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John Cage

ISBN 9780674440074

Publication date: 02/01/1990

Without doubt the most influential American composer of the last half century, John Cage has had an enormous impact not only on music but on art, literature, the performing arts, and aesthetic thought in general. His insistent exploration of “nonintention” and his fruitful merging of Western and Eastern traditions have made him a powerful force in the world of the avant-garde.

There have never been lectures like these: delivered at Harvard in 1988–89 as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, they were more like performances, as the audience heard them. Cage calls them “mesostics,” a literary form generated by chance (in this case computerized I-Ching chance) operations. Using the computer as an oracle in conjunction with a large source text, he happens upon ideas, which produce more ideas. Chance, and not Cage, makes the choices and central decisions. Such a form is rooted, Cage tells us in his introduction, in the belief that “all answers answer all questions.”

Acting as a kind of counterpoint to the six texts here are transcripts (edited by Cage) of the provocative question-and-answer seminars that followed each presentation. Included with the book are two audiocassettes, one of Cage reading a mesostic (IV), allowing the listener to experience it as it was delivered, and one with a lively selection from the question-and-answer seminars that conveys the flavor of the event. The illustrations consist of fifteen different chance-determined prints from a single negative by Robert Mahon of the first autograph page of Cage’s Sixteen Dances (1951).

I–VI is, in short, an experience of John Cage, where silences become words and words become silences, in arrangements that will disconcert and exercise our minds.


  • Mr. Cage has overcome [the] disjunction between his anarchic art and his elegantly didactic texts, bending his words into a mirror of his music by fracturing conventional expectations and transforming didactic prose into elusive poetry… Especially when he reads [the words], in his frail but steadfast baritone, shaping the phrases and illuminating hidden meanings and poetic undercurrents in word jumbles that seem at first—and may still be, on the less important level of explication—meaningless, Mr. Cage attains a perfect synthesis of all that he is: soft-spoken backwoods storyteller, vanguard modernist, Zen master, kindly village preacher. Yet this is not mere accident: Mr. Cage is making art. And by any generous definition of what art is and can be, he is making beautiful music as well.

    —John Rockwell, New York Times Book Review

Book Details

  • 464 pages
  • 8 x 11 inches
  • Harvard University Press