. These will probably offer a more complete picture of Cage’s context and legacy and foibles; maybe we’re still waiting for the requisite distance to appreciate his supreme imagination while dispassionately assessing his various cultural positions and impacts.

For example, there’s lack of consensus around issues of politics and current affairs. Cage the idealist what was not always entirely — often not at all — engaged with the gnarly realities of here-and-now daily politics. Kuhn attributes the lack of political discourse in the letters to the fact Cage saved it all up for his diaries, which were finally published in their entirety in 2015. Maybe so; in any case, Cage was hardly a-political. He called himself an anarchist but was possibly best described as a libertarian (without any of racist or right-wing associations that term might hold in America today). His approaches to voting and political parties wobbled and although in global politics he wanted America to be a country like any other, he had a prickly relationship with — you could say a chip on his shoulder about — Europe’s cultural elite.

His music isn’t a-political either. Many of his works operate according to visions of social utopia. “A performance of music can be a metaphor for society,” Cage wrote in the introduction to his piece 101, where he also quotes Henry David Thoreau: “The best form of government is no government at all and that is the room we’ll have when we are ready for it.” The piece, Cage goes on to say, “rightly or wrongly assumes we are ready for it.”