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Editor's Choice: The selected letters of John Cage

The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn, Wesleyan University Press, 651 pages, $40.

I must confess some dismay, even shock, at no letter here from Cage about what I still consider the most dramatic bit of aesthetic frustration I have ever witnessed: John Cage’s rage to a seminar of UB Music Students at the SEM Ensemble’s June In Buffalo performance of Cage’s “Song Books” where Ensemble member Julius Eastman wore skis and did a surreal near-burlesque skit satirizing mainstream America’s puritanism about homosexuality. Cage went into a furious rant about Eastman – who was entering a political period as both a black and gay militant – being “fixated” on homosexuality during a piece meant to connect to the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. It was that miscomprehension he loathed, not the sexuality which, in his case, had been open for decades.

I find it impossible to believe that Cage’s extreme consternation and fury was never manifest in correspondence with his friend, UB Composer Morton Feldman or with SEM Ensemble member Jan Williams or with Lejaren Hiller, the computer music pioneer whose beachhead at UB’s music school eventually brought us Feldman and a great deal of Cage consciousness.

Buffalo has been “Cage Country” off and on since. While there’s no mention of Cage’s rant, an earlier letter to Leonard Bernstein formally delineates his strict understanding of the “aleatory” music that musicians often interpreted as improvisation or anything they jolly well chose: “Improvisation is not related to what the three of us (Cage, Feldman and Earle Brown) are doing. It gives free play to exercise of taste and memory and it is exactly this that we, in different ways, are not doing in our music.”

A sneering later dismissal of critic/composer Michael Nyman is here, but nothing about what once seemed traumatic for him in Buffalo. Nevertheless, these letters are important for those seeking a personal understanding of Cage. Far more important, though, in book form are the two Cage collections which presented him as one of the most elegant and witty writers ever to emerge from any sort of American artistic vanguard – “Silence” and “A Year From Monday.”

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