Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage

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  • Composer John Cage heard sounds in silence!

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  1. Main content?
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  3. The Zen of Silence.
  4. Drawing on interviews with Cage's contemporaries and friends and on the enormous archive of his letters and writings, and including photographs, facsimiles of musical scores, and Web links to illustrative sections of his compositions, Silverman gives us a biography of major significance: a revelatory portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century.

    A man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents—musician, inventor, composer, poet, and even amateur mycologist—John Cage became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in at the age of eighty.

    Award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. Cage continued his studies in the United States with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg, and he soon began the experiments with sound and percussion instruments that would develop into his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. John Cage is notorious for composing 4'33'', a silent piece, but his long career involved many compositional innovations and phases as well as a long-standing interest in other arts - dance, visual arts, writing.

    Silverman's traditional biography there are various others focusing on his philosophy or 4'33'' is a good read, nicely captures the many sides of Cage and creates an involving portrait of the New York School of artists that included Cage, his longtime partner Merce Cunningham, artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and composers Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff.

    The Rise of Experimental Music in the 1960s documentary (2005)

    Cage led a peripatetic early life - moving frequently with his family, dropping out of college and running off to Europe, constantly looking for work. His interest in music developed early on but he was also interested in other subjects - literature, architecture, visual arts. Arnold Schoenberg was one of his first teachers. Cage had had several homosexual relationships but married Xenia Kashevaroff and she often participated in his concerts.

    They spent the Depression teaching, but Cage used his experiences in composing some of his earliest avant-garde music - percussion-heavy pieces. Silverman gives detailed descriptions of his concerts - what weird instruments were used, who played what, comments from the press - and certainly makes his performance sound like fun. Sometimes the celebrity-chasing aspect of it comes through but Silverman also shows that Cage befriended many before they found fame.

    He started composing for the prepared piano, another Cage specialty. The strings would be altered by attaching variable objects which would give it an odd, changing sound. Cage and Xenia moved to Chicago and New York, where Cage would be based for much of the rest of his life. They had some connections and patrons - mainly Peggy Guggenheim. Cage composed music for dancers and started a friendship with Merce Cunningham.

    It eventually turned into an affair and he left Xenia for Cunningham. Their relationship would have its ups and downs but it lasted until Cage's death in The pair had many productive collaborations - Cage composing pieces for Cunningham's dances. Cage became interested in Eastern music and philosophy - his friend Gita Sarabhai taught him about Indian music, he threw himself into Zen Buddhism after hearing Daisetz Suzuki lecture and started using the I Ching random methods to compose his pieces.

    His chance methods would soon define his music as well as various aspects of his life Cunningham used them when choreographing, Cage used the I Ching when making etchings and watercolors. Cage and Cunningham had to constantly try to get engagements and employment and toured the U.

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    They taught at Black Mountain College and Cage would have various professorships over his lifetime. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, friends and lovers, also joined the group and Rauschenberg would do the designs for Cunningham's performances. However, there were also many conflicts among the group which Silverman nicely charts. Cage had many long-lasting friendships with other composers - Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Pierre Boulez - but also many fights and falling outs.

    He developed a calm Zen indifference towards the critics and jeering audiences but could become emotional and angry towards his friends. Many of the fights were over artistic matters or what he took as public criticism from his friends. On tours in Europe, Cage promoted his friends' works and had his own performed by David Tudor, a gifted pianist and longtime collaborator.

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    Sometimes Cage would also perform - reading random pieces of his lectures at while Tudor played the piano. He developed an interest in electronic music, tape splicing, the sounds of random radios and everyday noise and finally the silent piece. He moved to the Stony Point commune and developed a passion for mushrooms which would be another lifelong interest. Cage frequently went mushroom hunting, participated in the mycological society, answered difficult mushroom-related questions on an Italian game show as well as playing his music and collected many rare books, which he later donated to a university.

    Another innovation was indeterminacy - players could decide what notes or how long to play or the order would be chosen at random which meant that each playing of the piece would be different. However, Cage was not one for improvisation - he disliked jazz - and he wanted his pieces to be practiced.

    In this Book

    A piece performed by the New York Philharmonic angered Cage when the players were allowed to improvised and just played music that they knew. Cage was always seeking new ideas. In the 60's, he became an advocate of progressive politics and tried to incorporate those ideas into his work.

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