A few months ago I had the opportunity to narrate a biography about the modern composer John Cage. The book, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, was written by Kenneth Silverman who has tackled other influential historical characters such as Edgar Allen Poe, Erich Weiss (Houdini), Cotton Mather, and Samuel Morse.
Begin Again was a fascinating read chock full of fabulous details about John Cage, his work in modern music and other art forms, his relationships (both personal and professional) in the world of music and dance, and even his interest in and work with mushrooms. What an interesting man and an interesting life. Influential? Well, he was one of the first to work in electronic music. He was at the forefront of music written for prepared piano as well as the use of non-traditional (everyday items as) instruments. He wrote compositions – the best known is 4’33” – that call on the audience to explore the idea that there is no such thing as total silence here on earth and that there is music in the most mundane of sounds around us. He also pioneered the use of “indeterminacy” in music and music composition.
And he’s still influential today – even outside music. Just a few weeks ago I attended a seminar for theater professionals. The focus was on exploring “moments” through the use of the various elements available (props, costumes, other actors, lighting, etc.). It was hosted by The Arena Stage in Washington, DC and presented by members of Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project. In the process, guess whose work (among others) was referenced briefly? John Cage, of course.
Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):
John Cage was a man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents: musician, inventor, composer, poet. He became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Now award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. We follow Cage from his Los Angeles childhood—his father was a successful inventor—through his stay in Paris from 1930 to 1931, where immersion in the burgeoning new musical and artistic movements triggered an explosion of creativity in him and, after his return to the States, into his studies with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg. We see Cage’s early experiments with sound and percussion instruments, and watch as he develops his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. We learn of his many friendships over the years with other composers, artists, philosophers, and writers; of his early marriage and several lovers, both female and male; and of his long relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he would collaborate on radically unusual dances that continue to influence the worlds of both music and dance.
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