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Reviewed by:
  • John Cage by Rob Haskins
  • Christopher Shultis
John Cage. By Rob Haskins. Critical Lives. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. ISBN: 978–1–86189–9057. Softcover. Pp. 180. $16.95.

Thanks to Rob Haskins, life just got easier for scholars interested in John Cage. Titled simply, John Cage, Haskins’s latest work comprises a critical biography featuring much, if not all, Cage-related scholarship (in English) as the source for every fact found in the book. Further, it is as concise as it is comprehensive, accomplishing the task in well under 200 pages. As the author of the Oxford On-Line Dictionary entry for Cage, Haskins uses his encyclopedic knowledge of Cage scholarship in its present state, enabling anyone, whether already steeped in such knowledge or just beginning to pay attention, to read the history of Cage’s life, particularly in connection with how it relates to his life as a creative artist, knowing (finally) that what is found in those pages is supported by the best currently available sources. Equally important, through endnotes and a [End Page 115] bibliography, it then overtly identifies all of the secondary literature Haskins has used. This is a book that has been needed for a long time. And it speaks to how rarely Cage, one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential artistic figures, was considered in academic circles prior to his death in 1992. Truth be told, a critical biography like this probably could not have been written until now, twenty years later and in his centennial year.

Haskins is a superb writer with an approachability that draws readers in, regardless of their awareness of how much scholarship lies behind each sentence. While it’s a short book by design, it is not short on facts; in fact, its very conciseness is a positive aspect of Haskins’s writing style. Sentence by sentence we learn in detail about Cage’s life and work, but we also get a sense of Cage the person. This may partially explain Haskins’s claim of being influenced by the great American poet Joan Retallack, whose interviews with Cage (Musicage, 1996) are the best source we have about Cage the person late in life. At the most basic level, Haskins’s erudition solves a problem that has hampered all previous attempts at comprehensive Cage biography: his dates and facts are all correct—a veritable first in the literature. Haskins writes succinctly on various subjects (music, Zen, dance, visual art and so on) without ever seeming like they haven’t been properly addressed—two pages on Zen, for example, with his citations indicating the paths toward further study. I especially admire how Haskins combines biographical description with detailed analysis of musical work, beginning with his consideration of the early solo clarinet piece (1933) paying as much attention to musical biography as to his personal life at the time. In sum, Haskins has fully mastered all the secondary English literature on Cage to create a fluid narrative full of facts.

That’s not to say there aren’t some aspects of Haskins’s book that seem incomplete, even if the confines of a short book are a ready reason on these occasions. For example, Haskins sufficiently covers Cage’s substantial work as a writer. But Marjorie Perloff’s path-breaking consideration of Cage as a poet (see, e.g., The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, 1981) deserves at least a bibliographical reference, especially since Cage’s visual art receives similar attention, with the appropriate citing of Kathan Brown’s book on Cage (John Cage Visual Art: To Quiet and Sober the Mind, 2001). Haskins also devotes a reasonable amount of space to Cage’s work with dance, but one wonders if Carolyn Brown’s memoir Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (2009) is the only available source for information on that aspect of Cage’s work. But these examples are a comparatively small matter.

Haskins neatly divides the book into three parts, devoting around fifty pages to each: Cage’s early career prior to his moving with his wife Xenia to New York City in the 1940s—two chapters titled “Becoming” and “Audacity...


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pp. 115-117
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