Not Exactly Verbatim

John Cage used to enjoy what repeating what he said was a quotation from Thoreau. Thoreau’s first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers did not sell, and at some point the publisher sent him back the remaining 700 copies. According to Cage, Thoreau said in response, “It makes me feel so good that no one is interested in my work, because it leaves me free to go in any direction that is necessary.” I fear that I have played some role in the dissemination of this misquote, for when I Google it my name often comes up. But for a long time I searched through Thoreau’s writings and biographies for it in vain. (Those journals can be quite a haystack when you start looking for needles.)

Today, in Henry S. Salt’s gratifying 1896 biography of Thoreau (of which I bought a frail copy at Concord this week), I ran across what Thoreau actually wrote:

I can see now what I write for, and the result of my labors. Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night, to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less, and leaves me freer.

Fairly different, is it not? You can see what a paradoxical spin Cage put on it; it sounds much more like Cage than like Thoreau. Cage would think of what direction to go next, and do something necessary; Thoreau would find his direction, if any at all, as the day inspired. Cage was aggravatingly fuzzy in his quotations, even more than Ives was, and I regret the role I played in spreading this around, though I enjoyed the defiant quality of the sentiment. I’ve spent many days recently trying to track a common Ives misquotation to its source as well, and I’ll have more to tell you about that shortly.

[UPDATE: Even so, I had a devil of a time finding the exact source in Thoreau’s Journal: Oct. 28, 1853. The PDF search engine in Thoreau’s online Journals is not reliable.]

And while I’m at it, documentary filmmaker Cambiz Khosravi reshot the film footage he had taken of me talking about 4’33”, which is part of his film on Woodstock history being premiered there Wednesday night. If nothing else, you can see how much weight I’ve lost recently.


  1. says

    Very belatedly I’ve just read 4’33”. What a terrific piece of writing. Your gift for writing about music is truly remarkable, and that deft explanation of Buddhism flows naturally and clearly. You’ve mentioned having a populist strain in your music and that’s also very evident in 4’33” as it seems as good a read for the non-specialist as the specialist.

    You’ve often mentioned the importance of Satie, so the bit about him was very helpful in understanding how you situate his work. If you’re ever casting around for something more to write about, I’d snap up a book like this on him in an instant. I’m deeply affected by playing some of his pieces (Ogives & Crossed Up Dances), but can’t shake the feeling the reasons I enjoy his work are probably different from yours.

    Another small point about 4’33” – my compliments to the book designer. At first I thought the slightly larger font filling up the slightly smaller page was unusual, but quickly adjusted and found it made the reading very easy on the eye.

    KG replies: Thanks all round. Writing about Satie would be a blast, and, for research purposes, I can actually bring back my three years of high-school French when I’m motivated. But I’m not sure what I could add to what’s out there aside from my own idiosyncratic enthusiasm.

    • says

      Is there one Satie book/article out there you’d recommend? How about a blog post sometime briefly delineating your “idiosyncratic enthusiasm”? Are his harmonies merely misguided antiquarianism and whimsy or are they something new under the sun? Is there anyone else’s music which can induce similarly pleasant, mysterious, moody reveries with such seemingly simple structures? What do you think he was trying to do for audiences? Is the piece Vexations the single most important thing he did in terms of foreshadowing what happening now? Your microtuned version of that was a ear opener – do you think that’s where he was headed? Is he mostly dismissed or passed over because of the comparatively slight output or is it that it’s not complex enough for specialists to deconstruct, so unworthy of their attention? Sorry to go on – but his music gets to me like nobody else’s and your mentions of him over the years have always made me wish you’d said more.

      KG replies: Wow, that’s more than I can answer. What I like most in Satie harmonically is, I think, a kind of postmodern approach to tonality; no matter what series of chords you drift through, a sudden V7-I will satisfy the ear that you’re in some key or another. For me the Pieces Froids, Gnossiennes, and Three Love Poems point to late 20th-century music more clearly than Vexations does; and, of course, Socrate, which could have been written last week and remain just as amazing. And I think most composers dismiss Satie because education makes composers stupid, and infects them with horrible neuroses about being profound and macho, so that they remain forever too immature for the real profundity of Satie’s humor – since you asked. But don’t tell anyone I said that, they hate me enough already.

      Oh, and while there are several OK biographies, the book you’ve got to get is Robert Orledge’s Satie the Composer, which really analyzes his music.

  2. says

    That’s very nice; the Thoreau and Cage versions say the same thing, in such different styles.

    I’ll add to the Satie discussion by saying that the static, often quartal harmonies of “Le Fils des Etoiles” surprised me in my teens, as did the brusque, puzzling “Danses gothiques.” For me, one of the best biographical resources is the huge “Correspondance presque complète”: over 1000 pages of Satie in his own words.