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Book review: 'Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage' by Kenneth Silverman

The biography of the avant-garde composer fails to do justice to his complexities.

January 09, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Begin Again

A Biography of John Cage

Kenneth Silverman

Alfred A. Knopf: 496 pp., $40

Type the name "John Cage" into YouTube, and you'll find several fascinating clips. First is a 1991 interview with the experimental composer, in which, above the squawks of a Manhattan street, he discusses silence and his appreciation of noise. "When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking," Cage tells the camera, "… but when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic … I don't have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound." To catch a glimpse of this idea in action, look next at a January 1960 clip from the game show "I've Got a Secret," during which Cage performs "Water Walk," an oddly beautiful sound collage played on, among other objects, a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a sprinkling can, a bathtub and five radios.

Last, and most telling, is a performance by longtime collaborator David Tudor of Cage's notorious "4'33"." As we watch, Tudor sits at a grand piano for four minutes and 33 seconds, playing nothing, timing the piece's three movements with a stopwatch while occasionally turning the pages of a score. Afterward, Tudor describes the reaction to his performing "4'33"" at its 1952 premiere in Woodstock, N.Y. "There were a lot of artists even at that time in Woodstock," he says, "and they were incensed, they were in an uproar over the performance. And afterwards, John opened the floor to questions, and one of the artists got up and said, 'Good people of Woodstock, I think we should run these people out of town.'"

These scenes all make appearances in Kenneth Silverman's "Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage," an affectionate life of the composer, who died in 1992 at age 79. And yet, in Silverman's telling, they lack a certain urgency, a sense of creativity and risk.

Of course, there is a difference between listening to music and reading about it. But there is also a critical flaw in Silverman's book, which for all the esteem in which it holds Cage, never quite breaks through a kind of surface telling, a recitation of facts and information without the nuance that marked its subject's remarkable artistic life.

That's surprising, for Silverman is an accomplished biographer; he won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Life and Times of Cotton Mather" in 1985. With "Begin Again," though, he seems out of his element, interested in Cage solely as a cultural figure rather than as an artist at the center of a transformative avant-garde. This emerges from the book's earliest pages, which offer only sketchy details on Cage's transition from Los Angeles High School valedictorian — his senior year, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest at the Hollywood Bowl with a speech about the U.S. and Latin America — to a composer studying with Arnold Schoenberg. "Once again for Cage, way led onto way," Silverman writes, describing how Cage met composer Lou Harrison, who became a lifelong friend, and got a job teaching at Seattle's Cornish School, where he developed the prepared piano (a piano altered by placing objects such as screws and weather stripping between the strings) and where many of his early works took shape.

This notion of serendipity is a key motif in "Begin Again," but if this echoes Cage's later immersion in chance strategies — during the early 1950s, he began to use the "I Ching" as a tool in composition, throwing coins and reading the resulting hexagrams to determine "sound, time length, and loudness" — it fails to do justice to his complexity.

Cage's whole career was a movement toward giving up control, toward creating a music that might be representative of the tension between form and chaos. Such a progression, however, required nearly constant upheaval. Over the years, Cage fell out with a number of friends and colleagues (social theorist Norman O. Brown, composer Pierre Boulez, even Tudor) who broke with him or changed direction, allowing intentionality or sentiment into their work. "I would rather chance a choice," Harrison once commented, "than choose a chance." Even Cage's relationship with Merce Cunningham, the modern dance innovator to whom he remained devoted as collaborator for more than half a century and lover for nearly as long, became fraught; despite having written one or two pieces a year for Cunningham's troupe, he told an interviewer in 1986, "I've never really liked dance."

"Begin Again" is at its best in tracking the ebb and flow of these associations, and marking out the details of Cage's life. Yet lost amid these surface patterns is the way Cage's restlessness, his curiosity, bled into his art.

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