A Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winner takes on one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
John Cage (1912–1992) redefined what music could be by expanding nearly every element of the art. Silverman (Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, 2003, etc.) traces his innovations chronologically—his breakthrough years as a composer of experimental dance and percussion music, his definitive decade inventing chance-derived music as a member of the New York School of artists and musicians in the ’50s, and his later development of indeterminate music, the content of which could be created by the performer. Cage’s originality and his subsequent influence spread far beyond music into the visual arts and poetry, playing a central role in the creation of the Fluxus movement as well as the Language school of poetry. Silverman’s prose gracefully captures the seamlessness of Cage’s effect on 20th-century creative art, and he provides a careful, but not uncritical, exploration of the composer’s personal relationships, many of which involved men and women who would become monumental artists, scientists and thinkers. The author also explores other parts of Cage's life, including his interest in chess, which he learned to play from Marcel Duchamp, and his work as a mycologist. Silverman also provides a much-needed corrective to a generation of artists and musicians who have idolized, even mythologized Cage, yet grossly misunderstand or remain ignorant of what Cage actually accomplished as a composer. As someone who experimented quite dramatically with musical notation, instrumentation and the very nature of what sound could be—think of his famous “silent” piece, 4’33”—Cage occasionally mystified the very music he sought to simplify. Yet Silverman's artful narrative lays bare Cage’s compositional processes, aesthetic posturing and the cross-cultural philosophical underpinnings to his work with a clarity that musicologists and art historians have yet to achieve.
Not just an exemplary biography, but a significant contribution to the cultural history of American music.