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Dialogues with & about John Cage

Edited by Peter Dickinson
University of Rochester Press ISBN 1-58046-237-5
RRP 20 hardback 265pp.

I can’t say I ever really met John Cage, but I certainly encountered him. Cage was guest and subject of a festival held at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague in 1988. As a post-graduate composition student, still very much wet behind the ears, I was one of many to be charmed but mystified by this legendary figure.

This book read a little strangely to me at first, but only because I hardly remember him saying anything while at the Conservatoire. Not that he needed to: the place became a buzzing hive of creativity of all kinds merely through his presence, activity both challengingly stimulating and entirely impractical and misguided.

My reasons for pedalling my meagre experience of the man is only to indicate that, like the comments of most of the interviewees in this book, whatever your attitudes to John Cage were before coming across him in person, they were unlikely to be the same afterwards. His was an unforgettable aura, gentle and charming even when dealing out the sharpest of criticism. The patiently inflected but unequivocal words; "you’re doing it all wrong" will remain with me to the grave, spoken as we composition students made a complete hash of one of his less penetrable improvisation scores. I was told after one of those marathon concerts where we were allowed to present our own ‘instant compositions’ that he had been amused, had even laughed at my ‘act’. Man, that was praise enough.

This book should swiftly establish itself as essential reading on the subject of John Cage. It consists largely of the typescripts of a number of interviews conducted by Peter Dickinson for the BBC in the late 1980s. The Radio 3 documentary, first broadcast in 1989, lasted about one hour, but the substance of the interviews has the potential to fill many such programmes. Some earlier BBC interviews outside the scope of the programme have also been included, and Dickinson is to be applauded for making sure that such vital material has been preserved and made generally available. All of these interviews add to our view of Cage as a man and as an artist, and make him much more of a three-dimensional character than just the uniquely influential creative personality behind the music and the writings.

Peter Dickinson, himself a respected composer and musician, first met Cage in the 1960s, and followed his work and others reactions to it ever since. His own comments are, as a result, informed by familiarity with his subject, and a reflection of his own personal responses. I like the way in which he remains objective – admitting Cage’s inconsistencies and occasional wilfulness, while at the same time giving us all of the warmth and respect which he obviously holds for the great man.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section after the introduction is ‘Cage and Friends’, starting with Cage himself and covering Merce Cunningham, Bonnie Bird, David Tudor, Jackson Mac Low and Minna Lederman. Part II is ‘Colleagues and Criticism’, including Cage’s great friend and ally Virgil Thomson, and with interviews from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown and La Monte Young among many others. Cage’s earlier BBC interviews follow, and Part IV has a section called ‘Extravaganzas’, which have Musicircus and Roaratorio as their starting point. All of the interviews are copiously cross-referenced with detailed and informative footnotes, and there are, of course, the usual scholarly and comprehensive appendices, bibliography and index.

All this might seem like dry and unappetising fare, but nothing could be further from the truth. Turn to a page almost at random, and you can fill the rest of your review with intriguing and entertaining quotes. Even if Cage as a composer might be less interesting to you as a reader, there is much to be learned here about American music-making and the art ‘scene’ in the past century, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Subjects such as Zen philosophy, some of the origins and thoughts on seminal works such as 4:33, Schoenberg, anarchy and structure, ‘happenings’, acceptability and the pushing of boundaries, all of these are aspects of music and art which generate their own interest, both within and beyond Cage’s own life and work. The overall sense in many of the interviews is of Cage ‘coming through’ in the anecdotes and thoughts of others. Even the vast ego of Stockhausen admits in Cage "the musician who hears and makes other people hear the unheard." La Monte Young sums up the ‘Cage effect’ succinctly: "It’s always preferable to have John [at a performance] because he has such charisma, such a radiant personality. You have a remarkable understanding of him through the osmosis of being in his presence." What this book represents is a number of people, significant in their own right, who have experienced and absorbed this osmosis, and who bring Cage to life through the skilful and sensitive interviewing of Peter Dickinson and others. It is our good fortune that Cage’s personality had such a positive effect on so many people. This is something fairly rare in music books in general, but if you are anything like me you will find yourself being educated and cheered up at the same time.

"…I have very little experience as a pessimist. Once… I told [some] students that I was less optimistic than I had been – and they all begged me to continue in my foolish ways! [laughs]"

Dominy Clements



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