The Selected Letters of John Cage
Laura Kuhn
(Wesleyan University Press)
If nothing else, John Cage had a profound affection for irony. For instance, one of his oft-repeated stories appears in a letter sent to Joyce Oliveira in 1966:

    A composer friend of mine who spent some time in a mental rehabilitation center was encouraged to do a good deal of bridge playing. After one game, his partner was criticizing his play of an ace on a trick which had already been won. My friend stood up and said, "If you think I came to the loony bin to learn how to play bridge, you're crazy."

Since I'm also fond of tricksters and of irony (I suspect that all of our lives are but one delicious irony created by a divine trickster) - - - I find it especially rich that this fat and fairly expensive edition of Cage's letters comes to us from Wesleyan University Press, and that it contains a letter that Cage sent to their editor-in-chief Jeannette Hopkins in 1985.

It has to do with their publication of his X: Writings '79-'82 - - - part of a sixteen-year project that appeared ultimately as the nicely titled Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse.)

He wrote, "Dear Jeanette: We have come to an impasse. Though I was happy for more than twenty years to have my writings published by Wesleyan University Press, I no longer am."

He went on to state that their layout of X "misrepresents my work and thoughts . . . so seriously that I encourage no one to acquire it, and I myself do not own a copy," and that "at least three times by telephone during the period of proofreading I questioned both the type size and the contemplated trim size." He goes on to note that

    Neither my letters or telephone calls serve any constructive purpose. Your replies are incomplete ("More later") and beat around the bush, which is money and time which has nothing at all to do with my work or thought. In your last letter you question my seriousness ("If you really mean that the book 'should be withdrawn from circulation'") . . .

He concludes, "What I propose now is that I leave Wesleyan and find another publisher."

This is all very Cageian. Where many people seemed to think that he was doing an elaborate con-job on the world, he took everything seriously, wanted that all of his writings, presentations, shows, installations, and concerts be done precisely, to his exact specifications. Many (sometimes too many) of the letters in this volume are detailed instructions on how his works have to be presented.

It also shows how tide and time can change any and all of us. Here we are exactly twenty-five years after his death, and here we have a handsome 650-page volume crammed with a myriad of his letters, excellently sorted and footnoted by Ms. Kuhn, a professor at Bard and a director of his Trust - - - all elegantly packaged by (ready?) Wesleyan University Press.

§   §   §

We here at RALPH have had a long love affair with Cage. You can find on our pages a review of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Silence, edited by Kyle Gann (yes, also put out by Wesleyan). Here, too, you will find what must have been the very first be-in of them all, given at Black Mountain College in 1952.

Cage was a trickster, a late master of this tradition, coming down to us from Hermes - - - Messenger of the gods in Greek mythology - - - and Mercury in the Roman, even Prometheus who tricks Zeus into proclaiming that "the inedible parts of cows and bulls must be used for the sacrificial ceremonies of the gods."

These tricksters appear and reappear in western literature - - - Chaunticleer in Chaucer, the Fool in Lear, Byron's Don Juan and later, Huck Finn, Bugs Bunny, The Pink Panther, Bart Simpson - - - and the one so good he managed to trick himself, Humbert Humbert.

Best of all, we have the Algonquin Wisakedjak (Whiskey Jack) - - - a stand-in for John Cage who, in his later years, gave up beer and took a toot of expensive whiskey from time to time to keep his spirits up.

§   §   §

Unless you are a detective, you don't just set yourself down and read through other people's correspondence for a lark. The letters are best for looking in on from time to time for a change of pace. But you will find here continuing surprises, if not elaborate diversions. The famed Zen master Charlotte Joko-Beck had a universal answer to those who wanted to find The Way: "Listen to the Traffic." Cage took this as his mantra, incorporating street sounds, people sounds, world sounds as subjects for meditation and music.

Take trains. Cage joined the musicologist Tito Gotti in 1978 to create il treno di John Cage alla ricerca del silenzio, and his letter to Gotti fills three pages here with exact instructions as how it is to be played, where to put speakers, where to put the videos and televisions and microphones,

    Where N - the number of cars carrying the public, that a sound system having N x 2channels to be installed so that each car would have two loudspeakers (A and B). NA speakers will receive signals from N microphones picking up noises exterior to each car, probably underneath the car. NB speakers receive signals from N microphones picking up noises (squeaks, rattles, etc. - - - not conversation) from the interior of each car. Switching means (but neither volume nor on-off controls) below (or near) A and B, enabling a passenger to switch from any one of the N channels to the other,

und so weiter for another few paragraphs.

Sound and silence were the soul of Cage's works, perhaps coming from his life-long affection for Zen Buddhism, perhaps even the chant of OM. For it is said that the very sound would come up at one sitting some 300 feet above the earth - - - in a tree, on a mountain, hovering about in bliss - - - listening to the blend of pre-twenty-first century clatter. It was a mix of all the human sounds floating up from below, during the the aeons when the only things to be heard would be birds and animals and people and water and wind and laughter and music: the hum OM of life.

§   §   §

These letters give us a sense of Cage at his best, at his most methodical and most lucid.

  • There was a to-do in Germany because someone had floated the rumor that one of Cage's concerts performed by Frederic Rzewski included the killing of a cat (such was the noise) so the German Cultural Office duly demanded that no cats be murdered during any concert by Herr Rzewski.

  • Many of the letters refer to "Jap" which sounded provincial, not very much like Cage; turns out that was the nickname of his friend Jasper Johns.

  • One of Cage's pieces was called Rozart Mix where eighty-eight tape loops are used on four tape recorders. "A performance of the work starts when the audience enters and end either when the loops are broken beyond repair or when the last member of the audience departs."

  • One of Cage's teachers was the musician Adolph Weiss but the relationship foundered when word got out that John told someone that all he learned from Weiss was how to drink Manhattans.

  • Cage's performances might have been outdone by his friend Rauschenberg who did Elgin Tie a duet for Swedish cow: "a live cow is brought into the performance space;" followed by, Linoleum "in which the performer eats fried chicken while live chickens walk on his back."

  • In 1973, Cage answers a letter from one Mirek Kondracki, a Polish composer, in which he responds to some questions (unfortunately not reprinted here), but includes such ideas as one in which Cage's friend Erik Satie claimed he was not an artist, simply a musician engaged in "a dirty business." In the same letter, he quotes Marcel Duchamp's thought that "God is Man's stupidest idea," and concludes "No need for God. No need for goals. Nirvana is samsara. We are already there. (Individual realization.) But where we are is a mess (social realization): we must clean it up. That will take some time and be very boring: and when we are bored is when we get ideas. It will go on and on."

  • In 1934, when he was twenty-one, Cage started classes with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg said to his students, "My purpose in teaching you is to make it impossible for you to write music."

      I determined then and there to devote my life no nothing else. People may think that I've been unfaithful to myself, but I haven't: music has been generous to me. When I first went to Schoenberg and asked him to teach me, he said: You probably can't afford my price. I said: Don't bother to mention it: I have no money. He: Will you devote your life to music? Yes. Then I won't charge you anything!

  • When asked by someone who wanted to learn dance, he said, "most dance, except Merce [Cunningham's], horrifies me. Music may be the most irritating of the arts, but dancing when it is poor is certainly the most disgusting."

    Cage is fond of word play on the page and mesostics. For instance, on chess: "I was in Iceland and played with a grandmaster who is on the international chess jury. He beat me very quickly twice. I asked him where I have made my mistakes, He said: in you

At the end of my review several years ago of Silence, I wrote

    Cage had a melodious voice, and appeared to be unflappable. He also had a slow and infectious laugh. I once interviewed him on KRAB radio, in 1968, in Seattle. I asked him the usual dunce-like question about 4'33" --- his concert piece where the musician sits silently before the keyboard of a piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suggested that it wasn't much in the way of art, but rather a good joke. He got a fine belly laugh out of that one (as did I).

    In all, Cage comes off as a sweet, soothing, absurdly funny person. That his presentations goad people to outbursts of rage says less about him, I suspect, and more about them.


This - - - one of the best to appear in Letters:

August 31, 1972

    Dear Nicolas Jowett,

    It would seem from your letter that I can be of no help to you as far as the enjoyment of my music is concerned, for you ask for a reply in words, and you already say that my words reach you, but not "my" music.

    Therefore, were I to write an answer to your letter which would change your mind, you would not change enough (or at all possibly) to enjoy the music. Stay with your love of Bruckner and your disdain of my "vulgar jingle." It is a simple matter: what seems "boring" and "uniform" to you, and "jades" you, seems endlessly varied and enlivening to me.

    We are different people. I do not act as one who provokes. The provocation is in whomever is provoked. Likewise aural events in themselves need to "interest" or "merit." That is given by those who listen.

    We are not only different people: we are in different positions of space + time, so that what seems dark to you seems light to me. If your letter means that you need to enjoy my music for some mysterious reason, then I suggest that you discipline yourself, beginning with the following exercise:

    Listen, without permitting yourself to be distracted,* to at least two hours of Bruckner twice a day, three times on every seventh day, etc., until you discover that it is not sublime at all, but very boring.

    - - -

    *By ice cream vans for instance, or if in a concert hall, by people coughing.

--- L. W. Milam
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