Notes 59.2 (2002) 337-339
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Writings Through John Cage's Music, Poetry, and Art. Edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. [x, 310 p. ISBN 0-226-04407-6. $65 (hbk.); ISBN 0-226-04408-4. $24 (pbk.).] Music examples, illustrations, index.
David Bernstein's and Christopher Hatch's book on composer John Cage (1912-1992) features proceedings from "Here Comes Everybody: The Music, Poetry, and Art of John Cage," a five-day "interdisciplinary conference and festival on Cage's contributions to twentieth- century culture" (p. 2), which included nine paper and panel sessions, screenings of several films, exhibitions and installations, and five concerts. The Mills College Music Department and the Center for Contemporary Music hosted the events from 15-19 November 1995. This multiauthored volume nicely complements recent activity surrounding Cage's oeuvre. Like several new collections—David Patterson's John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002), and David Nicholl's Cambridge Companion to Cage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), for example—it adds fuel to the fire. It also resembles the earlier John Cage: Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), a book based on a weeklong festival at Stanford University in January 1992. One might suspect that the upcoming "Cage 90/10," a "Cage study day" to be held at the University of Southampton in September (2002), will result in a similar postmeeting collection. Given the overwhelming amount of recent material on Cage—scholarship, criticism, recordings, anecdotes, and new creative work—I feel fortunate not to be a Cage specialist, glad to stand back and enjoy the efforts of artists and scholars painstakingly evaluating the experiences he offered us and the messages they convey.
The well-organized and competently edited book consists of thirteen chapters falling into several categories, including personal recollections, theoretical analyses, historical overviews, and descriptions of projects. "'In Order to Thicken the Plot': Toward a Critical Reception of Cage's Music" by David Bernstein offers a historical survey of the cultural climate in which Cage worked. Bernstein outlines Cage's connection to musical modernism and places his work in the broad context of twentieth-century avant-garde movements such as Italian futurism, Dadaism, and Fluxus. Bernstein's analytical discussions of Cage's early compositional methods in Two Pieces for Piano, First Construction (in Metal), and Music of Changes are useful, though somewhat contradictory as to what degree Cage's "compositional intervention" took place as part of a precompositional "mechanical process" (p. 38) or was based on "his own musical judgement" after the mechanical process was complete (p. 36).
Jonathan D. Katz's discussion of Cage's personal life in the 1940s, and his interpretation of Cage's turn toward Zen and the I Ching around 1950, titled "John Cage's Queer Silence; or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse," presents an unconventional, though also less-convincing argument, especially when placed next to Austin Clarkson's exhaustive and more rigorous essay outlining the intellectual history of pragmatism, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality that contributed to Cage's interest in the ancient Chinese oracle and the social implications of indeterminate musicmaking. At fifty-one pages, Clarkson's essay "The Intent of the Musical Moment: Cage and the Transpersonal" is the longest in the book. Though the essay might have benefitted from more rigorous editing (it is full of lengthy quotations in the main text, substantial yet distracting footnotes, and long excerpts from Cage's writings in an appendix), Clarkson offers a stimulating discussion of both the historical circumstances contributing to Cage's turn to Eastern aesthetics (for example, the translation history of the I Ching; or Carl Jung's intellectual kinship to D. T. Suzuki) as well as an interpretation (by way of more subjective, but equally intriguing sources) of what Cage might have hoped musicians could experience through his music. Though this [End Page 337] chapter's virtuosic scope seems at times beyond containment, Clarkson's text is, nonetheless, one of the finest...