02 Apr 2005

The Cambridge Companion to John Cage

Cage's music is like Einstein's theorem: most people know it exists, know it's important, but beyond these facts know nothing about it (count me in this category when it comes to Einstein).

The volumes in the Cambridge Companions to Music Series are excellent remedies for this kind of situation, and the Cage volume is no exception. There is plenty of material here for someone without any basic training in music, since on one level Cage's music is readily appreciable without (perhaps in opposition to) customary musical training. To master the book in its entirety, however, the reader will need some minimal sophistication — a knowledge of musical "rudiments" (since Cage had a way of making the rudimentary anything but basic), an ability to read simple musical notation, and perhaps some minimal exposure to modern music theory (the notion of a musical motive, and its transformation and development). To this the reader must add a healthy dose of curiosity, since there is nothing more curious than Cage's oeuvre. No one, certainly no modern musician working in the line of thought that stems from European classicism, rethought music in such an ingenious and unprecedented fashion. The Canadian composer R. Murray Schaefer used to refer to a process of "ear cleaning," whereby we remove the accumulated dust of several centuries of classical listening (repeated listening to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.). Cage gives the ear a good scrubbing, and for this reason among others, despite the cultivated ignorance that surrounds his work, it is worth getting to know.

The book is divided into three sections. The first of these covers Cage's aesthetic background (the American, European, and most important perhaps the Asian influences on Cage's conception). David Patterson's essay on the Asian context is particularly illuminating, and while he has very little space in which to cover a broad and important question, Patterson introduces us to Cage and Zen, as well as Cage and the I Ching (a link that is in truth well documented) but also South Asian influences that are less well known — Ananda Coomaraswamy and the Ramakrishna sources. The second section of the book, "Sounds, words, images," appraises his work in terms of three periods (to the late 1940s, to the late 1960s, and thereafter until his death), and surveys his writings and his relationship to the world of visual art. Of these essays, "Visual Art," by Kathan Brown is particularly rewarding, opening up avenues for comparison between Cage's music and the paintings that dot the walls of our national (and in some instances local) art museums, and which we sometimes ignore as thoroughly as we do Cage and Einstein. Cage had a vibrant relationship with modern art and incorporated the visual into both his scores and his general conception. If you like modern art, you harbor the potential for liking Cage's music, and this chapter may serve as a door into the stuff. The final section of the book, "Interaction and influence," is a miscellany of essays relating Cage to his world and ours. The first three will be of interest to music scholars primarily, but the latter three, "Music and Society," by William Brooks, "Cage and Postmodernism," by Alastair Williams, and "No escape from heaven: John Cage as a father figure," by Kyle Gann, make particularly interesting reading. In fact, I would recommend starting the book with them. For those interested in vocal music and opera, Alastair Williams's discussion of the five Europeras will be of particular concern.

The bibliography is short but selective, comprehensive in its coverage, and the index is a model of concision. As my only caveat, the book begins with a brief chronology of Cage's life that could have been, perhaps, a little lengthier.

An excellent offering, then, in keeping with the high standards usually set by the Cambridge series. Highly recommended.

Murray Dineen
University of Ottawa