- John Cage
The larger-than-life John Cage challenged the rudimental tenets of Western art music through his compositions and writings, advocating new approaches to performing, composing, and listening to music. In his activities within the avant-garde, the American composer, writer, artist, and mycologist radically influenced the music of the postwar twentieth century. David Nicholls, editor of The Cambridge Companion to John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and professor of music at the University of Southampton, has authored a concise yet informative book that explores the life and works of Cage. The book belongs to the newly created American Composers series from the University of Illinois Press, following Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman’s Lou Harrison (2006). Aware of the challenges and demands of the music by Cage, the author [End Page 80] notes that the primary goal of his book is “to present John Cage and his work from a sympathetic (though still hopefully objective) viewpoint, so that general readers, students, performers, music lovers, and others who are unfamiliar with his oeuvre can make up their own minds as to its value” (p. 2). In the volume, Nicholls successfully places the works of Cage in their cultural context, taking into account his colorful life history as well as diverse intellectual explorations.
The author organized the book in chronological and geographical order, arranging the biography into four chapters, framed by a brief prelude and postlude. The first chapter provides an essential history of the composer’s childhood, music education, and musical activities in the West Coast and Midwest. Nicholls places special emphasis on Cage’s upbringing and difficult relationship with his parents. In 1942 Cage along with his wife Xenia moved from Chicago to New York, and Nicholls documents the impact of the new environment and the influence of Eastern philosophies upon Cage in the following chapter. During this period, Cage became active among the avant-garde working in the city—among the most significant in the composer’s circle were David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. In addition, further collaboration between Cage and Merce Cunningham took place throughout this period, leading to a lifetime relationship and partnership. The next section of the biography examines Cage’s dramatic relocation to the small community of Stony Point, New York in 1954. Nicholls speculates that in addition to the composer’s desire to establish a center for experimental music, the move from New York City was an attempt to escape from his disapproving parents, then residing in Upper Montclair, New Jersey. The subject matter of the last chapter discusses the composer’s return to New York City and his life story until his death in 1992. In addition, Nicholls dedicates a section of the chapter to Cage’s poetry, visual art, and the use of computer technology in his work. Throughout the text, he includes discussion on Cage’s prose and poetry, essential to the study of the composer.
Within the historical and cultural background, the author calls to attention many of Cage’s landmark compositions such as First Construction (in Metal), Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, Williams Mix, Water Music, 4’33”, Atlas Eclipticalis, Cheap Imitation, and HPSCHD (co-composed with Lejaren Hiller). In addition to descriptions of his work, the author highlights Cage’s innovations within percussion music, prepared piano, chance music, happenings, electronic music, and in the Fluxus movement, reflecting on the composer’s experimentalism and development as a composer. Nicholls throughout the book effectively draws insightful connections between Cage’s life and oeuvre. In addition to Cage’s musical works, the author also examines and contextualizes the composer’s influential writings. A daunting task for any Cage scholar, Nicholls excellently disentangles the Cagean mythology when he notes that “Cage was hardly unique among artists in painting a self-portrait that emphasized his best features . . . it has become an increasing priority for scholars, since Cage’s death, to ‘clean up’ the portrait he left us by searching anew for the...