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Begin Again

A Biography of John Cage

Kenneth Silverman

Publication Year: 2012

A man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents—musician, inventor, composer, poet, and even amateur mycologist—John Cage became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. Silverman begins with Cage’s childhood in interwar Los Angeles and his stay in Paris from 1930 to 1931, where immersion in the burgeoning new musical and artistic movements triggered an explosion of his creativity. Cage continued his studies in the United States with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg, and he soon began the experiments with sound and percussion instruments that would develop into his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. Cage’s unorthodox methods still influence artists in a wide range of genres and media. Silverman concurrently follows Cage’s rich personal life, from his early marriage to his lifelong personal and professional partnership with choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as his friendships over the years with other composers, artists, philosophers, and writers. 

Drawing on interviews with Cage’s contemporaries and friends and on the enormous archive of his letters and writings, and including photographs, facsimiles of musical scores, and Web links to illustrative sections of his compositions, Silverman gives us a biography of major significance: a revelatory portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century.


Published by: Northwestern University Press

Series: NUP

Further Reading, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. xi-xii

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1. Comes up Famous

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pp. 3-25

John Cage’s achievement, the Times observed, was “a matter of pride to the people of California.” A front- page photo showed Cage waving to ten thousand spectators who had gathered to cheer him, in - cluding the mayor of Los Angeles. Telegrams announcing his triumph had been sent to President Woodrow Wilson. …

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2. The Art of Noise

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pp. 26-50

Oskar Fischinger’s concept of incarnate sound animated Cage’s thinking about music the rest of his life. Listening to the tone and timbre of objects wherever he went, he investigated the infinite number of sound sources: “I never stopped touching things, making them sound and resound.” The idea freed him from Schoenberg’s demand for understanding of harmony. …

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3. East and West

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pp. 51-78

To New York’s nearly seven and a half million inhabitants, the far-off war looked close. An antiaircraft battery had been set up in Central Park; coffined corpses or remains of New York servicemen arrived at the city’s docks; around Times Square could be seen the bright blue uniforms of British tars and red pom-pommed caps of French sailors; …

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4. Music of Changes

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pp. 79-120

“Nothing works right,” Cage wrote to his parents from Brussels, “No soap, no toilet paper.” Perhaps little wonder. He and Cunningham were staying at an artists’ pensione that served as a meeting place for refugees from Communist- controlled countries. Spending ten days in Holland and Belgium, Cage performed some prepared-piano music, ...

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5. The Ten Thousand Things

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pp. 121-151

“I have discovered such a full hunger for nature within me that now nothing is as important as rocks and plants are.” So Cage wrote in the spring of 1955, having left New York City after living there a dozen years. Forced to move from Bozza’s Mansion, he stayed awhile with Cunningham farther uptown. ...

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6. Indeterminacy

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pp. 152-181

Cage had experienced no more surprising and eventful period than that between mid- May 1958 and early January 1959. The seven or so months left him better known, more controversial, and wealthier than ever before. ...

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7. Fractures

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pp. 182-209

Cage had never been to the East. His music was not well-known in Japan, although a decade earlier he had corresponded with members of Jikken Kōbō, an experimental workshop. Now David Tudor accompanied him on a thirty- day tour sponsored by the Sogetsu Art Center. Founded in 1959, the center brought together artists working in different media. ...

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pp. 210-243

“The powers-that-be have become more and more repellant,” Cage told a French interviewer in 1966. “Look at us in Vietnam. It is indefensible.” His bitterness arose not only from American bombing of North Vietnam but also from bloody national and international news that shook America throughout the middle and late 1960s. ...

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9. Empty Words

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pp. 244-274

As he approached sixty, Cage often complained of feeling worn, “not as well physically as I was ten years ago.” When writing he now had to wear glasses, “which makes me blind as a bat when I take them off.” And he suffered various pains and injuries: pinched nerve, blood poisoning, sty, flu, ...

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10. Apartment House

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pp. 275-301

“Hopelessly inconsistent is what I am, I hope.” In this contrary way, John Cage reconciled his preference for chance operations with his new passion for the calculating strategies of chess. The elementary chess lessons he took in the mid-1960s from Marcel Duchamp had served him largely as a pretext for being with Duchamp. ...

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11. Changes and Disappearances

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pp. 302-323

“It’s very hard to do— to draw a line with a very sharp instrument,” Cage told an interviewer. “If you slip, it ruins the copper.” He had begun to learn etching and engraving. Over the next fifteen years he would make more than six hundred artworks. ...

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12. Time Brackets

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pp. 324-350

Speaking before the National Council on the Arts early in 1983, Cage summed up his last two years: “I’ve written two 30-minute works for orchestra, another for 20 harps, several for dance’n’voices’n’radio . . . published three books, made 5 editions of etchings, toured alone and with Cunningham Dance Company, and kept macrobiotic diet going.” ...

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13. Europeras

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pp. 351-381

In mid-1985, Cage had undertaken another new beginning, one that occupied him fully two and a half years. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn, chief dramatic advisors of the Frankfurt Opera, had commissioned him to compose an opera, for a fee of fifty thousand dollars. ...

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14. Anarchic Harmony

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pp. 382-400

On a mushroom hunt in the summer of 1989, Cage fell and injured his foot. The hemorrhaging made it necessary for him to rest, lying on the loft’s wooden floor with his leg up. Visiting him, Bill Anastasi remarked that getting hurt was the only way to keep him still: ...

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15. 1992

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pp. 401-414

Cage began 1992, the year of his eightieth birthday, with his customary January visit to Crown Point Press—“making etchings,” he wrote, “and being an 80.yr.Old composer- artist.” Kathan Brown and her staff had moved into a new three-story facility of almost forty thousand square feet. ...


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pp. 415-154

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pp. 455-456

I could not have begun or continued writing this biography without the steady, generous, essential help and encouragement of Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust at Bard College. ...

Illustration & Track Credits

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pp. 457-460


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pp. 461-483

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A Note About the Author

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Kenneth Silverman’s previous books include A Cultural History of the American Revolution; The Life and Times of Cotton Mather; Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Neverending Remembrance; Houdini!!!; and Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780810166134
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810128309

Page Count: 496
Illustrations: 45
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1
Series Title: NUP