Art Imitates Life: John Cage's Music of Chance

While John Cage's aleatory music attracts reverence in academic circles, it can terrify the layman. But Joan Retallack claims Musicage: Cage Muses on Words*Art*Music, her new book of interviews with the 20th century's most inventive composer, is for everyone. "It was an attempt on both our parts to make available very clear explanations and even demonstrations of Cage's working methods, his reasons for doing what he did and the way he did it," she says. "Cage's music is just as available to the human ear and to a sense of pleasure in sound as anybody else's music...if you know how to listen."

Retallack—a poet and essayist who teaches at the University of Maryland's interdisciplinary University Honors Program—met Cage in 1965. The composer was then music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and he introduced himself to Retallack as she sat watching the troupe's rehearsal. Occasional contact over the years blossomed into a close friendship by the late '80s. When Cage died in 1992, Retallack decided to compile Musicage as a tribute to him.

Like Richard Kostelanetz's Conversations With Cage, Musicage offers a firsthand glimpse of Cage's wondrous world. "I really wanted the reader to have a sense of Cage's thought in action," says Retallack. "That meant transcribing the interviews with all of the kinds of associative logics that occur in conversations." The transcripts are filled with pauses and tangents—not unlike Cage's compositions. This presentation gives a sense of how the musician organized sound by imitating nature, embracing chance, and playfully reveling in the creative process. "For Cage, the process [of creation] is always pushing things further, which for him meant asking new questions. All of his composing was based on questions," Retallack adds. "He wanted to move into areas that he didn't understand in order to have new experiences and to provide new experiences for the audience."

Musicage resonates with its collaborators' enthusiasm, intelligence, and humor—and may compel novices and experts to run out and purchase a CD from Cage's vast oeuvre. But Retallack admits Cage's difficult music isn't ideally explored on recordings. "I agreed with Cage," she says, "that the best way to hear his music was live, and the other best way to hear his music was to enjoy the sounds of everyday life." CP

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