Cleaning Up a Life

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.


  1. Paul H. Muller says

    Reconstructing events of 50+ years ago is no picnic. Try not to think of that old saying: “History is a set of lies upon which the experts agree.”

  2. Jochem says

    Hi Kyle,
    Know this one? Haven’t checked your dates with it, but might be helpful…
    KG replies: Hi Jochem, and thanks. I use it, but it doesn’t mention the anechoic chamber, and apparently there are a few errors in it, so the dates still all have to be checked out individually. It’s a helpful starting point. I sure miss the Netherlands.

  3. says

    HI Kyle,
    Clemens Kalischer, a really fantastic photographer, showed up at a concert at my place this summer. He was at BMC for a bit, and has photographs of all of those people, as well as John Lee Hooker, and an incredible photo of an early teens James Levine and Van Cliburn sitting at a piano. He lives in Stockbridge – I think he’s even dated some of those photos, so he might be an interesting person to contact. He’s a real character.


    For Kyle Gann:
    The John Cage Week a 70th Birthday celebration.
    University of Puerto Rico
    Produced by Francis Schwartz with:
    John Cage, Merce Cunninghma, David Tudor, Daniel Charles, Richard Kostelanetz, Noemi Perugia, Grupo Número 3, Francis Schwartz.
    From March 2 through 7, 1982. The event was written about in John’s memoirs. Concerts, lectures, dance performances, panel discussions, mushroom hunting, macrobiotic barhopping, et al.
    Information for your research.
    Cordially,offic FS

  5. says

    One of memory’s most interesting faculties is its power to destroy chronology. It’s beautiful that you don’t remember how a good friend came into your life. Maybe a scholar some day will track it down, maybe after you’re dead, but how much more resonant (if you don’t mind a musical word there — it’s the one that comes to mind), how much more resonant is it that John Luther Adams simply appeared over your horizon, you don’t remember how. I never mind when we we’re not sure to whom Emily Dickinson addressed some of her letters; it’s fine if some of Cage’s life remains messy too.
    And I don’t think I’ve read a better definition of “legendary” than, “so many well-known facts about Cage turn out not to be true.” I suppose you are obligated, unlike the newspaper editor in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” to print the truth — but please keep the legend too!