The Zen of Silence
By JOHN ADAMS
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
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
All rights reserved