John Cage 1912-1992
(Full name John Milton Cage, Jr.) American poet, composer, essayist, and graphic artist.
Inventive and experimental, Cage was an influential and controversial avant-garde composer of music and poetry. In his works, he relentlessly strove to enhance and perfect the visual and aural texture of music, language, and art. His innovative work with mesostics—poetry and prose arranged to spell out words and ideas vertically through the text—and creative use of punctuation reflected his belief that language is merely a tool of art and can be manipulated to provide the reader with multiple avenues of interpretation.
Cage was born on September 5, 1912, in Los Angeles, California, to John Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia Harvey Cage, a journalist. An exemplary student, he was the valedictorian of his class in high school. Upon graduation in 1928, he enrolled in Pomona College but left after two years. He then traveled through Europe and studied music composition, piano, painting, and poetry. He returned to the United States in the early 1930s, and in 1934 began three years of study with the composer Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. In 1935 Cage married Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, and two years later they moved to Seattle, where he took a teaching position at the Cornish School. While in Seattle, he met the dancer Merce Cunningham, with whom he later frequently collaborated, and he was introduced to the principles of Zen Buddhism. He relocated to New York in 1942 and became acquainted with the artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Marcel Duchamp, the composers David Tudor and Morton Feldman, and the Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Cage began in the early 1950s to read the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text used in a form of divination in which the results of the tossing of coins is related to specific passages. This reading led him to experiment with incorporating elements of chance into his musical and poetic compositions. In the 1960s he began using the I Ching to create poems, deriving them from the works of other writers, such as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Henry David Thoreau's Journals. He also developed his mesostics. Cage continued to experiment with sounds, silences, and languages, and to perform innovative “lectures” and readings until his death in 1992.
Major Poetic Works
Cage's early career was primarily devoted to composing music, and his first experiments with nontraditional sounds were in this medium. He placed various objects on piano strings to change the tone of the instrument, used electronic sounds in his performances, and incorporated silence as an integral part of music. As he began to explore poetics and language, Cage blended musical qualities with the spoken word. Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967), and Pour les ouiseaux (1976; For the Birds) contain many of these performance pieces and innovative writings. Cage's mesostics, a type of visual and textual poetry that reflected Cage's appreciation for chance events, are included in Sixty-Two Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham (1971) and M: Writings, '67-'72 (1973). He also created pieces that applied the principles of the I Ching to texts written by others. Mureau (1970; collected in M) was derived from Henry David Thoreau's Journals (the title comes from combining the words “music” and “Thoreau”); and Writings through Finnegans Wake (1978) was based on James Joyce's work. In Empty Words: Writings, '73-'78 (1979), Cage continued to develop poems with freedom of form and innumerable possibilities of interpretation. He further investigated free form in Themes & Variations (1982) and X: Writings '79-'82 (1983).
Due to their iconoclastic nature, Cage's poetic works at first did not receive favorable mainstream criticism, and much of the commentary they did receive was uncomprehending, bemused, or indifferent. As Cage further developed his ideas and style, however, reviewers began to recognize the artistry of his poetics. Observers increasingly applauded Cage's attempts to free poetry from the constraints of language, incorporating a significant element of chance into his compositions while, in an apparent paradox, adhering to consistent forms and techniques. In the view of a number of critics, Cage's works derived from other's texts, such as Mureau and Writings through Finnegans Wake, enhance the understanding and appreciation of the originals. Many commentators now acknowledge his important contributions to music and poetry and consider Cage one of the most influential avant-garde artists of the twentieth century.
Sixty-Two Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham 1971
Writings through Finnegans Wake 1978
Empty Words: Writings, '73-'78 1979
Another Song 1981
Themes & Variations 1982
X: Writings '79-'82 1983
Silence: Lectures and Writings (essays, poetry, and lectures) 1961
A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (essays, poetry, and lectures) 1967
Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued, Part 3 (poetry and lectures) 1967
M: Writings, '67-'72 (poetry and lectures) 1973
Pour les ouiseaux: entretiens avec Daniel Charles [For the Birds] (lectures, poetry, and conversations) 1976
I-VI (lectures) 1990
John Cage, Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces (poetry and prose) 1993
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SOURCE: Cage, John, and Richard Kostelanetz. “Empty Words (1974-1975).” In John Cage (ex)plain(ed), pp. 115-32. New York: Schirmer, 1996.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1974-75, Cage discusses Mureau, his work on Thoreau's Journal and explains his experiments with the structure and sound of language in Empty Words.]
I was always impressed by John Cage's statement that when you build a structure that strong you can accept all sorts of things into it.
—Robert Dunn, in an interview with Don McDonagh, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance (1970)
Language was the base of much of John Cage's work in the 1970s and 1980s—language that is meant to be read and spoken without specific pitches (that would, by contrast, make the words song). These works are not essays, or even antiessays, like his earlier “Lecture on Nothing” (1959). As literary creations these later works are generically closer to poetry than to essays or fiction in that they represent compressions of language rather than extensions into narrative (fiction) or definitions of extrinsic reality (essays). Cage's first departure in this poetic direction was the essayistic “Diaries,” produced in the late sixties, which are, in essence, a formally rigorous and typographically various shorthand for miscellaneous remarks. Three of...
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SOURCE: Cage, John, and Richard Kostelanetz. “Talking about Writings through Finnegans Wake.” TriQuarterly 54 (spring 1982): 208-16.
[In the following interview, Cage explains his use of mesostics (aligning letters within a text to spell out words vertically), clarifies the formulas for picking the words and letters in his mesostics, and discusses his decision to rework James Joyce's Finnegans Wake in this style.]
In the 1960s, John Cage wrote poetry, initially in a series of notational “Diary” pieces that I regard as a rich extension of Black Mountain poetics. More recently, he has been rewriting poetry—to be precise, rewriting someone else's poetry. His principal literary project of the early 1970s was based upon the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Our conversation about it appeared first in the New York Arts Journal, 19 (November 1980) and then in the recent collection of my essays on poetry, The Old Poetries and the New (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981). More recently, Cage has been working with James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. When we met for the following conversation, for SoHo Television in the spring of 1978, he had already finished two of his Writings through Finnegans Wake; he was now beginning a third that, in fact, he subsequently put aside, so that the title Writing for the Third Time through Finnegans Wake went instead...
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SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Unimpededness and Interpenetration’: The Poetic of John Cage.” In A John Cage Reader: In Celebration of His 70th Birthday, edited by Peter Gena and Jonathan Brent, pp. 4-16. New York: C. F. Peters, 1982.
[In the following essay, Perloff refutes John Hollander's negative assessment of the artistic merit of Cage's work and offers the explanation that Cage's writing—although it has a strict form—actually is about the freedom from conventional form and style.]
—One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done.1
John Hollander, reviewing Silence for Perspectives of New Music in 1963, complained that, however amusing and inventive Cage's verbal and musical compositions may be, “something seems to be missing”:
Perhaps what Mr. Cage's career as a composer lacks is a certain kind of hard work. Not the unbelievably elaborate effort merely, of planning, arranging, constructing, rationalizing (however playfully or dubiously); not the great pains of carrying off a production, but something else. The difference between the most inspired amateur theatricals and the opera, between the conversation that one would like to record and the poem, between the practical joke and the great film, is not one of degree of effort or of conviction. It is...
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SOURCE: Sabatini, Arthur J. “Silent Performances: On Reading John Cage.” In John Cage at Seventy-Five, edited by Richard Fleming and William Duckworth, pp. 74-96. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Sabatini describes the various media and genres of Cage's works, analyzes his experimental forms and styles, and attempts to explain his use of space and visuals to enhance poetic and artistic impact.]
At any rate, my musical words, strictly speaking, have managed to arouse either indignation or sympathy—nothing compared to my books. You can't imagine how many people were touched by Silence! I received many letters, sometimes extremely lucid, always interesting. Next to that, the reactions to my music are predictable.
Cage to Daniel Charles
The writings of John Cage are destined to provoke more varied, and ultimately more enduring, responses than his music. This is no doubt a chancy proposition, but since Cage's aesthetic is most widely known because of theories founded upon his concept of “silence,” it is not unreasonable to argue that his art and practice are most dramatically experienced in the context of that realm where silence has reigned most inviolable: reading. Moreover, because nearly everything in Cage's writings directs reading into performance, his texts have the...
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SOURCE: Herwitz, Daniel. “John Cage's Approach to the Global.” In John Cage: Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, pp. 188-205. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Herwitz views Cage's works as anarchic studies of humanity, politics, and language.]
It was almost inevitable that John Cage would move from composing in music to composing in words. For Cage, music was never just music, it was always the occasion for reformation. When Cage set out in the early 1950s to reform music, to silence what he saw as its constricted practices, he was really aiming to free constricted human beings by freeing their ears. For Cage, music was to be an exemplar of how human beings relate to the world and to one another. Cage set out, in redefining our relation to sounds, in opening the ear to the full panoply of the acoustical, to free human beings from their encagements, thus allowing them to “be” in the world of whatever happened to happen. Cage's musical experiments were motivated by his belief that when we approach sound with ears informed by our concepts and expectations about musical structure and expression, we are precluding a deep and immediate acknowledgment of both sound and the world, opting instead for a kind of distorted attempt at control. Indeed, he believed that the very attempt to order sound in the mind's ear as coherent, complete,...
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SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage's ‘What You Say ….’” In Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, edited by Adalaide Morris, pp. 129-48. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Perloff examines the form and content of Cage's mesostic endeavors, arguing that in his mesostic poems, Cage adds musical texture and deeper meaning to the texts he uses for his poems, therefore enhancing the original texts and creating new poetic interpretations.]
Syntax, like government, can only be obeyed. It is therefore of no use except when you have something particular to command such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.
(Cage M 215)
As early as 1939, when he was in residence at the Cornish School of Music in Seattle, John Cage investigated the application of electrical technology to music. His first (perhaps the first) electroacoustic composition was Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a six-minute radio piece for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed record turntables, designed to accompany the production of Jean Cocteau's play Marriage at the Eiffel Tower. The piece was performed...
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Revill, David. The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992, 375 p.
Biography that seeks to demonstrate the interrelation of Cage's life with his work and thought.
Bruns, Gerald L. “Poethics: John Cage and Stanley Cavell at the Cross Roads of Ethical Theory.” In John Cage: Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, pp. 206-25. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Explores the works and ideas of Cage and philosopher Stanley Cavell to illustrate the link between artistic expression and ethical considerations.
Cushing, James. “Zarathustra over America: Nietzschean Return, Self-Overcoming, and John Cage.” Denver Quarterly 29, no. 3 (winter 1995): 98-117.
Draws parallels between Friedrich Nietzsche's tale of Zarathustra and Cage's self-exploration and artistic endeavors.
Mac Low, Jackson. “Cage's Writing up to the Late 1980s.” In Writings through John Cage's Music, Poetry, and Art, edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, pp. 210-33. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Provides an overview of the structure and formulation of Cage's poems.
Pasler, Jann. “Inventing a Tradition: Cage's ‘Composition...
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