I have nothing to say and I am saying it

Philip Clark

  • The Selected Letters of John Cage edited by Laura Kuhn
    Wesleyan, 618 pp, £30.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 8195 7591 3
  • Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage, edited by Richard Kraft and Joe Biel
    Siglio, 176 pp, £26.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 938221 10 1

By 1963, John Cage had become an unlikely celebrity. Anyone who knew anything about music – who had perhaps followed the perplexed reviews in the New York Times – could tell you how he had managed to transform the piano into a one-man percussion ensemble by wedging nails, bolts and erasers between its strings; or how he had – ‘and you’re never gonna believe this’ – somehow composed silent music. Even people who didn’t follow music knew Cage as the ‘nut’ who had appeared on the popular quiz show I’ve Got a Secret and performed his piece Water Walk, for piano and a collection of household implements. (When the host asked if he minded being ridiculed, Cage replied: ‘Laughter is always preferable to tears.’) He received lots of letters from people who felt that composed music had a future beyond classical convention, and from others who felt strongly that it didn’t and shouldn’t. In order to cope with the demands of his mailbox, Laura Kuhn tells us, he adopted the Note-O-Gram – a new piece of technology that anticipated the functionality of email while retaining the aura of a letter. Cage would write in his blocky handwriting on a top sheet, over colour-coded reply sheets and carbon paper, then mail the top sheet back and keep the carbon copy for his own records. Cage’s correspondent was expected to reply inside a box positioned to the right of his message: assuming everyone wrote inside their boxes, and remembered to tear out the carbon paper underneath, the process would result in both parties retaining a complete record of their exchange.

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