Loving Portraits: James Klosty's John Cage Was

American composer John (Milton) Cage, (1912 - 1992), who had a profound influence on avant-garde music and dance. Works inclu
American composer John (Milton) Cage, (1912 - 1992), who had a profound influence on avant-garde music and dance. Works include 4'33 (1953) and 'Amores' (1943) where objects placed between strings modify the sounds of the piano. Original Publication: People Disc - HC0520 (Photo by H V Drees/Getty Images)

A highly social individual, as well as one of the most influential experimental composers and theoreticians of the postwar period, John Cage touched the lives of many important artists, influencing their work, their process, or simply their memory. It is this aspect of Cage, the impact he had on others, which is investigated in a recent book of photographs and reflections, John Cage Was, photographed and edited by James Klosty, published by Wesleyan University Press.

Despite the many mischaracterizations and misunderstanding of his work, John Cage has come to be seen, especially by those in the avant garde music and art worlds, as especially important. He is famous for his experimental music and for his use chance operations to create something wholly new with a focus on sound itself as the instrument, an interest in percussion, electronics, and environmental sound, and decrease in emphasis on melody, harmony, and traditional composition. He was also a great theoretician. Many see his enjoyable philosophical treatises, lectures, and his experimental methodology as arguably more important than his actual musical accomplishments.

John Cage Was, by photographer James Klosty, famous for his images of Cage as well as his collaborator and partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, features his photographs of Cage between the years 1967 and 1972 as well as reflections on the composer from various important figures from the arts.

Perhaps following Cage's interest in creating a structure that would allow chance to occur naturally within it, Klosty stipulated two rules about what needed to be included in these written pieces. Firstly, they were required to be 100 words or less. Secondly, the pieces needed to contain the phrase, 'John Cage was.' There are a couple of exceptions to this, including a piece written by Octavio Paz many years earlier. The contributors include composers, musicians, dancers, and artists. All claim to have been influenced by Cage and most remember him fondly.

Cage's benign personality comes alive through the affection many of the writers express in language that reaches for poetry. One of the most moving is, in fact, a poem, Anne Waldman's "Under the Sun," an especially beautiful eulogy:

John Cage was for us as poetics arrived in pure perfection, turned and never stammered to listen, John Cage was metabolic twin listener. [...] John Cage was a culture, gaps in the cave to know Neanderthal. Hours with him, a boon.

Another such telling tribute comes from composer John Luther Adams. Adams, distilling Cage's legacy down to its simplest forms, offers a haiku-like description that anyone can understand:

Cage reminds us that sounds in music can be as free as they are in nature. And when we are listening, the whole world is music.

Teeny Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp's widow, offers some fascinating insights into the couple's friendship with Cage. They both played chess with Cage for many years (Marcel famously gave up art for chess in 1924) and Teeny continued to play with Cage after her husband's death.

John Cage was like a big sunflower with a thousand seeds. He created his own energy like the sun, very generous, never thinking of himself but always true to himself.

A notable exception to these lyric appreciations is Steven Sondheim's. He seems to be reaching for anything nice to say, and mentions only that Cage's interest in what Sondheim regrettably refers to as 'Oriental sounds' had some tangential effect on one of his compositions.

Judging anything that has to do with John Cage is a slippery proposition. Cage didn't care much for notions of objective quality and battled against any idea of masterworks or canon. To the chagrin of many of his contemporaries, even those in the avant garde, he disdained great composers including Bach and Beethoven. His music is difficult and not always a pleasure to experience. Cage's focus was on process. It was always more important than the end result.

He probably would have loved John Cage Was, because it has an experimental quality in its jumbled up messiness, its creative use of typography, its length, and its repetition. For the reader without a dedicated interest in Cage or much patience, these aspects may become distracting, even annoying.

Despite the array of interesting and well-written pieces in the book, taken together they may not add up to more than the sum of their parts. Many of Klosty's contributors talk about how nice he was, his interest in mushrooms, or his love of cooking and their pieces begin to become increasingly hard to tell apart. Some of the sections, handwritten or with constantly changing and shifting typeface, are difficult to read. Finally, the book itself feels very long, to the point where I found myself skimming over passages and having to double back. While these elements may be fine in isolation, taken in aggregate they may begin to grate on the reader.

There is a similar repetitive quality in the selection of photographs. There is no seeming logic to their order and there are too many almost identical images of Cage at the piano or during composition, rehearsal, or performance. Because of this, I have trouble recalling any one in particular without going back and looking again at the book. In the introduction, Klosty mentions that he hardly ever saw the composer not working, and this comes through perhaps a bit too literally in his final selection.

Nonetheless, many of photographs offer a greater insight, especially those showing him relaxed or engaged in social activities away from the rehearsal space or concert hall. They reveal his habits and personality, not only his love of chess and mushrooms, but the friendliness and social generosity that went along with his intensity. Best are the images of Cage laughing, showing the side of him most memorable from the book, his love of life and kindness.

Much of Cage's work is associated with the 1960s, and Klosty's photographs can fall into that period's photographic clichés: grainy, high contrast, and with the edginess of the street photography aesthetic. They are nonetheless very visually striking. He has captured some of the most famous images of the composer, familiar from books and album covers, becoming, like the stories of mushroom gathering, chess, and musical provocation, synonymous with Cage himself.

Perhaps a shorter book more rigorously edited book would have been more effective. At the same time, Klosty's presentation of these images and memories offers an immediacy and closeness to Cage that stands out from the immense volume of written work on him, much of which is purely biographical or scholarly and therefore distanced from the man himself.