Academic journal article Notes

Happy New Ears! in Celebration of 100 Years: The State of Research on John Cage

Academic journal article Notes

Happy New Ears! in Celebration of 100 Years: The State of Research on John Cage

Article excerpt


In commemoration of the 2012 centenary of John Cage's birth, this article explores the state of research on his life and work. Included is an overview of the disposition of manuscript music and correspondence, as well as descriptions and history of the various archives he himself established. The article also features a review of the literature about Cage, primarily monographic in nature, information about select dissertations and periodical articles, and pertinent Internet resources.

In 1972, Don L. Roberts, while still rather new to his position as head of the Northwestern University Music Library, received a telephone call from someone who identified himself as John Cage. Roberts's first instinct was doubt: was this a friend playing a prank? He chose to regard the call with all seriousness that was due. This was John Cage, and as a result, Northwestern's Music Library became the home of a large portion of primary source material that future generations may use to explore the complexities of the eminent composer/performer/poet/philosopher/artist. The seeds for this story, however, were actually planted a few decades earlier.


To this point, Cage's career developed swiftly and dramatically. Having grown up in Los Angeles for the most part, Cage's west coast roots extended into Seattle and San Francisco until the 1940s, when he and his wife Xenia moved briefly to Chicago and then to Manhattan in 1942. Compositions in these early years featured percussion instruments and other objects incorporated in music for small ensembles, or to accompany dance classes and performances. His New York debut occurred in 1943, where a concert including Amores (1943, prepared piano and percussion), Imaginary Landscape No.3 (1942, 6 percussion players), and works by others including Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell was presented in association with the League of Composers at the Museum of Modern Art.

By the mid-1940s Cage's marriage to Xenia was dissolving, and he changed residences within the city several times prior to moving out to Stony Point, a rural, cooperative community in Rockland County started by Paul Williams in 1954. An intensely creative decade began with the invention of the prepared piano and the landmark composition that helped make it famous, Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). This composition led to recognition by the Guggenheim Foundation as well as the Institute of Arts and Letters, enabling Cage to travel to Europe where he sat in on classes given by Olivier Messiaen, and struck up a friendship with Pierre Boulez.

Upon his return from Europe Cage made the acquaintance of likeminded composers: Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, and later Earle Brown. Gathering regularly to share ideas on composing and performance, they came to be known as the New York School. During this fruitful time, Cage developed a precompositional planning that would ever after guide his thought. Describing it simply as "chance," he cultivated a process whereby compositional decision-making was taken out of his hands. For example, to compose the Music of Changes (1951), he produced a series of charts (for pitch, duration, etc.), and by using chance operations, determined which elements would occur at specific points in the composition. By 1952, chance was taken to a decisive conclusion in his infamous "silent" composition, 4'33"; tided for the duration no sound would be made intentionally by a performer, the ambient sounds heard by each individual became the listener's musical experience.

By 1958, Cage developed his most extraordinary example of musical notation in the piano part to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Cage felt the Concert represented a "revolt against a single means of composing" intending that this approach would coax performers beyond their own traditions but within certain limitations. And yet, when David Tudor performed the piano part, he made his own more traditional manuscript--essentially a translation. …

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