IN 1961, WESLEYAN UNIVERSTIY PRESS published a set of "Lectures and Writings" by John Cage called, simply, Silence. "It's the book I've reread most often in my life," writes the composer-critic Kyle Gann in his illuminating foreword to the 50th anniversary edition. I know exactly what Gann means: With each rereading, Silence seems as charming and challenging as ever, but also somehow different — not quite what we thought it was. In the sixties, it was Cage's "scandalous" ideas that were most influential: his rejection of melody and harmony (indeed, all traditional elements of music) and his declaration that "there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time," with its corollary that all sounds we hear must be understood as equal. "Wherever we are," we read in the book's first essay, "what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." The "very life we're living" is "so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord." Sunny and serene, Cage was known as the composer who introduced chance operations generated by the I-Ching into music, and, soon enough, into poetry as well.
Fifty years later, and almost two decades after Cage's death, we know very well that he did not let life "act of its own accord." There is, to the contrary, a distinctively Cagean musical sound (now known primarily from recordings), just as Cage's essays, lectures, and poetic texts are immediately recognizable as no one else's. Aesthetic arguments and aphorisms, as he conceived of them, are not philosophical nuggets to be taken as essential truths, but provocations designed to force people to think. (After all, most of his "theorems" are formulated as questions; Part III of "Composition as Process" for example, has 11 pages of them.)
As for the little Zen stories scattered throughout Silence, they no longer strike me as sunny and serene; on the contrary, some are downright sinister. And the book's structure, which I once took to be intentionally anarchic — its parts presented in no particular order — now impresses me by its careful construction. To say Silence was ahead of its time is thus not quite right: more properly speaking, Cage's mix of manifesto and commonplace book, typographical experiment and tall tale, diary and aesthetic theory, is one that perpetually confounds its time, whatever the time may be that you happen to pick it up.
Two other features of Silence not much talked about at the time of its original publication now seem quite prominent: First, as Gann notes, Cage was not just a composer who also happened to write prose on the side but a "brilliant writer, with a distinctively elegant style and a comic delight in paradoxes." Second, Cage, so long associated with the New York avant-garde, now strikes me as quintessentially Californian, and more specifically, Angeleno, in that his cheerful disrespect for the canon of classical music went hand in hand with a fascination for the European avant-garde.
Born September 5, 1912 in downtown L.A. (the centenary will be celebrated next year), he graduated as valedictorian from Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard and attended Pomona College before dropping out to study art and architecture in Europe. Back in L.A....