A little about myself: I am a PhD candidate in Historical Musicology at the University of Southern California, completing my dissertation on John Cage and experimental film. For the past four years, Cage’s work and thoughts have been at the center of my attention, but with the usual distractions of graduate student life in the humanities. Teaching duties, coursework, and general academic life can often lead to periods of intellectual malaise. However, during the 2011-2012 academic year, I have finally been able to remove many of the usual academic pressures - for a brief time at least - with a dissertation completion fellowship.
But, as Cage would remind us: “Permission Granted. But not to do whatever you want.”
Thus this blog is not entirely altruistic - it is a way for me to both return to the writings of Cage and to impose a very Cagean discipline on my day-to-day activities. I have set several goals and expectations for the blog, the most important being a new post on every Monday during the Cage centennial year. The core “repertoire,” if you will, is the collection of six published writing collections from Wesleyan University Press, which I will read through more or less chronologically. This includes Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1967), M (1973), Empty Words (1981), X (1983), Anarchy (1998), and culminating with the monumental Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, I-VI MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImitationDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyInconsistencyPerformance (1990 – published by Harvard University Press). The supplemental literature includes the two collections edited by Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage; An Anthology (Da Capo, 1970 – my copy of which, like everyone else’s almost immediately started to fall apart, leading to a very Cagean disorganization of the first 20 or so pages), and John Cage: Writer (Limelight, 1993), along with a few selections from the extensive series of interview compilations.
I may choose to include notes from my experience with the various archival sources I have explored in the past few years, (the massive Northwestern University correspondence, The David Tudor papers at the Getty Research Institute, tidbits from Laura Kuhn at the John Cage Trust, and most importantly, notes I have taken on the manuscript collection at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT), in conjunction with academic and nonacademic ruminations that may be of interest. Finally, there are the primary sources for Cage’s writings that will certainly come into play: The I-Ching, or Book of Changes, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Walden, The Perennial Philosophy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, The Integration of the Personality, and many others that were so integral to Cage’s philosophy. I certainly do not intend to cover all of this material in a year, but I do plan on devoting a specific amount of time to these sources as I review the core Cage texts.
Again, this blog hovers in the gray area between formal academic study and informal rumination in the blogosphere. My one hope, if nothing else, is that the information put out here is clear and accurate, and will give fans of John Cage some additional insight into his life and career that is otherwise hidden behind the veil of intellectual jargon and university library privileges. I hold no restrictions on the comments page, and I hope that anyone that does come across this project will engage my thoughts and opinions and, in the likely event, correct the occasional error.
Along with the concept of reading through, I will admittedly defer to some of the standard academic criticisms and interpretations of Cage’s writings, primarily those of David Patterson and Marjorie Perloff. To explain this in brief, there is a growing field of academic criticism focusing on Cage’s writings, especially as it concerns the construction of a persona, the cultural image of Cage as a person and his implicit participation in the creation of this construct. Poring over Cage’s life and letters, this observation could not be more obvious; to anyone who follows popular music, this is almost a nonissue at this point. The notion of a persona construct has become so deeply imbedded in commercialism that the tension between “selling out” and authenticity is the actual product, and nothing more.
In a sense, such criticism is a natural progression in the academic study of an individual, usually beginning with the generation of scholars like myself one generation removed from personal contact with Cage and his circle. Identity construction is to me, coming from a family of therapists, a fascinating element of textual criticism, but at the same time (and again to keep it simple), this is part of what writing is all about. Autobiography, cultural and social, socioeconomic, and even racial, gender and identity are all part of the general construct surrounding an idea of time, place and existence. I feel that not only was Cage very aware of this in his writings, he indirectly sought out answers to some of these ontological questions (questions regarding being, existence, and reality) in the aesthetic of silence, adding an element of circularity to the very act of criticism and interpretation. This may seem a bit confusing (or even circular itself) at this point, but again I hope that this parallel level of criticism, interpretation, and exegesis will result from the disciplined act of reading through.
It would be silly to think that I can even make a dent in Cage’s writings in just one year, a few hours each Monday, but that is not really the point. To take this point just one step further, this blog in itself is its own cultural construction, biased by my age, gender, race, occupation education etc., and although I attempt at all times to maintain an academic rigor to the words that come off the page, my personal biases and preference are forever creeping into the margins, at times marking whole pages or thoughts with naiveté, brilliance, colloquialism, etc., and that is, hopefully, what will make this interesting: if you read through my reading through, perhaps you will detect a persona. Then again, perhaps not. These are philosophical and critical questions that fascinated Cage, and fascinate me, and they are part of what this project is about. I recall often the Suzuki anecdote in Silence, where, after a long post-dinner discussion of metaphysics, Cage recalled:
About eleven o’clock we were out on the street walking along, and an American lady said, “How is it, Dr. Suzuki? We spend the evening asking you questions and nothing is decided.” Dr. Suzuki smiled and said, “That’s why I love philosophy: no one wins.”
As John Adams recently put it, “Cage Studies” is by now a cottage industry, and I hope this contribution to the ever-expanding network of thoughts and ruminations will help to enliven the debate in the Cage centenary year, reminding us of the lasting impact of these texts, and inspiring us to return again to a figure that has never quite left the public eye. I have also included a Cage 2012 page for posting any interesting events that I come across in the next year, from concerts to exhibitions or anything else Cage-related, along with a “book review” page that gives a brief overview of the main books on or by Cage. Finally, for those interested, I’ll go ahead and toss the coins each week and post the reading in the heading. I am not one for deep interpretation of divination texts, but it does add an interesting level of meaning to the weekly post.
To recap the story surrounding a year from Monday:
…it was a Saturday; there were six of us having dinner in a restaurant on the Hudson north of Newburgh; we arranged to meet in Mexico…in order to realize this rendezvous, all of us (knowing how to say Yes) will have to learn to say No – No, that is, to anything that may come between us and the realization of our plan.
To the students in the school from which we’ll never graduate:
Los Angeles, California
September 5th, 2011