John Cage Composed In America
Essays edited by Marjorie Perloff & Charles Junkerman
1994, 286 pages, paperback, The University of Chicago Press


by KENNETH GOLDSMITH
RIF/T 5, University of Buffalo, 1995
Cage in 1967

John Cage in 1967

In early 1992, I went to see John Cage read on a Sunday at a small church in New York City. He read for 45 minutes to an audience of maybe 20 people; although the room held more, there were many empty seats. As I looked around I began to think, if this were twenty years ago, the place would have been packed, probably with a line out the door. I looked around again--I saw about me a withering, aging congregation, albeit faithful, who came to hear Cage preach. Born in 1961, I seemed to have been the youngest in the room. I felt fortunate to be at this event--an intimate gathering with one of the three or four major 20th Century cultural figures before me. Although at this point Cage was considered "classical" ("classical" meaning that which has been classified--Gertrude. Stein), he still did many of these small gigs when the opportunity arose.

On the way home, I began to think about what I had just seen. His presence, words, and manner all impressed me. His lecture had a compelling open ethical underpinning that seemed particularly timely. I couldn't help but wonder, why did Cage no longer have the cultural power and pull that he had in his heyday of the 1960's and 1970's? It seemed to me that 25 years ago, thousands flocked to his concerts (the first Musicircus in 1969 was attended by over two thousand people), and he was regarded somewhat as a wizened older guru (both in the "art" sense and as a Pop culture icon) to the seething youth culture. One need only look at the books produced at the time on Cage to see his enormous sway. Slowly though, the country changed. After the Vietnam War and Watergate, the mood of the nation's youth shifted away from the utopian/radical possibilities in both politics and culture and moved toward a more self-centered materialism. As the '70s wore on, Cage seemed to be increasingly marginalized (not, of course by his own doing) as a functioning radical thinker and began the transformation into a museum relic--a very important historical fact for whom great crowds would appear at sanctioned museum events, see a piece of living history, and go home.

However, Cage himself never softened. The culture might have moved on, but he kept on his radical edge, continuing his revolution in a quiet way for those who cared not only to listen, but to act on and live by his words. Through the 1980's, Cage's influence was felt in the underground, influencing many of the more interesting cultural movements of that decade--the birth of indy rock, the renewal of Conceptual Art, and the rise of Language Poetry. Many of these artists studied Cage in the '60s and '70s and went on to synthesize newer aesthetic/cultural concerns with older Cageian ideals. While the 80's played out in the media with Wall Street Yuppies and decadent consumerists grabbing the spotlight, many of us spent time on the edge of the culture, which in turn planted the seeds for the more politically charged times in which we now live.

This being the case, I thought that Cage's social and ethical ideals would have been embraced by an emerging politic. But I was wrong. As I looked around me, I saw the rise of multiculturalism and political correctness--initially not bad ideas at all--but as the dialogue deepened, these movements seemed to embrace separation and closure, single-minded "correct" meaning as opposed to Cageian ideas of open inclusiveness ("Here Comes Everybody" and lack of center). I finally had to ask myself, what could Cage possibly mean to my generation?

When I got home, I pulled out all of my books about and by Cage. I looked at the copyright dates--1961, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1992. Ah! 1992! David Revill's biography of John Cage, "The Roaring Silence" had just come out. Perhaps in some way this book could answer my question and place Cage in a contemporary light. However, the problem was that this book could have been written in 1966. Shrouded in reverence and privacy, we were only allowed a certain view of this approachable genius. And if we didn't obey the code, there was a certain wrath to bear; Cage was approachable yet all approached with caution. I have read that when John laughed, everyone laughed--such was his power. Certain subjects were taboo. In Revill's book, the paragraph that deals with Cage's homosexuality is closed:

"The imminent breakup with Xenia was not only the loss of one relationship, an important one, but of a sexual orientation and an identity. The catalyst can be seen, with hindsight, as Merce Cunningham; he and Cage would become partners in the personal as well as artistic sense. Exactly what happened is not clear and not important. It is not clear because the protagonists have kept the matter private (indeed, one young speaker at a conference at Stanford University in 1992 was censured by the chairman for mentioning Cage's homosexuality "because" Cage does not). The details are not important given the aims of this book; all that is important is that a crisis of a marriage and a sexual orientation occurred, and Cage's life-decisions, work and thought need to be placed within that context."

Revill never mentions the subject again. This type of veiled biography seemed irresponsible and unthinkable in 1992. How could Revill keep silent about such a subject in the middle of the AIDS crisis after so much work had been done to dismantle thick closet walls over the previous ten years, not to mention the heated discussion that had been raging surrounding the issues of gender and identity? This was just one of many ways in which his book just did not seem up to date.

How different this is in comparison to Thomas Hines' essay "Not Yet Cage" in the new "Composed In America". Hines reports a conversation with Cage where he reveals his favorite cruising spot in Los Angeles in the early 1930's!! "Contact with the rest of society was through (cruising) the parks," (Cage) remembered. "For me it was Santa Monica along the Palisades." Wow! Now that's more like it! Sure, you can say the beans can be spilled after his death, but Hines' acute political, temporal, and cultural awareness in this essay makes it quite clear that he would refuse to treat the subject as taboo. This appears to me to be an open and contemporary approach to biography.

Or how about Joan Retallack's Appendix essay "Revisions to Overpopulation and Art"? This is a truly amazing document telling how Cage, upon having been made aware of the patriarchal and male dominated language in his mesostics, went and revised them! For example:
Line 126
original: or should he Put himself aside
revised: or should artists be Put aside

or Line 592
original: by mAn
revised: by humAn beings

or Line 595
original: which man invents sO that
revised: which are invented sO that
Here is a remarkable instance of the "protagonist" himself adjusting his own agenda to move with the times. The Appendix opens with the statement "That John Cage was open to criticism of his work until the end of his life will surprise no one who knew him. In this sense he was experimental in a way that scientists would recognize--exploring the unnoticed and the new while testing his conceptual framework against what he regarded as important "reality principles." He wanted his work to have useful consequences in the world and it couldn't have that if it was somehow off-base, inappropriate, irrelevant." Cage's actions and this statement suggest to me that it was not Cage who left, but the general population who veered off the utopian ethical pathway. I was beginning to get an answer to my question.

I next turned to Gordana P. Crnkovic's essay "Utopian America and The Language of Silence", which presents a fascinating idea. She begins her essay discussing a visit to Prague during the wane of Communism. There, she and a friend created a utopian view of America that was based in opposition to whatever information was officially being given by the government. Hence, she idealized America as a horizontal social structure in direct opposition to Eastern Europe's verticality. She got a hold of John Cage's "Silence" and in it found her "Utopian America," "one able to acknowledge the validity of each of the numerous, unfixed centers of society." She readily admits that this utopian notion had no correspondence to the "real" America but as there was no impartial Western information available, these sorts of utopian fantasy constructions were evidently commonplace.

She spends the rest of the essay showing examples of Cage's writing that support, both in theory and practice, her "Utopian America." It is indeed a language foreign to the ideological and political concerns of late Communism; the vocabulary includes such ideas as the language of question, the language of self-alteration, and open multi-directional language working against closure.

All very nice, I thought to myself, but this is dated material--the collapse of Communism happened over 5 years ago and a new set of problems, equally repugnant and vertical, had risen--raw-boned Capitalism. And then it struck me--it was a trade of one set of verticality for another, Communism for Capitalism. The "Utopian America" that Crnkovic fantasized about remains unrealized, both here and in Europe--and as late Capitalism continues to spread like wildfire around the globe, notions of horizontality seem more necessary than ever. However, utopian thinking alone does not seem to cut it here. Crnkovic, as well as the rest of the authors in this book, seem to want action. How does she propose this will happen? The answer comes at the very end of the essay where she discusses the "reality factor" in any Cage performance. Crnkovic declares (bravely, I might add) that Cage himself is a vertical structure--after all, someone has to invent the language of freedom and set the system in motion. Crnkovic says, let's face it, this is reality and we need a good dose of reality in order to transform our existing structures. She repeatedly uses the notion of "materialism" in regard to Cage, as if practice is the real way to cut through the layers and layers of useless ideology and propaganda. So, once again, I found myself pleased with the notion of action and usefulness--timely and important concerns for a younger generation.

Funny things happen to a person after they die--suddenly it's as if the closet doors are permitted to be opened and all sorts of repressed and hidden things come tumbling out. Hence, another important aspect of the book: it is the first to come out on Cage since his death and in this respect alone it's remarkable because we are able to see the composer in a three hundred sixty degree way that while he was alive, we were not permitted to see. This is the case with Marjorie Perloff's contribution "A duchamp unto myself", which deals with Cage's sublimated and repressed desire for Marcel Duchamp and Jann Pasler's "Inventing a Tradition: Cage's "Composition in Retrospect", which discusses Cage's rewriting of his own history. These are outrageous essays, really. In the case of Perloff, I never could envision anyone positing such a theory while Cage was alive. It's truly juicy.

Perloff deals with issues of identity and desire, both public and private. She also entertains the very pertinent notion of one's image and the means by which one manipulates and controls the public perception of that image. And what concern could be more up-to-the-minute than one's notion of one's "media-self"?

Cage, as Pasler tells us, was a master in shaping our perception of him. So was Duchamp. As it turns out, they did it in very different ways--Duchamp was fleshy French eroticism, and Cage was WASPy American repression. Perloff quotes Duchamp discussing erotica as "a thing that everybody understands...to be able to reveal them (erotic things), and place them at everyone's disposal--I think that this is important because it's the basis of everything, and no one talks about it." It's a funny contrast to Cage, who celebrated the wonder and awareness of one's daily life but repressed the thing which is "the basis of everything."

Perloff's thesis is that there was an erotic and sexual side to Duchamp's work that Cage could never assimilate. She states "Ironically, the real appeal of Duchamp for Cage ("I love him and he ... changed my life") may have had less to do with Marcel's work than with his enticing presence--the exotic image of the man smiling enigmatically over the chessboard or appearing in drag as Rrose Sélavy." This brings the subject around to image control and manipulation. Perloff and Pasler make me aware in these essays that Cage controlled his public image to such an extent as Andy Warhol. One of the things that makes Cage so relevant to us is his Media-savvy. Cage not only used electronic media in his work, but also had a sense very early on about how to use Media to his advantage (his close affiliation with Marshall McLuhan was no coincidence). Perloff discusses Cage's rewriting of his own and Duchamp's history (through the mesostic work "Alphabet") to have us see Cage as Cage wanted to us to see him. Cage was Warholian in this way but in my opinion (and many will surely disagree with me), Cage was sacrificing/altering his ego in order to show us an alternative way to live and be in the world, where as Warhol was complicit with the economic and ethical systems of Capitalism. So in a way, Cage's media manipulation was forgivable--showing us a higher good--where as Warhol's manipulation showed us a mirror of our ugly selves and seemed offer no alternative.

"Composed In America" centers around a Cage Musicircus held at Stanford University in 1992, beautifully described by Charles Junkerman in the opening "nEw / foRms of living together": The Model of the Musicircus." Junkerman tells us that the Musicircus is a model that envisions a utopian possibility for humanity. It involves a horizontal, decentered, non-judgmental community effort which includes all who wish to partake. Cage's main thrust in the Musicircus is that one musician might stop trying to play in time with the other musicians around him/her in order to be able to function as an interdependent, non-interfering entity. This is the opposite approach to Western music where an orchestra, say, is supposed to function like a well running unified machine. Awareness and openness is required of the individual performers, allowing others to perform in a parallel manner thus promoting less ego-dependence and ultimately freedom. It is a practical working model of (to use Herbert Lindenberger's term) "regulated anarchy". And working is the key here. This book comes from California--it involves an event that took place in California, the composer was raised in California, and all of the authors are West Coast based. This book is called "Composed In America" and the emphasis here is on things both American (pragmatism) and specifically Californian (experimentation). This book seems to say that theory alone is not good enough--theory must then be put to task through realization. Realization of theory in many cases is extremely experimental and it takes an open-minded culture to allow the experiment and to accept the results as proof. "Composed In America" insists on getting its hands dirty. It tests theories again and again and accepts them only if they prove to be workable. This is where the pragmatism comes in--Cage, a son of an inventor and himself "an inventor of genius", favored a pragmatic "American" model of thinking, hence the call to action. "Composed In America" picks up this thread and time and again on these pages, theory is put into practice.

The final essay here is "Poethics of a Complex Realism" by Joan Retallack and note the word realism in the title. Retallack begins her essay with an invocation of American Pragmatist John Dewey's "Art As Experience" and launches into a long discussion of the idea of weather as it relates to the ideas of John Cage. Cage said that he wanted his music to be like the weather--unpredictable, omnidirectional, impermanent, and always changing--complex systems that parallel the conditions of our daily life. He did several works involving the weather, modeling his ideas after nature (again, a tip of the hat to American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau), which are described here. Retallack takes the word play of weather/whether and sets up a correspondence between the physical (realized) and the theoretical (unrealized). She then posits an ethic based on the principle of weather/whether. Imagine, she says, a culture sophisticated and open enough to be able to accept difference and otherness, a culture that rejects the oversimplified media response of black/white, yes/no, a culture that embraces complexity and contradiction--a "breathable" culture. And it is here where the book brilliantly dovetails with the multicultural attitudes sweeping the country today. Cage stands in opposition to the reductive and closed ideas that multiculturalism have come to stand for. While multiculturalism plays by the media-supplied dualistic rules, Cage seems to dump the idea of rules altogether and instead celebrates the idea of difference and unpredictability as a prerequisite to understanding and accepting the difficulties inherent in a pluralistic culture. It appeals to this reader as the path of least resistance and being based in action, seems entirely workable. The multicultural debate has made many people aware of the issues, but it stands in theory only and lacks the kind of pragmatism and functionality that could lead to real change as prescribed here.

The remainder of the book for me is like the Cageian experience of mushroom hunting in the forest. You might go out looking for one thing and yet along the way stumble across something you could never imagined. Cage taught us to appreciate and enjoy these finds as much as the trove we initially set out to look for. The other essays scattered throughout the book consist of a fascinating variety of topics on specific fields and look at Cage through the lens of those realms. There are essays on Cage and ethical theory, Cage and science, Cage and opera, and Cage and the global. These contributions function in letting us see more angles of John Cage than we ever could have imagined. For example, I never have read ethical theory, but I quickly found myself engrossed in Gerald L. Bruns' article "Poethics: John Cage and Stanley Clavell at the Crossroads of Ethical Theory." Cage provides a window for me to enter into a dialogue that was previously unbeknownst to me. Another case is Herbert Lindenberger's essay on Cage's Europeras "Regulated Anarchy." This is a brilliant essay by a man who obviously knows his field--it is lively and entertaining and I can't help but think how appropriate it might be in a book devoted specifically to opera--it will really shake up readers who are traditional opera lovers.

Like traveling along the forest path in search of mushrooms, "Composed In America" gently twists and turns as it goes along its way, but the reader should be warned that there is one patch of quicksand: Daniel Herwitz' "John Cage's Approach To The Global." This essay starts out lively but quickly disintegrates in a deadly dull line by line reading of a mesostic that is swamped in a thick stew of sleepy theory. It is the only essay in the book where theory takes precedent over practice and the results are languidly stultifying.

After reading ""Composed In America"," I went to put it on the shelf with all my other books on Cage. Deciding where it should go, I realized that "Composed In America" is approximately the same size and shape of all of Cage's books published by Wesleyan. Is this any coincidence? Probably not. This is a savvy book, one that has one eye on the past and one eye on the future. "Composed In America" is the book on Cage we've been thirsting for--finally, a book that moves John Cage squarely into the '90s and sheds much needed light on the relevancy of his thought for the current generation. In doing so it performs a dual function--it allows us to see the man as he has never been seen before and it sets a radical agenda for the propagation of his ideas after his death and far into the future.
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