restricted access John Cage by Rob Haskins (review)
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John Cage. By Rob Haskins. pp. 180. Critical Lives. (Reaktion Books, London, 2012, £10.95. ISBN 978-1-86189-905-7.)

In addition to documentary studies, three main areas of research can be distinguished more or less successively in John Cage scholarship. Philosophical approaches range from esoteric speculations to profound reflections on Cage’s reconceptualization of music. Music analytical publications based on sketch studies offer information on how compositions are made (‘poetics’), the two most comprehensive contributions being James Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage (Cambridge, 1993) and Paul van Emmerik’s ‘Thema en variaties: Systematische tendensen in de compositietechnieken van John Cage’ (PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 1996). Recently, music analytical studies based on the perceivable outcome of the composer’s actions have appeared (‘aesthetics’), for instance Benedict Weisser’s ‘ . . .The Whole Paper Would Potentially Be Sound: Time-Brackets and the Number Pieces (1981–92)’, Perspectives of New Music, 41/2 (2003), 176–225; and Rob Haskins’s ‘An Anarchic Society of Sounds’: The Number Pieces of John Cage’ (PhD diss., University of Rochester/Eastman School of Music, 2004).

Rob Haskins has now also produced a biography of John Cage. Detailed biographical studies on Cage have been scarce: Haskins’s new book is only the fourth of its kind after the biographies by David Revill (1992), David Nicholls (2007), and Kenneth Silverman (2010). The suspicion of the genre already raised in 1975 by Carl Dahlhaus (‘Wozu noch Biographien?’, Melos/Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1 (1975), 82) seems to be particularly relevant for a biography on this American experimental composer. By systematically trying to free sounds from his own intentions and subjectivity, Cage scorns the theory of self-expression, one of the pillars of biographical writing. More than with any other composer, we do not need to know what Cage was feeling when writing a particular work to be able to ‘understand’ it. The decline of art religion, the second argument invoked by Dahlhaus, is even brought to completion by Cage. The third and fourth arguments, respectively irrelevancy in the twentieth century of artist biographies as moral exempla classica for youth and as catalysts for patriotism, are invariably solid, although the success of a composer presenting an alternative to the European concept and practice of art music is of course greeted with enthusiasm in American scholarship. So—to paraphrase [End Page 715] Dahlhaus’s concluding remark—if the aesthetic grounds for writing biographies of artists and of Cage in particular are lacking, why publish exactly that?

In presenting his biography on John Cage, Haskins provides an eloquent answer to that question. Recent developments in musicology stressing the importance of contextualization for the act of interpretation vindicate his project. Scores are not to be approached as merely formal objects entirely detached from the historical, theoretical, or aesthetic contexts in which they originated or in which they are subsequently interpreted. To exclude biographical information entirely from this contextual interpretation seems hardly justifiable. Haskins indeed selects relevant biographical data that are able to shed light on the artistic output. He avoids the idealistic representation of the Great Artist commonly associated with the genre. His unambiguous yet discrete account of Cage’s promiscuity during his Los Angeles years helps to counter the exemplum classicum without pandering to the voyeuristic curiosity possibly shared by readers of artist biographies and pulp magazines. Whereas warning lights may be triggered when we encounter the biblical metaphor of the bullied child turning the other cheek (p. 18), potentially hagiographical descriptions of this kind do not feature in the continuation of the biographical story. On the contrary, the balance between acknowledgement of Cage’s achievements and harsh criticism is one of the distinguishing factors of this biography. Examples of the latter include critical responses to aspects of Cage’s personality (for instance his habit of name-dropping important figures such as Schoenberg or Suzuki to enhance his own prestige, p. 59) and to some of his works, even questioning their artistic value (for instance Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras, or Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, pp. 133–4). In its critical approach, this biography tends more towards academic research than towards (non-fictional) literature.