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Book review: ‘Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage’ by Kenneth Silverman

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Begin Again

A Biography of John Cage

Kenneth Silverman

Alfred A. Knopf: 496 pp., $40

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Type the name “John Cage” into YouTube, and you’ll find several fascinating clips. First is a 1991 interview with the experimental composer, in which, above the squawks of a Manhattan street, he discusses silence and his appreciation of noise. “When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking,” Cage tells the camera, "… but when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic … I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound.” To catch a glimpse of this idea in action, look next at a January 1960 clip from the game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” during which Cage performs “Water Walk,” an oddly beautiful sound collage played on, among other objects, a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a sprinkling can, a bathtub and five radios.

Last, and most telling, is a performance by longtime collaborator David Tudor of Cage’s notorious “4'33".” As we watch, Tudor sits at a grand piano for four minutes and 33 seconds, playing nothing, timing the piece’s three movements with a stopwatch while occasionally turning the pages of a score. Afterward, Tudor describes the reaction to his performing “4'33"” at its 1952 premiere in Woodstock, N.Y. “There were a lot of artists even at that time in Woodstock,” he says, “and they were incensed, they were in an uproar over the performance. And afterwards, John opened the floor to questions, and one of the artists got up and said, ‘Good people of Woodstock, I think we should run these people out of town.’”

These scenes all make appearances in Kenneth Silverman’s “Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage,” an affectionate life of the composer, who died in 1992 at age 79. And yet, in Silverman’s telling, they lack a certain urgency, a sense of creativity and risk.

Of course, there is a difference between listening to music and reading about it. But there is also a critical flaw in Silverman’s book, which for all the esteem in which it holds Cage, never quite breaks through a kind of surface telling, a recitation of facts and information without the nuance that marked its subject’s remarkable artistic life.

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That’s surprising, for Silverman is an accomplished biographer; he won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Life and Times of Cotton Mather” in 1985. With “Begin Again,” though, he seems out of his element, interested in Cage solely as a cultural figure rather than as an artist at the center of a transformative avant-garde. This emerges from the book’s earliest pages, which offer only sketchy details on Cage’s transition from Los Angeles High School valedictorian — his senior year, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest at the Hollywood Bowl with a speech about the U.S. and Latin America — to a composer studying with Arnold Schoenberg. “Once again for Cage, way led onto way,” Silverman writes, describing how Cage met composer Lou Harrison, who became a lifelong friend, and got a job teaching at Seattle’s Cornish School, where he developed the prepared piano (a piano altered by placing objects such as screws and weather stripping between the strings) and where many of his early works took shape.

This notion of serendipity is a key motif in “Begin Again,” but if this echoes Cage’s later immersion in chance strategies — during the early 1950s, he began to use the “I Ching” as a tool in composition, throwing coins and reading the resulting hexagrams to determine “sound, time length, and loudness” — it fails to do justice to his complexity.

Cage’s whole career was a movement toward giving up control, toward creating a music that might be representative of the tension between form and chaos. Such a progression, however, required nearly constant upheaval. Over the years, Cage fell out with a number of friends and colleagues (social theorist Norman O. Brown, composer Pierre Boulez, even Tudor) who broke with him or changed direction, allowing intentionality or sentiment into their work. “I would rather chance a choice,” Harrison once commented, “than choose a chance.” Even Cage’s relationship with Merce Cunningham, the modern dance innovator to whom he remained devoted as collaborator for more than half a century and lover for nearly as long, became fraught; despite having written one or two pieces a year for Cunningham’s troupe, he told an interviewer in 1986, “I’ve never really liked dance.”

“Begin Again” is at its best in tracking the ebb and flow of these associations, and marking out the details of Cage’s life. Yet lost amid these surface patterns is the way Cage’s restlessness, his curiosity, bled into his art.

It’s not just music; in the early 1970s, he shifted “much of his attention from composing to writing,” innovating a verse form called the mesostic, which is an acrostic with the capitalized “spine” running down the middle, rather than the beginning, of the line. Much of his time during the 1970s and 1980s was taken up with the creation of these poems, as well as making visual prints at both Oakland’s Crown Point Press and Virginia’s Mountain Lake Workshop. What’s fascinating about this is how, despite using the I Ching and other chance actions to determine many aspects of these efforts, they come across as more concrete and less abstract than his musical work. That’s another bit of fundamental tension, the pull between form and chaos, but for Silverman, it is enough to catalogue it rather than comment on it, which leaves an essential aspect of this biography unfulfilled.

Why, after all, do we read the lives of artists? Partly, the pleasure is vicarious: We want to see them both with the famous people they knew and also in the detritus of their daily lives. But even more, we want to get inside their process — not to expose it so much as to celebrate its inscrutability.

This is what Cage did whenever he wrote or spoke about his work; indeed, the most insightful comments in “Begin Again” often come from him. “I’m interested in going to extremes,” he said in 1969. He wanted to communicate not by reassuring, but by challenging and even provoking his audience. “I want people to be mystified by what’s happening,” he explained late in life, in a comment I wish this biography had taken more to heart. “The reality of our life is mystery.”

david.ulin@latimes.com


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