John Cage’s life is getting sorted out, but you need to pick and choose your sources. David Tudor and Morton Feldman were both Stefan Wolpe students, and nearly everyone says Cage met Tudor through Feldman, but actually (according to Tudor scholar John Holzaepfel), Tudor was also sometime accompanist for dancer Jean Erdman, in whose apartment Cage and Xenia ended up living when they first came to New York in 1942. (Cage and Feldman met January 26, 1950.) Cage knew Tudor first through Erdman.
Nearly everyone, including Cage, says that he met Robert Rauschenberg at Black
Mountain College. But Cage visited BMC twice in 1948, and didn’t return until 1952. Meanwhile, Rauschenberg first came to BMC in 1949, and in 1951, Irwin Kremen (the dedicatee of 4’33”) saw a Rauschenberg painting in Cage’s apartment. Kremen and Rauschenberg biographer Walter Hopp are adamant that Cage met Rauschenberg in New York, where the latter had a big one-man show in fall 1951, which Cage attended. Nothing else makes sense. Laura Kuhn at the Cage Trust even says Rauschenberg returned to BMC in ’52 at Cage’s invitation, though I won’t use that unless I find some documentary verification. (After all, I don’t remember where I met Robert Carl, or how John Luther Adams and I first got in touch – that was over 20 years ago. Why trust Cage to have remembered?)
Cage told interviewer Thomas Hines, “You’ll have trouble with me; I’m bad with dates,” and that’s the lord’s truth. At one point Cage says he visited the anechoic chamber in the late ’40s, and in Silence he credits it with having the latest up-to-date 1951 technology. Then, in “An Autobiographical Statement,” he talks about the big theatrical “happening” at BMC (August 1952), says he went from there to Rhode Island and saw a synagogue where the audience was seated in the same configuration as at the happening, and from there he went to Cambridge and saw an anechoic chamber. The other references are vague, and this last is the only one that associates the anechoic chamber with datable events. But in the very next sentence, he mentions having written “A Composer’s Confessions” (delivered February 1948) while he was studying with Suzuki. Suzuki arrived in America in late summer of 1950, started teaching at Columbia in 1952. None of Cage’s misdatings seem in any way self-serving – who cares what year he saw the anechoic chamber? Although it does look like maybe he exaggerated his studies with Suzuki a little.
I guess this is real musicology, not the kind I’m used to doing. I’m used to the composer handing me the score, asking him or her a few questions, and publishing the results with little fear of contradiction, indeed little fear that anyone else will know what I’m talking about. Wiley Hitchcock kidded me because so many of the footnotes in my American Music book read “e-mail to the author.” But this 4’33” book bristles with real academic footnotes, more than 100 in one chapter – I wish he were around to see it. Details are not my forte. Large scale patterns everyone else has missed are my forte. Luckily a phalanx of impressive Cage scholars have pounded the pavement to dig up the facts in recent years, and I’m their beneficiary. I just have to be careful to read long enough and in the right places, because so many well-known facts about Cage turn out not to be true.