For the sake of discussion, let’s blame it all on Beethoven. The composer of epic symphonies also composed a persona we too often regard as the creative ideal: distant, aloof, sad, brooding. Endlessly brooding.
Granted, Ludwig had a lot to be bummed out about. He worked by candlelight, went deaf in midcareer and lived in a day when many people viewed “creative” as sources of syphilis infection.
Times have changed. We live in an age of technological innovation and medical miracles. Yet we still brood and whine. We gaze at our shoes hoping others will be impressed by our moody brilliance. It’s Ludwig’s fault.
Lucky for us, John Cage dedicated his life to busting the myth of the tortured artist. Beethoven ranked No. 1 on Cage’s shit list: In a program note written in 1940, Cage criticized Beethoven for composing work that “temporarily protected” the listener “from the noises of everyday life.” Rather than flee from aural urban chaos, Cage sought to embrace it. His early percussion works mastered and subjugated noise so that modern ears would recognize its beauty.
Cage died in 1992, but we see many art practices he originated in the 40s and 50s still commonplace. Those who embrace the happening, the process … or even the use of chance operations in composition … all owe a debt to the LA-born, NYC-fostered maestro.
As Yoko Ono observes in James Klosty’s excellent new book: “The history of Western music can be divided into BC (Before Cage) and AC (After Cage).”
Klosty, best known as a photographer, delivers a collection of previously unseen images and 100-word observations about Cage. These anecdotes came from the many artists, poets, dancers and musicians who knew the artist and acknowledge the influence of his work. The assembled witnesses include contemporary artists such as Yoko Ono, Twyla Tharp, John Ashebery, Jasper Johns, Laurie Anderson and many more.
Each contributor followed two Cage-ian constraints required by Klosty:
1) Write no more than 100 words.
2) Include the phrase John Cage Was …
The simple instructions set up revealing remembrances.
Yoko Ono, for example, acknowledges the lack of respect her early performance art received.
The prizewinning poet John Ashbery confesses that he suffered through a period of writer’s block until he saw a performance of Cage’s Music of Changes in 1952. Ashbery writes that Cage’s music gave him “… ideas about how to write poetry again.”
Many of the contributors use Cage’s writing style in their very short essays, anecdotes, and poems. (Indeterminacy abounds. Aleatory methods converge.) For Cage aficionados, part of the fun of this book comes from seeing how his peers use forms he created.
But the photographs offer the greatest reward. Between 1967 and 1972, Klosty trained his camera lens on the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He photographed Cunningham, the director, plus John Cage, the in-house composer, and also members of the company. The troupe prepared iconoclastic new works and presented them on stages around the world.
We’ve never seen many of the pictures until now. The artful, black-and-white photographs capture Cage hobnobbing with leading lights of culture such as Marcel Duchamp, Octavio Paz and Aaron Copland.
Posed perfection does not appeal to Klosty. His photographs reveal Cage’s spontaneous spirit and enthusiasm for experience. Frequently Cage stares directly into the camera indicating that he saw himself not as a passive subject, but as an active collaborator in the photographic act. As Klosty explains in the book’s forward: “John was so open to life that he was fully available to the intrusion of the camera at any moment.”
In one image, Cage appears in close up, sitting before a piano. Smoke surrounds him. His dark glasses reflect a blinding light that seems to emanate from the sheet music before him.
The book captures Cage in a period of radical physical transformation. In the five years caught by Klosty’s camera, Cage transitioned, the author says, “… from the clean shaven, seemingly respectable businessman in suit and black tie to the denim clad, shaggily bearded mountain man of his Thoreau years, who emerged … in the spring of 1971.”
To fully comprehend Cage’s radical shift in appearance, imagine Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men trading in his Brooks Brothers suits and Brylcreem for the wild-haired, work-jacket look of Walter White on the run in the final episodes of Breaking Bad. (Spoiler alert: The series finale of Cage’s life does not involve a remote-controlled machine gun and the annihilation of a neo-Nazi gang.)
Despite the rapid evolution in sartorial style captured in the photographs, two of Cage’s key traits remain unchanged.
1) Cage never stops creating. The pictures show him rehearsing with dancers, composing a score, or passing the time in a backstage waiting room. One image shows Cage sitting in an airport, surrounded by luggage, reading a newspaper … and taking notes on a steno pad.
2) Cage often smiles. Mischievously so.
Beethoven broods. Cage grins. Here lies his contribution to 20th-century art practice.
Inspired by Zen philosophy, Cage sought a different mode of expression: no expression at all. As he famously said of his work: “I don’t want it to mean anything. I want it to be.” By treating composition as a kind of game, he could separate his ego from the outcome. Liberated from the burden of self-expression, smiles came easily.
John Cage Was adds an important work to the Cage canon published by Wesleyan University Press. The small press published Cage’s first book, Silence, in 1961. The success of that book enabled Cage to author five more tomes (all published by WUP) filled with lectures, essays and scores. Thanks to WUP’s fine stewardship of the Cage archive, today’s readers have easy access to a wealth of his written work. Klosty gives us a pictorial representation of a man whose life became as significant as his art.
Cage’s bold spirit shines on every page, his every smile an ode to joy.
Bill Taft is a musician and writer.