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.

Cage’s delight in the Note-O-Gram was typical of a man who often seemed impatient to embrace the new. The Selected Letters of John Cage appeared just months after the first complete edition of Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You’ll Only Make Matters Worse), and Cage’s apparently limitless confidence in his visions of the future drives both books. Kuhn claims in her introduction to the Letters that taken together the two volumes provide something like an autobiography. Certainly, they provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of his ideas about sound and art. Cage’s voice has often been represented by the catchy bon mots at which he excelled – ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones’; ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’; ‘Which is more musical, a truck passing a factory or a truck passing by a music school?’ – but in the letters and diary he discusses his work in a less contrived fashion, and the principles behind the bon mots can be seen taking shape.

It is striking, in his earliest letters from the 1930s, just how earnest a student of Western classical music he was, given the outspoken critic of it he would later become. ‘It is very necessary to hear as much music as I can,’ he writes. He tells the wife of his composition teacher, Adolph Weiss, about a ‘very uninteresting’ performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, endured so that he could hear Jascha Heifetz playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto ‘superbly’. He speaks of his admiration for Stravinsky’s way of ‘seeing life close and loving it so’ – though he would later complain of Stravinsky’s ‘intellectual poverty by exploiting music of the past’ – and regrets missing a performance of the Fifth Symphony by Sibelius, a composer whose teleological structures and Romantic approach to tonality embodied everything the mature Cage would fight against.

In 1933, the 21-year-old Cage, feeling that it was his destiny to become a composer despite his threadbare knowledge of music theory, fired off letters to those best placed to further his aspirations. Schoenberg had recently arrived in Los Angeles. Weiss, who was his first American student, put Cage in touch with him. The story goes that Schoenberg dismissed him, telling him he lacked an ear for harmony. Peter Yates’s book Twentieth-Century Music: Its Evolution from the End of the Harmonic Era into the Present Era of Sound (1968), reported Schoenberg as saying that Cage was ‘not a composer – but an inventor of genius’, a back-handed compliment that stuck to Cage for the rest of his career. But Kuhn prints a letter that Cage wrote to the German composer Dieter Schnebel in 1973 that provides more context. Cage clearly took his studies with Schoenberg of counterpoint and harmony seriously. The major issue between them seems to have been Cage’s determination to move beyond academic exercises. He wanted to show Schoenberg his compositions; Schoenberg refused to look at them. ‘That was my diploma. But why he gave it remains a mystery. How did he know? He would neither look at my work, nor listen to it. I invited him once to hear my early work for percussion. He said he was busy.’

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