The Zen of Silence

Nov 20, 2010

The Zen of Silence
A Biography of John Cage
By Kenneth Silverman
Illustrated. 483 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40

John Cage was one astonishing individual. A composer we commonly associate with coin tossing, whose most famous piece called for the performer not to make a single sound, he upended long-held conventions about the listening process and prodded us to re-evaluate how we define not only music but the entire experience of encountering art. He was, in the words of Kenneth Silverman’s new biography, “driven by an ideal of nonmythic listening and seeing, of perceptual innocence”; his goal was to compose “a prelapsarian music untainted by history.”

The only child of a father who was a professional inventor and a mother who wrote a society column for The Los Angeles Times, Cage counted among his ancestors Daniel Boone and a namesake who apparently helped Washington survey Virginia. His father held patents on every thing from submarine designs to anti-cold nasal sprays, but he never managed to turn his ideas into commercial successes. Perhaps his one great success in life was to pass on the gene for original thinking to his son, the inventor of the “prepared piano,” for whom the act of composing was always a matter of careful process and method rather than the romantic one of spontaneous inspiration and self-expression.

Throughout his life, John Cage (1912-92) combined a Leonardo-like curiosity with a uniquely American optimism that enabled him to persevere in a stubbornly unconventional career, which culminated in his being one of the most instantly recognized names in 20th-century culture. He was endlessly, almost absurdly creative, producing a body of work that spanned music, poetry, painting, printmaking, politics and philosophy. In a country that has been blessed with many “maverick” minds in both the arts and the sciences, there is simply no one to compare with Cage for the variety of his ideas, the breadth of his interests and the radical implication of his thought.

No one wrote better about Cage than he himself. “Silence,” his 1961 collection of essays, manifestoes and wry anecdotes, proved to be one of the most widely read and influential texts ever written by a composer. I read this book as a 20-year-old aspiring composer and found what Cage had to say about the nature of noise, about how we listen (or don’t listen), and about how tradition and habit threaten to deaden our capacity for discovery, the musical equivalent of the young Martin Luther’s nailing his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

“Cage studies” is by now a small industry. The flow of new books about him, his music and his aesthetics seems unstoppable, and it is not unthinkable that he will eventually dethrone the likes of Joyce or Proust as the favored subject of college humanities departments. The problem with so much writing about Cage is the difficulty of finding critical balance. He has gone from being unfairly considered a fool and a charlatan to an equally unreasonable status as sacred cow. Criticizing Cage’s aesthetic doctrines is by now a perilous venture because his defenders have become so skilled at turning any questioning around and using it as proof of the critic’s poverty of awareness.

Fortunately, “Begin Again” is not a polemic, although there is no hiding the fact that the author adores his subject. (And why not? Cage was in many ways a model of generosity, gentleness and unfailing good humor.) Silverman is concerned less with parsing Cage’s aesthetics than he is with carefully recounting the life, which he does in a matter-of-fact, occasionally plodding manner. Silverman is not a music scholar, but rather a kind of biographical polymath, whose previous subjects have ranged from Cotton Mather to Harry Houdini. This is good in the sense that we are spared the ideological dogma that so often accompanies Cageian exegesis. “Begin Again” is not a critical biography in the sense of systematically arguing a case for the merits or defects of the artwork, although the author does periodically halt his narrative to briefly detail the particular creative procedures of signal Cage works — not only the musical ones, but also his ventures into poetry, the visual arts and other disciplines.

“Begin Again” stands on the shoulders of important earlier work about Cage, particularly that of Richard Kostelanetz, David Revill and James Pritchett. But most of all it is heavily indebted to Cage’s own accounts, particularly the many anec dotes in books like “Silence” and “A Year From Monday.” Readers who know their Cage will instantly recognize many of his archetypally famous stories — about his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, about mushrooms, about his eccentric relatives and favorite Zen parables. Rendered here more as background data, they can feel diluted of their wit and charm and make one appreciate all the more the pleasures of Cage’s verbal gift.

What is new in “Begin Again” is a much more nuanced picture of Cage’s personal life than has currently been available. Cage wrote a lot about himself, but, like his hero Thoreau, he maintained a Puritan opaqueness about his emotions even to the point of eventually saying that he hated them altogether. Silverman’s research reveals a much more colorful and at times stormy erotic life than Cage alludes to in his own writings. His first serious relationship as a college dropout was homosexual, but that ended when he met, instantly fell in love with and married Xenia Kashevaroff, 22 at the time and daughter of the Eastern Orthodox Russian-Greek archpriest of Alaska. Xenia, small, feisty and possessing what Cage described as a “barby” wit, appears to have been thoroughly comfortable with her erotic self. She was a talented artist, willing even to perform in her husband’s percussion ensembles. Edward Weston, who once photographed her in the nude, described her as “most delightfully unmoral, pagan.”

It’s disappointing to see Xenia disappear from the story, but when Cage meets the young Merce Cunningham, his future is decided. They will become partners, both as lovers and as collaborators, for the rest of Cage’s life, and Cage will devote himself tirelessly to the Cunningham company, composing and performing for its concerts and tours, endlessly raising money and over all acting as a kind of benevolent spirit. Theirs will be one of the most fertile creative partnerships in the history of the arts.

Silverman touches on most of the high and low points of Cage’s life: his encounter with the young Pierre Boulez; his spending as much as 12 hours a day for five months with his student Earle Brown, splicing minuscule pieces of audiotape to create “Williams Mix”; the first performance, by the pianist David Tudor, of ‘4′33″,’ the epochal “silent” composition that uses ambient sounds for its musical content; and Leonard Bernstein’s willfully wrongheaded inclusion of “Atlas Eclipticalis” on a New York Philharmonic program that also featured a Tchaikovsky symphony and a group improvisation by the orchestra.

For a life story filled with truly remarkable and eccentric personalities, Silverman’s account is at times frustratingly tightfisted with the delicious details that could make the reading of it much more enjoyable. Memorable and often outrageous personalities like Morton Feldman, Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Nam June Paik get walk-on appearances, but we are left with very little flavor of what made them special. Merce Cunningham remains a strangely enigmatic figure. He seems to have escaped Silverman’s radar entirely. Fortunately, Cage himself is revealed in a richly shaded and profoundly human portrait, a man who, like Tolstoy, in the final decade of his life was so famous and the object of such widespread veneration that he struggled to maintain the mental space and tranquillity to continue his work.

What emerges most powerfully in “Begin Again” is Cage’s enormous capacity for work, together with his exceptional self-discipline as an artist (something learned from Schoenberg) and his willingness to approach every new challenge with a “beginner’s mind.” For this alone it is a book worthy of being read by anyone, young or old, who is faced with the daunting task of a new creative beginning.

John Adams is the author of “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.” He will conduct his opera “Nixon in China” at the Metropolitan Opera in February.

Copyright by The New York Times

Comments (23)

percy sledge
November 20, 2010

never boring

Kenneth Silverman
November 21, 2010

You understand absolutely nothing about biography, and your review is idiotically superficial and mistaken--preposterous.

November 22, 2010

"Merce Cunningham remains a strangely enigmatic figure. He seems to have escaped Silverman’s radar entirely."
Could you possibly be saying there's a biography of Cage without Merce Cunningham in it? What could lead an author to do that? (And what could lead a major publisher to condone it?)

November 22, 2010

Whoa there Kenneth Silverman! Adams' review of your work certainly made me want to delve into it, as he has more than a few kind words about your own and has had a rather public history of championing Cage's work. Your hideous comment, however, is enough to make me want to shy away. Good job, jerk, you just lost a sale!

June: Perhaps you should run to the nearest dictionary and look up "enigmatic" and then ponder what could be meant by the phrase "seems to have escaped Silverman's radar." Adams is clearly highlighting a possible lack of detail on Cunningham, and in no way suggesting that there ought be less.

November 22, 2010

George, you're entirely misreading my comment (not to mention going way overboard with your tone). Nothing in my comment suggests John Adams condones the omission.

I might suggest you run to the nearest dictionary (wow) and look up "paternalistic condescension."

November 22, 2010

Well June, I definitely apologize for my off-color comment, as I did in fact misread yours. I guess it was spillover from reading KS' remark!

November 22, 2010

Isn't possible that an individual, not Mr. Silverman, simply used Mr. Silverman's name as the author of the first comment? Security on this site is not tight and impersonation does not seem out of the realm of possibility.

November 22, 2010

Patrick might be right. The "KS" rebuke doesn't fit. It's possibly just an identity sleight of hand and to that point, the real K.Silverman might be interested to know that John's grandfather (Jim Irwin) worked with Houdini.

November 23, 2010

I toyed with the idea that Adam's himself posted the KS response.

November 23, 2010

Mr. Silverman may by now wish that his comment was made by an imposter, but it appears that he did indeed write this himself.

percy sledge
November 23, 2010

Finally...the KS remarks bring out a rare visit by Adams himself. The gloves are off.

Mark K
November 24, 2010

Zen boxing? Who will take his boxing gloves off first?!

Well, I heard Roaratorio for the first time yesterday because of this article, what an amazing and humourous sonic collage. Cage kind of did with sound what Joyce does with words. Even using todays computer technology it would still be quite a task to organise all those sounds. It does sound like an Irish night out. A gorgeup's truce?

Mark Miller
November 24, 2010

What an odd exchange...I'm much more interested in music than I am in biography, but maybe I'll read this book anyway.

One of my dearest colleagues danced with Cunningham (and, consequently, with Cage) in the 60's. Cage's work is very much alive in my life as a teacher and musician. He still has much to teach us, especially in light of our young students' fascination with new technologies. Our students have a hard time just listening, with making music physically.

KS, please help us understand what it is that you object to in JA's review. Otherwise, go jump in Bodega Bay (or the Russian River, though I would deny you the pleasure).

Doug palmer
November 24, 2010

Interesting discussion. I contemplate the sound of one hand boxing.

J.M. Baldwin
November 24, 2010

I toyed with the idea that John posts all the comments, which is why I am writing something - to prove to myself that a public comment is possible! Hellmouth is always a great read - keep them coming.


Chris Becker
November 28, 2010

I posted an excerpt from Conversing With Cage on Sequenza21 completely oblivious to the recent NY Times book review by Adams and this particular thread. I guess Cage is in the air now which is a good thing even with (or maybe because of all of) so much disagreement about his work and legacy. Below is the link to the Sequenza21 post.

December 1, 2010

I'm not actually "Hellmouth" of course--I'm just trying this to see if it's possible to use the name. And you are reading this comment, the comment by "Hellmouth" authenticating the supposed comment from Silverman still doesn't prove anything!

modest contrarian
December 9, 2010

who cares? just because Adams is a fantastic composer doesn't make him an arbiter of musical taste (as in Silverman or Cage).

Ana Corrie
February 23, 2011

Dear John,

My name is Ana Corrie, I am a filmmaker and screenwriter who focuses on myth/fantasy genres living in Whitstable, England. I am writing to you because I would like to tell you about a project I am developing called "High purpose in Art" as I would like to invite you to take part on it. Before I continue, I do want to say that the involvement that I wish to write about here is not very time consuming for you and it will be a one off thing, as I know that you are a very busy person.

Please hear me out:
My main vision with this project is that of creating a place to remember what art is, to explore the different levels of art, and to learn to differentiate the different stages of purpose in art. On the 14th of March I am launching a website for one of my animated short film projects which story has as the theme of "Fulfilling Our Life's Purpose". And if you share the conviction that Art has also a High Purpose, would you be interested in taking a part on this project by writing an article for an e-zine that will be distributed to fine artists, musicians, animators, filmmakers and storytellers. My e-zine has 5 subdivisions, and one of those subdivisions is called "Music and its high purpose" - Would you be interested in writing an article for this segment?.

My desire with the e-zine is to encourage us to think of art as something than can have a high purpose. And what is that high purpose/s in art? that is what we are going to explore in the project.

Before I finish writing this email, I would like to elaborate a little bit more on what I mean by High Purpose in Art.
In my view, there are different levels of desire/purpose (we could say that no 1 is the lowest desire line and number 11 is the highest desire line).
1) Survive
2) Take Revenge
3) Win the battle
4) Achieve something
5) Explore a world
6) Catch a criminal
7) Find the Truth
8) Gain Love
9) Bringing Justice and Freedom
10) Save the Republic
11) Save the World

Personal gratification is cool, and is great that people do some painting, or do any other sort of art to distress from the days work (Survive) or to to do it as a full time vocation, to earn one's living (Achieve something) or for exploring the individual or collective subconsciousness, cultures (Explore a world).
All those levels are needed, they are levels found in our existence, it's part of being human, right? and that is fine, but if we could all also have in the picture the other levels of purpose, even to have them in sight, so that we can appreciate the different levels and understand that not all is one. There is a difference.

I really hope you accept my invitation. With your music and your writing I have had the most sweet, magical and intriguing discoveries about myself and the world around me. You can not imagine how much it would mean to me if you could take a small part on my project.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this email.

Kindest regards,

Ana Corrie

November 14, 2012

A menudo mi amigo menciona este vendedor. Estoy curioso por qué compre en esta tienda una y otra vez. Entonces compro y como prueba. A decir verdad, vale la pena recomendar.

November 26, 2012

frequently inside case you defend this increase.
Hi, i believe that i noticed you visited my site thus i came to return the choose?I am trying to in finding issues to enhance my web site!
I suppose its adequate to make use of a few of your ideas!!

Tienda Moncler Outlet
November 27, 2012

What i do not realize is if truth be told how you're now not actually a lot more well-favored than you might be right now. You are very intelligent. You already know therefore considerably in relation to this subject, produced me in my view consider it from a lot of numerous angles. Its like men and women don't seem to be involved until it's something to do with Woman gaga!
Your own stuffs nice. Always handle it up!
I suppose its adequate to make use of a few of your ideas!!

Moncler Outlet Espana
December 5, 2012

Anteriormente, a mí no me gusta excribir los comentarios. Pero esta vez, hizo la excepción para compartir mi inolvidable experiencia de compras buena en esta tienda.
Ha adquirido K1 y K2 aquí y los productos incluso los servicios me satisfacen mucho. Por eso, lo recomendo este sitio a todo el mundo.

Add a Comment

always kept private