- John Cage by Rob Haskins, and: “we must arrange everything”: Erfahrung, Rahmung und Spiel bei John Cage by Michael Rebhahn
In case you missed it, 2012 was a Cage centenary, a point in music history that Deborah Campana summarized in Happy New Ears! In Celebration of 100 Years: The State of Research on John Cage (Notes 69, no. 1 [September 2012]: 9–21). The following reviews two relatively short books about Cage and his work that were written by two authors of the generation of younger musicologists, who approach their subject without being clouded by personal experience of the man himself.
Rob Haskins’ John Cage is not just another book on Cage; in various ways, Haskins manages to include in only 154 pages of main text more than other authors have covered in tomes with many more pages. The UK publisher Reaktion has so far published 48 volumes within its series Critical Lives, three of them on composers. The other two books are devoted to Claude Debussy and Erik Satie; like those, Haskins’ volume on Cage is mostly what one would expect from a biography.
Even though the six main chapters of the book perhaps have slightly unusual headings—Becoming, Audacity, Non-attachment, Eminence, Doyen, Parting— they do seem to present a fairly classic structure of presenting an intriguing artist’s vita. One could crudely describe such a slightly problematic presentation of artistic life as follows: from finding one’s calling for one’s art; brave and bold experiments; learning how not to burden the artistic process with one’s own potentially limiting and therefore inferior tastes; being recognized in the field; reaching the point where, nearer the end of an artist’s life, one is potentially faced with having no new and fresh ideas, and maybe even “playing it safe”; to what one achieved in the twilight years. In some ways, this is the very crude, overarching structure of Haskins’ biography of Cage’s life. For the most part, the [End Page 770] narration flows extremely smoothly, and the book is a good and enjoyable read.
However, Haskins goes far beyond this: he gives us deep insights into various aspects of Cage’s oeuvre, not only the musical works, in the narrow sense, but also the literary and poetic examples of his aesthetic thinking, as well as his numerous visual art objects. In addition to a chronicle of the composer’s life and artistic output, the reader also learns a great deal about how this music might sound. Haskins’ approach of describing the actual sonic dimensions of Cage’s music might to some seem fairly unacademic, or even—to purists—amateurish (why talk about specific sounds when some people wrongly believe that Cage did not care about what could be heard?); however, there are two important counterarguments to thinking like this. First: what Haskins does here is remarkable, and will definitely be appreciated by at least two potential target groups of readers: both the lay person—someone who might be interested in music, or even someone who might have always wondered: “What is this Cage guy all about? Is there more to him than just 4’33” ?”—and students of music, musicians, or musicologists with very little knowledge of Cage, his ideas, and his music, will get a clearer idea about the music’s sonic qualities, the soundscapes they create, and which reactions they might foster. Second: the overall effect of what is being discussed here is music, thus not merely treating some of Cage’s works as Augenmusik (eye music) or even Gehirnmusik (brain music). In other words, it does matter that these works are performed, listened to and studied as music. Even though books such as James Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) paved the way for such an approach to writing about Cage’s music (as opposed...