Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Insider's Perspective: Cage Uncaged

By Elana Estrin

Book cover. Click to enlarge.

Nancy Wilson Ross's of copy Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The book is inscribed by Cage: "To Nancy who means so much to me that I'm silent, once again."

In 1952, pianist David Tudor walked onstage, bowed, seated himself at the piano, and closed the lid. For the next four minutes and 33 seconds, Tudor did not play a single note. This was the premiere of avant-garde composer John Cage's seminal silent work, 4'33" (Four minutes and 33 seconds), Cage's favorite but most disputed composition. Born in 1912, Cage is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. A highly controversial composer to this day, Cage pushed music's limits, forcing people to reconsider its possibilities.

Some hints about who John Cage was as a composer, philosopher, and friend can be found at the Ransom Center, which houses numerous letters written by John Cage in multiple collections. The majority are in the Nancy Wilson Ross collection, acquired in 1972. Ross, a novelist and writer, was particularly interested in eastern philosophy. She also corresponded with Aldous Huxley, Wassily Kandinsky, Allen Ginsberg, and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others.

Ross and Cage's correspondence spans at least 40 years: the Ransom Center's earliest letter is from 1940, and the latest is from 1980. Ross seems to have had a profound impact on Cage. In Silence, Cage's most influential book, he writes: "one of the liveliest lectures I ever heard was given by Nancy Wilson Ross at the Cornish School in Seattle. It was called 'Zen Buddhism and Dada.'"

This reference alone indicates that Cage's correspondence with Ross is important, says Andrew Dell'Antonio, Associate Professor of Music at The University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music.

"The fact that Cage nods to her in Silence means that her lecture really was significant. How much have people paid attention to that? My guess is that these letters are very significant."

In Cage's early letters to Ross, written when Cage was 27 and Ross was 39, Cage tells Ross about his tireless efforts to establish a Center for Experimental Music. He asks for support and advice in several letters, desperately making the case for new music. On August 16, 1940, he wrote: "The situation with regard to music may be stated simply: A broad field of research in music is opening. It will be marvelous to work in it... I need to have the support of many individuals. Can you suggest some? Would the Museum of Modern Art help? Music has really been tardy in its development... It must be done, because it is necessary. I am like a horse now with blinders: I can see only this one future."

Caroline O'Meara, Assistant Professor of Music in the Butler School of Music, notes that even at this early stage in his career, Cage is intent on collaboration, appealing for help to establish a communal center for new music.

"Generally with Cage, you don't get the feeling that he wants to be the only one, or always the first one," O'Meara says. "He is often the first, but it's not just about being the first. It's also about wanting to actually hear new music. He wants to help change everything."

On October 10, 1940, Cage writes a follow-up letter to Ross, excitedly revealing his electronics-dominated vision for new music: "The possibilities for new music are amazing: music with records and machines, electrical instruments, amplification of sounds we can't otherwise hear, synthetic music on film... It is possible that the presence of inaudible sound in a room could be very useful musically."

Ever-enigmatic, Cage raises some questions about the supposed oxymoron of "inaudible sound."

"I think in this context he's talking about quiet sounds that we don't have access to because they're not amplified. He's not necessarily trying to be paradoxical," O'Meara says.

Dell'Antonio conjectures that Cage is being deliberately philosophical, perhaps embracing the paradox.

"Think of Ross's lecture about Dada and Zen: things which are not things, things which are defined by the paradox within them," Dell'Antonio says. "What more paradoxical statement than the notion of inaudible sound?"

John Cage. Click to enlarge.

Undated photograph of John Cage by Anton Perich.

Mills College was Cage's first choice for housing his proposed center. Mills expressed interest, but neither Cage nor Mills gathered enough funding. Cage eventually gave up and moved to Chicago to teach experimental music at the Bauhaus School. According to Mills College's website, "it was not until more than twenty-five years later, through a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, that Cage's dream became a reality." Today, thanks in part to Cage's efforts, Mills's Center for Contemporary Music is one of the most progressive centers for new music.

Cage noted that the word "mushroom" directly precedes "music" in many dictionaries, and Cage happened to be a mycologist—a mushroom expert. He once used his mushroom expertise to win 5 million lire on an Italian quiz show. Ross seems to have nurtured this passion. In a letter from 1971, she writes: "I intend to call you when the mushroom chalice—that sort of Thor's cup I described to you—grows again on the old tree root." In 1974 she writes: "I keep thinking that maybe sometime I'll lure you to our place in the North Woods where mushrooms abound on all sides and the peace and joy are quite indescribable: ditto the beauty!"

Ross was keenly aware of her lecture's influence on Cage. In a letter to Cage from 1980, Ross writes: "Our paths have, after all, always run parallel or tandem in a way, with only a few random crossings, yet somehow I feel also with lasting, if invisible, connections. I was delighted to see some years back in your book Silence mention of my long ago lecture on Dada and Zen at the Cornish School. Bonnie Bird who burst into tears at the end of it has amazingly kept a xerox of it all these years (forty) which she gave to me in London a few years ago. I promptly misplaced it; to my great sorrow. Perhaps it will some day surface among the alps of papers I've been assembling for the Humanities Division archives at the University of Texas." In fact, box 69 of Ross's collection at the Ransom Center contains a copy of Ross's "Zen Buddhism and Dada" lecture.

While Cage sought her support 40 years prior, Ross writes in this letter that Cage had a profound influence on her as well. She describes one of Cage's concerts she attended around 1940: "I traveled straight to the concert from a hospital bed you may also remember, bringing with me a badly suppurating thumb in an oversize bandage and some temporary face scars which I'd acquired while examining an 'unloaded' tear gas gun from the Chinese-Japanese front. Although I in no way expected it to happen, your music (the titles of which I cannot now recall) 'healed' me. I felt myself very definitely coming together—unmistakably! I must have told you then—but perhaps not. I'm rather shy about such infrequent miracles."

Earlier in the same letter, Ross elaborates on her shyness. She tells Cage that his biographer, Roy Close, has scheduled a visit with her. She writes that she could share this story with the biographer, but "caution in speech on this subject is of course paramount these days when words like 'togetherness, one-ness, chakras, centering, spaces' etc., etc. are spread around as carelessly and lavishly as peanut butter in a Den Mother's kitchen. So I shall have to be very careful how I express any of this to Mr. Close. I find as I grow more specifically aware of life's miracles, I am less and less anxious to chat about them over martinis, or herb tea, for that matter."

It doesn't appear that the biographer ever published a biography on John Cage, but Ross's reticence is noteworthy.

"I'm curious how open she was to him," Dell'Antonio says. "It sounds like she's saying she's going to keep her cards close to her chest because she doesn't want the biographer to misinterpret what she might say about this connection to eastern spirituality. Everyone talks about chakras now. But in 1940, this was a new language for them when they were trying to walk in new directions."

Correspondence in the Ransom Center's collection of contemporary composer Peter Garland, reveals another side of Cage. Cage wrote on July 8, 1991: "I will apply myself to your problems, try to find a solution. I first thought you should change your mind but unfortunately that would change your music and your spirit both of which must live as they are. Please stay with Susan. You will never find her in someone else. She is a lovely person and has none of the problems with which you have surrounded yourself. She is more than lovely; she loves you. She loves others too and proves it through her shop which attracts them to her. Do what you can to repair my damage to your relationship."

This cryptic letter is difficult to decipher without Garland's missing letter to Cage. But, Dell'Antonio says, we can guess what Garland probably wrote to Cage and what Cage's response means.

Cage is 78 years old at the time, and the cryptic sentence "do what you can to repair my damage to your relationship" probably doesn't mean that he's been philandering. Rather, Dell'Antonio guesses that Garland wrote a desperate letter to Cage, explaining that he wants to be like Cage and so he has to break up with Susan.

"Cage says, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don't throw your relationship down the tubes.' But he starts off saying if you change your mind, it would change your spirit," Dell'Antonio says. "I think philosophically that's an interesting insight. It's a principle that Cage stood by, that ultimately you can't do something someone else tells you to do, creatively or otherwise."

Elana Estrin is currently a junior at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in Plan II Honors and Music, with a concentration in violin performance. She has written about the arts for The Strad magazine, The Jerusalem Post and The Daily Texan. She is currently interning in the Public Affairs office of the Ransom Center.