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  • The Selected Letters of John Cage ed. by Laura Kuhn
  • Ellen Pearlman
The Selected Letters of John Cage
edited by Laura Kuhn. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, U.S.A., 2016. 674pp., illus. Trade, eBook. ISBN: 978-0-8195-7591-3; ISBN: 978-0-8195-7592-0.

The Selected Letters of John Cage, spanning the life of legendary composer John Cage, is akin to two books running neck and neck with one another. The first is the vast cache of missives Cage wrote that reveal his hidden struggles and insights with notables the world over. For scholars of Cage’s life, it’s the ultimate treasure trove, and, for the rest of us simple admirers, a jaw-dropping read of the mundane and profound trials on the road to achieve, maintain and reconcile avant-garde fame and notoriety. The second book is much less noticeable and written in 9-point type and runs along the bottom of practically every page. It is the 1,159 meticulous and phenomenally well-researched footnotes about those letters put together by editor Laura Kuhn. It’s a heroic effort where every person’s station in life and specific relation to Cage is identified. I suspect it took more time to fact-check and collate those notes than the actual editing of the letters themselves. But without these critical signposts the book would not make as much sense. They are the key to who Cage knew, how he framed his world and how, in turn, his world framed him.

Selected Letters is full of surprises. Cage is, despite his eventual professed homosexuality, at one time in love with two women, both over twice his age. Xenia, his ex-wife who was a quarter Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq (Eskimo), had, at one point, been the lover of photographer Edward Weston. By the time Cage is 21, he is savvy enough to hit up important contacts who could further his career, including asking Adolph Weiss to be his music composition teacher. He writes touching letters to Weiss regarding his progress studying with his newest mentor—the master of 12-tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1939 during the Depression, times were hard, and while teaching in Seattle, Cage laments to fellow composer Henry Cowell, “I had to go around and beg for money to purchase percussive instruments.” By 1940 Cage tried to establish a center for experimental music, begging anyone and everyone for funds—to no avail. He compares his found percussion instruments to “what many negro street musicians in New Orleans had done” and “defined music for myself as Organized Sound.”

Bauhaus artist Lázlo Moholy-Nagy, who was teaching at the University of Chicago, invited Cage and his group of percussion players to perform, but lack of funds prevented that excursion. He did, however, manage to bring Cage to Chicago to teach in 1941, accompanied by Xenia. She was translating Italian Futurist’s Luigi Russolo’s manifesto “The Art of Noises,” and Cage remarked it was about “the importance of the machine and of electricity” in contemporary music. It was also in Chicago, before Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham became seriously involved, that he noted “Merce has a serious inferiority complex.” Yet by 1943 that did not prevent him from writing love letters to Cunningham about his “enigma” and little friend (penises) and compare Cunningham to the muse Calliope, highest of all. Which, by 1944, caused Xenia to up and leave him.

Distraught, Cage traveled to Paris, where he met composer Pierre Boulez and introduced him to American composer Aaron Copland. Soaking up French culture, Cage dined out with the haute demimonde, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Rothschilds. When not [End Page 540] ascending the heights of French society, he was showering at the public baths, as he was sans washing facilities in his spartan living quarters. He even wrote his mother to send him towels because he couldn’t find any decent ones in postwar Paris. Enamored of the work of composer Eric Satie, he spent days at the Bibliothèque nationale de France devouring every piece of music Satie ever wrote and penned rebuttals to critics who dared...


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