Why Me? Another Biography of John Cage

by Richard Kostelanetz (May 2013)

   
I’ve written before about my recurring inability to evaluate standard biographies of cultural figures. From commercial publishers they appear in roughly the same size, I guess contractually prescribed, 6” x 9”, 500-plus pages, indexed, its prose stylistically undistinguished, with perhaps 50 to 80 pages of footnotes and a signature or two of photographs. Even about major cultural figures commercial publishers evidently prefer such books over criticism, even though the latter might finally become more valuable and respected.

Over the years I’ve reviewed these thick books mostly to say something critical about such subjects as Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, Virgil Thomson, Frank O’Hara, Glenn Gould, and Leon Theremin. About their measure as biographies, I have little substantial to say. Usually I’m glad that such books appear, especially if they reveal much about someone whose life was previously unknown (e.g, Albert Ginsky’s extraordinarily informative Theremin). One omission I find curiously common is any report of the subject’s last will and testament, which is usually public information.

Only one struck me as a disaster, for a reason missed by most reviewers and apparently even by some judges who gave it some sort of monikered award, I guess impressed by its conventional acceptability. Virgil Thomson was not just an important American composer; he was also among the wittiest men who ever lived, less in print than in conversation. Nonetheless, his biographer Anthony Tommasini completely misses Thomson’s monumental jokes (that can curiously be found in certain biographies of Thomson’s friends, such as Brad Gooch’s on Frank O’Hara). Precisely because Tommasini’s book was accepted as “definitive,” Thomson’s achievement as a cultural personality was reduced; but, since Tomm’s disaster was acclaimed, no corrective biography will ever appear. Though Thomson had no direct heirs, his admirers and executors should be permanently pissed.

With these thoughts in mind, I read Kenneth Silverman’s Begin Again (Knopf), the second major biography of John Cage. (The earlier one, by the British music writer David Revil, was an embarrassment I demolished long ago.) As a sometime professor of English at New York University, Silverman had published earlier biographies of Samuel F. B. Morse, Harry Houdini, and Cotton Mather, two of which he sent me after we met as he was beginning his project. Each Silverman biography runs over 500 pages; one copped a Pulitzer Prize.

Silverman also ran a biography seminar at NYU, where he taught for decades. As a biographer, Silverman was a pro who knew from the start how to finish what he would begin, in contrast to some amateurs I know who have been promising their Cage biographies, in one case for decades. Several years were spent on Born Again.

When Silverman kindly sent me a copy of his new book, inscribed by his hand no less, I noticed that I was credited among his informants in the book’s preface but then, since he never interviewed me again, only once in the index. Following the index into the book itself, I found myself cited as the source of a single quotation wholly Cage’s.

No mention is made of my writings about Cage, both journalistic and critical, dating back to 1967. I’d published and edited several books of and about Cage (1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1989, 1991, 1993 [2], 1994, 1996 [2], 2000 [2], 2002), as well as several other anthologies and articles incorporating him, sometimes with ideas uniquely mine--e.g., polyartistry, constraint, trust. None of those key critical epithets appear in Silverman. For decades my first Cage book (1970, reprinted several times) was for many people a favorite introduction to his radical activities.

I felt slighted, inexplicably slighted, though I had no extended contact with Silverman beyond our first meeting and accompanying exchange of books. Did I offend him or some Svengali handling him? Should I have offered to help more? These are, I suppose, questions that any informant similarly slighted must ask himself. An early version of my criticisms here went to Silverman, who initially introduced himself to me, don’t forget; but he didn’t reply.

I then checked my own name in Silverman’s bibliography. The nine entries on me turned out to be a mess, three of them crediting me as editing books actually authored by me. A reference to me in his notes on his page 429 goes nowhere, acknowledging a chapter from a book of mine not identified by name. Don’t scholarly publishers hire copyeditors whose job it is (or was) to make sure such references have sources? Other books of mine featuring Cage weren’t listed.

That scarcely ends the errors that a conscientious copyeditor, not to mention the veteran author, should have caught. The Fluxus anti-king George Maciunas still alive on Silverman’s page 194 actually died decades ago. Since Maciunas was a major avant-garde figure, his death is scarcely a secret. The composer Fred Rzewski’s name is misspelled on page 225. Fred Grunfeld was less a musicologist than a cultural journalist.

Other corrections should have been made by someone long familiar with Cage. On p. 122, Silverman speaks of Cage’s house in Stony Point, New York, as “half of a small house.” In fact, it was two rooms, each perhaps 20’ x 10’, with a utility core in the middle that shared an extended wall with a much larger neighboring house. I wrote about it in 1967 for the New York Times Magazine, which is a source that biographers rarely miss.

Too often Silverman inexplicably uses language unnecessarily tentative, for instance speaking on page 134 of Dick Higgins as “probably not yet twenty years old” when he took Cage’s course at the New School in 1956. No, Higgins, born in 1938 (scarcely a secret), was undoubtedly less than twenty at the time. In Begin Again are other statements unnecessarily tentative about details easily confirmed, in sum suggesting that Silverman might be a beginning biographer, rather than an old pro.

I made fun of David Revill for his Englishman’s mistakes about New York City geography; but since Silverman is a New Yorker who went to Stuyvesant High School and then Columbia College, I was surprised on page 277 to find Cage’s residence at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue identified as “Greenwich Village” (rather than Chelsea or the Flatiron District) and then his friend William Anatasi’s as “Washington Heights” when it was around 137th Street and Riverside Drive! How can New Yorkers get so farblundjet about their home town?

On page 258 Silverman declares that Cage “had published more [writing] about music than any other twentieth-century composer,” which is scarcely true if Ned Rorem or Virgil Thomson count. What would be true, though the distinction escapes Silverman, is that Cage published more poetry and more unclassifiable experimental texts than any other composer.

Since I felt my own involvement with Cage slighted, I thought to check other names whom I knew to be important to Cage. What good company I find myself almost in. Among those completely omitted are Klaus Schoning, who commissioned several major Cage compositions for the Horspiel (earplay) department of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (while refusing Cage’s weakness for offhand meanderings); Daniel Charles, the French philosophy professor who produced the first Cage books in France; and Sean Bronzell, a young American, almost a surrogate son, often seen at Cage’s apartment during the 1980s.

I found no mention at all of the critic Jill Johnston, an early prominent advocate of Merce Cunningham dance and thus Cagean esthetics, particularly in her writing for The Village Voice; the musician Paul Hillier who, in addition to performing Cage, published a book of mesostics directly reflecting Cage’s poetic influence. Though Silverman frequently credits Cage’s principal posthumous record producer, Mode Records, earlier sponsors of the composer’s recordings are forgotten. The most courageous was Teresa Sterne, a legend in her time, whose Nonesuch release of HPSCHD (1969) includes a printed sheet of Cage’s instructions for manipulating home transducer dials— no less now an innovation than it was then. Aside from escaping Silverman, these six people have nothing else obviously in common.

One dimension of Cage’s achievement missed by Silverman was the effect of his visits around the world. Simply, he was a great guest artist. Around 2007 I heard in Iceland, of all places, about Cage’s passing through Rekjavik perhaps two decades before, where he not only talked but had his sponsors generate audacious events that were remembered. In dozens of other places his appearance had comparably memorable influence. Though Silverman acknowledges a George Maciunas documentation of Cage’s early travels, there are no first-hand reports in this biography. Perhaps this subject didn’t occur to Silverman.

More than once I sensed that Silverman who never met Cage was misguided by people who hadn’t known Cage for long, sometimes making the biographer appear unnecessarily stupid, say about the dimensions of his Stony Point house. Whereas David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times judged that Cage was too rich a subject for Silverman to grasp, my sense was that, in dealing for his first time with someone recently deceased, Silverman was necessarily dependent upon self-important informants with peculiar agendas. Nonetheless, whoever vetted this typescript should retire.

The book to do, which I thought about decades ago but won’t do now, is a double biography of Cage and Cunningham, certainly among the most fertile couples in modern art. Though identifying a gay couple is no longer problematic, not to mention no longer libelous, it was to these men, both born before 1920, something they did not publicly acknowledge. Over the years I heard and personally witnessed all kinds of subtleties in their interactions that others must have observed too. Jill Johnston broached this territory of gay esthetic fertility before her death as did Jonathan Katz in his extraordinary portrait of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns first printed in Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership (1993). Now that Cunningham has passed as well, no one can object.

Whether or not Begin Again is a good biography or bad I cannot in truth tell. Silverman certainly uncovered biographical episodes previous unknown to me, especially about personal relationships that weren’t so interesting. What I do know is that this book has serious deficiencies that should have been corrected before appearing in public print. About Glenn Gould, a figure equally rich, whom I also knew, several biographies have appeared, each new one adding to its predecessors. May Cage, now an historic figure, benefit from the same progress.

__________________________

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several domains appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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