Academic journal article Notes

"A Musicological Sweatshop": Making an Inventory of the Music Manuscripts of John Cage, 1992-1993

Academic journal article Notes

"A Musicological Sweatshop": Making an Inventory of the Music Manuscripts of John Cage, 1992-1993

Article excerpt


In December 1992 and January 1993 a team of five musicologists (Paul van Emmerik, Martin Erdmann, Laura Kuhn, James Pritchett, and Andras Wilheim) worked on the inventory of the music manuscripts legacy of composer John Cage, who died in August 1992. These manuscripts were kept in his apartment, and elsewhere in New York at his publisher Henmar Press and at the Margarete Roeder Gallery. The musicologists were faced with the job of making, within thirty days, a both pragmatically and philologically acceptable description of the collection. They did so by using forms designed in advance, on which for each relevant category (title, date, format, stage of the composition process, hand, condition, completeness, volume in number of folios, type of paper and writing tools) various possibilities could easily be entered or ticked. The 824 forms that came from the inventory process were next put into a chronologically ordered and slightly more simple list. Not only did the inventory project bring to light a few dozen unpublished works, but for the first time, it also brought together the sources of a large number of compositions arranged according to stages in the composition process. In 1995, thanks to an anonymous donation, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts acquired the music collection containing well over 26,000 folios. Since it has been publicly accessible, this collection has proved its usefulness, as various source studies of the music manuscripts have shown, for the study of Cage's music.


When John Cage died on 12 August 1992, he left the world a large body of work consisting of music, texts, and visual art, the exact size and makeup of which was, however, known to few at that moment. Especially in the last years of his life, Cage was an exceptionally prolific composer, visual artist, and poet, and in those years, researchers, in a manner of speaking, were having difficulty keeping track of his work. As to his music, a few musicologists knew Cage kept most of his music manuscripts simply at home, in his apartment in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea, which he shared with his life companion, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. These musicologists had, to be sure, always been welcome to study his manuscripts, because Cage considered being accessible "a part of twentieth-century ethics," (1) yet no one, in fact, knew the exact size and composition of the complete collection. During Cage's life, only a few had written analyses of his compositions in whole or in part based on source studies of the manuscripts in his home. (2)

Cage had, it is true, always carefully kept the manuscripts that he had not otherwise given away, loaned to his publisher, or sold, in three low chests of drawers; he never had listed them or had them listed, however. Cage's personal assistants during the last years of his life, notably Andrew Culver and Laura Kuhn, had dealt chiefly with Cage's current work. It had become clear to the musicologists who, during Cage's life, had consulted the older manuscripts, too, that the number of documents was substantial, and that the collection of music manuscripts Cage kept at home had to be by far the largest of its kind in the world.

I was one of the privileged musicologists described in the previous paragraph. For a week in early January 1992, together with my Hungarian colleagues Andras Wilheim and Zoltan Racz, I had the opportunity to study part of the manuscript collection in Cage's apartment. My plan to start making an inventory during a next visit (planned for October 1992) was untimely thwarted by Cage's unexpected death in August 1992. Nevertheless, my plan had come to the attention of the trustees of Cage's inheritance, represented by musicologist Dr. Laura Kuhn (b. 1953), and certified public accountant Bennet H. Grutman of the New York based office of Davis & Grutman, the latter of whom financially and legally kept watch over what originally was informally called the Cage estate, and which was formalized as the John Cage Trust in 1993. …

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