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Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage

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John Cage was a man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents: musician, inventor, composer, poet. He became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Now award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. We follow Cage fr John Cage was a man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents: musician, inventor, composer, poet. He became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Now award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. We follow Cage from his Los Angeles childhood—his father was a successful inventor—through his stay in Paris from 1930 to 1931, where immersion in the burgeoning new musical and artistic movements triggered an explosion of creativity in him and, after his return to the States, into his studies with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg. We see Cage’s early experiments with sound and percussion instruments, and watch as he develops his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. We learn of his many friendships over the years with other composers, artists, philosophers, and writers; of his early marriage and several lovers, both female and male; and of his long relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he would collaborate on radically unusual dances that continue to influence the worlds of both music and dance. Drawing on interviews with Cage’s contemporaries and friends and on the enormous archive of his letters and writings, and including photographs, facsimiles of musical scores, and Web links to illustrative sections of his compositions, Silverman gives us a biography of major significance: a revelatory portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century.


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John Cage was a man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents: musician, inventor, composer, poet. He became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Now award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. We follow Cage fr John Cage was a man of extraordinary and seemingly limitless talents: musician, inventor, composer, poet. He became a central figure of the avant-garde early in his life and remained at that pinnacle until his death in 1992 at the age of eighty. Now award-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman gives us the first comprehensive life of this remarkable artist. We follow Cage from his Los Angeles childhood—his father was a successful inventor—through his stay in Paris from 1930 to 1931, where immersion in the burgeoning new musical and artistic movements triggered an explosion of creativity in him and, after his return to the States, into his studies with the seminal modern composer Arnold Schoenberg. We see Cage’s early experiments with sound and percussion instruments, and watch as he develops his signature work with prepared piano, radio static, random noise, and silence. We learn of his many friendships over the years with other composers, artists, philosophers, and writers; of his early marriage and several lovers, both female and male; and of his long relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he would collaborate on radically unusual dances that continue to influence the worlds of both music and dance. Drawing on interviews with Cage’s contemporaries and friends and on the enormous archive of his letters and writings, and including photographs, facsimiles of musical scores, and Web links to illustrative sections of his compositions, Silverman gives us a biography of major significance: a revelatory portrait of one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century.

30 review for Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage

  1. 4 out of 5

    Herb

    For readers who don't already know much about John Cage or new music generally, Kenneth Silverman's book may be an adequate introduction to a modern composer who is often mentioned but little understood. Silverman brings together information from many previous published sources as well as some fresh biographical insights drawn from many interviews. The writing style is rather dull, but if you're just looking for the basics, this book might do the trick. I'm sorry to report though, as someone who For readers who don't already know much about John Cage or new music generally, Kenneth Silverman's book may be an adequate introduction to a modern composer who is often mentioned but little understood. Silverman brings together information from many previous published sources as well as some fresh biographical insights drawn from many interviews. The writing style is rather dull, but if you're just looking for the basics, this book might do the trick. I'm sorry to report though, as someone who has worked in the field for many years, that I was hoping for a lot more. The discussions of specific compositions by Cage often lack depth and are at times so simplified that they're inaccurate. And given the number of people who Silverman lists as being interviewed for the book, there just doesn't seem to be enough news here. This last point is especially sad. Cage himself would have been 100 years old in September 2012, and many peers from the early stages of his career are no longer alive. There are many composers, performers, and artists now in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who had crucial relationships with Cage that Silverman doesn't seem to have talked with. By the time someone else attempts another general biography of John Cage, many of these people younger than Cage may be dead as well.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marc Weidenbaum

    That's funny. When I tried to click on this book in the Goodreads interface, I accidentally hit the "Begin Again" above it. (There are a lot of books with "Begin Again" in the title. Who knew?) The one above it is "How to Forgive Ourselves -- Totally: Begin Again by Breaking Free from Past Mistakes" by one R.T. Kendall. In a word: Oy. Anyhow, this is very much a biography of the great composer and thinker. It's light on musicological or sonic insight, but rich with a chronology of the life of Ca That's funny. When I tried to click on this book in the Goodreads interface, I accidentally hit the "Begin Again" above it. (There are a lot of books with "Begin Again" in the title. Who knew?) The one above it is "How to Forgive Ourselves -- Totally: Begin Again by Breaking Free from Past Mistakes" by one R.T. Kendall. In a word: Oy. Anyhow, this is very much a biography of the great composer and thinker. It's light on musicological or sonic insight, but rich with a chronology of the life of Cage, who met more people than most of us have as friends on Facebook. Chestnuts like the anechoic chamber incident and 4'33" get perhaps surprisingly brief coverage, as the book, despite being nearly 500 pages long, moves at a fast pace.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Djll

    I'm enjoying it. I don't need this book to tell me about Cage's music, just the progress of his life. For that it works fine. I'm enjoying it. I don't need this book to tell me about Cage's music, just the progress of his life. For that it works fine.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Will

    Provides an adequate, well documented, and interesting summary of the life events of this fascinating and influential American composer. Unfortunately, what it DOESN'T provide, is any in-depth insight into Cage's thinking, his philosophy, his raison d'être. It only hints at it now and again. So it basically ignores, leaves out, what I think would be the most critical and interesting aspect of Cage's life. I have to mention that one of the biggest highlights of my early "career" as a free-lance mu Provides an adequate, well documented, and interesting summary of the life events of this fascinating and influential American composer. Unfortunately, what it DOESN'T provide, is any in-depth insight into Cage's thinking, his philosophy, his raison d'être. It only hints at it now and again. So it basically ignores, leaves out, what I think would be the most critical and interesting aspect of Cage's life. I have to mention that one of the biggest highlights of my early "career" as a free-lance music critic, writing for the Bellevue Journal-American (now defunct) in the early 1980's was the chance to interview Cage during one of his visits to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle. A fascinating man. As delineated in this book, much of his music used chance operations. He frequently used the I Ching to determine all kinds of parameters in his compositions, and eventually worked with computer programmers to automate the process of making sometimes literally thousands of chance-based decisions. At the same time, he was strongly adverse to "improvisation" which a casual thinker might assume was congruent to chance. Not at all, in his philosophy. I wish that the author spent more time investigating these kinds of philosophical aspects to Cage's thought and motivations. Of course, there may be good reason for that. The documentation that would allow for that kind of study may just not be available. If so, that's too bad. This book does a good job of presenting the "what" of John Cage's life, but not the "why."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    An amazing portrait of not just Cage, but also the worlds he lived in. My favorite was Silverman's portrayal of 40s-70s New York City; libertines and artistes and socialites all mixing together around truly weird art and music. An amazing portrait of not just Cage, but also the worlds he lived in. My favorite was Silverman's portrayal of 40s-70s New York City; libertines and artistes and socialites all mixing together around truly weird art and music.

  6. 5 out of 5

    John

    First a caveat: when I began this volume, I knew very little about John Cage. I had heard a concert with a prepared piano piece, and also had heard of 4'33". I was not aware of his commitments to indeterminacy and anarchy. I had heard of this book, and how its title had come from how John Cage would rigorously pursue a given project, and then completing it, quickly throw himself into another unrelated project with equal vigor. Despite the fact that this book did not really show the development o First a caveat: when I began this volume, I knew very little about John Cage. I had heard a concert with a prepared piano piece, and also had heard of 4'33". I was not aware of his commitments to indeterminacy and anarchy. I had heard of this book, and how its title had come from how John Cage would rigorously pursue a given project, and then completing it, quickly throw himself into another unrelated project with equal vigor. Despite the fact that this book did not really show the development of any of these particular projects at a human scale, breaking an artistic project down so John Cage's day could be understood, it did give a picture of the scale of his life, with the sheer volume of projects following each other. I did find the book an enjoyable read, due to Kenneth Silverman's strong pacing and Cage's mostly pleasant personality. If any lesson can be learned from this book, even if if one is pursuing what one might consider very questionable ideas, like composing music entirely by chance and writing volumes of "mesostics" (acrostics not constrained to align at the first letter), followed to completion with conviction, and with continuing follow-up and development, yields a satisfying career. I think also it heartening to a person who is still developing their work. I was not even half of the way through when Cage crossed his fortieth birthday, which reassures me about what one still might do. I was also very pleased to learn of Cage's involvement with UIUC, where he unveiled HPSCHD, of which seems oddly little remarked there today.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Carol Surges

    Capturing the essence of John Cage is like trapping a jumping spider, requiring constant vigilance in order to follow the rapid changes in direction. Reading this chronological summary of Cage’s life and activities left me winded and in awe of his amazing creative talent. His wide-ranging interests, his long list of accomplishments and his unending curiosity and verve all while remaining vigilant to his ego-less philosophy. For anyone with a simple understanding of his life as a composer/musicia Capturing the essence of John Cage is like trapping a jumping spider, requiring constant vigilance in order to follow the rapid changes in direction. Reading this chronological summary of Cage’s life and activities left me winded and in awe of his amazing creative talent. His wide-ranging interests, his long list of accomplishments and his unending curiosity and verve all while remaining vigilant to his ego-less philosophy. For anyone with a simple understanding of his life as a composer/musician, this read will open new vistas on his many talents: writer, poet, promoter, organizer, friend to many of the art world’s most famous, artist, mycologist, Zen Buddhist, philanthropist, benefactor and much more. Silverman’s meticulous research is well documented and that alone is a feat: culling through the massive amounts of Cage’s letters, recordings, articles and books in a variety of collections across the country plus contacting and interviewing the numbers of Cage’s still living colleagues and acquaintances. For anyone needing to come up to speed on this wonder of the 20th century, this title will match the requirement – but come prepared for those 180 degree turns.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Will

    This is a fantastic account of one of the 20th century's most engaged artistic minds. Silverman describes the ever-evolving artistic process and aesthetics of John Cage through the lens of many of his important works of classical composition, poetry, and visual art. Cage constantly rewrites his own motivations and ambitions in various media, and, in turn, rewrote the scope of what art could be. His early work in music gave rise to percussion-based classical, noise, and off-the-deep-end conceptual This is a fantastic account of one of the 20th century's most engaged artistic minds. Silverman describes the ever-evolving artistic process and aesthetics of John Cage through the lens of many of his important works of classical composition, poetry, and visual art. Cage constantly rewrites his own motivations and ambitions in various media, and, in turn, rewrote the scope of what art could be. His early work in music gave rise to percussion-based classical, noise, and off-the-deep-end conceptual composition. Many of his ideas involved separating the artist and the process of creating art from the art itself--nothing short of sheer revolution. Though the writing is not ornamental, the biography pulls you along, if anything to find out what sort of aesthetic tomfoolery Cage will get up to next. To an extent, the text shies away from deep exploration of the artist's personal life, focusing instead on Cage's considerable output and effect on American and international cultural life and assumptions. Fascinating and inspiring, Begin Again is a must-read for anyone interested in the avant-garde, counterculture, or extraordinary individuals.

  9. 5 out of 5

    John Berry

    Maybe it wasn't fair to come into this on the heels of reading Robert Caro's mythic bio "Master of the Senate," but I found this kind of a snooze. Cage had a truly singular and very unusual life, but Silverman basically reduces it to a sequence of dull descriptions of what were certainly very interesting times. I wanted more passion, more opinion, and more analysis from the author, who mostly stays away from criticism of any kind in this work. I definitely appreciated the exhaustive detail of al Maybe it wasn't fair to come into this on the heels of reading Robert Caro's mythic bio "Master of the Senate," but I found this kind of a snooze. Cage had a truly singular and very unusual life, but Silverman basically reduces it to a sequence of dull descriptions of what were certainly very interesting times. I wanted more passion, more opinion, and more analysis from the author, who mostly stays away from criticism of any kind in this work. I definitely appreciated the exhaustive detail of all of Cage's many, many important works though, and I feel ready to dive in and listen now.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    I couldn't bring myself to read this from cover to cover, but spot read some amazing details about Cage and chance operations/I-Ching; relationships with other artists, etc.; his time as a visiting research professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (who knew? he organized a crazy huge happening at the stock pavilion and collaborated on a composition using ILLIAC); and his interest in mushroom hunting! I couldn't bring myself to read this from cover to cover, but spot read some amazing details about Cage and chance operations/I-Ching; relationships with other artists, etc.; his time as a visiting research professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (who knew? he organized a crazy huge happening at the stock pavilion and collaborated on a composition using ILLIAC); and his interest in mushroom hunting!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Madison

    Begin Again was a disappointment. Silverman glosses over interesting details of Cage's life and personality. Cage's whimsy, charisma and charm are largely lost in Silverman's representation. He also misses the mark describing many of Cage's musical compositions. Begin Again was a disappointment. Silverman glosses over interesting details of Cage's life and personality. Cage's whimsy, charisma and charm are largely lost in Silverman's representation. He also misses the mark describing many of Cage's musical compositions.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Schlatter

    Fascinating and very helpful overview of Cage's life and influence. But, it's a very dry read and features more about music composition and theory than I expected. Had to force myself to finish it, but I'm glad I did. Fascinating and very helpful overview of Cage's life and influence. But, it's a very dry read and features more about music composition and theory than I expected. Had to force myself to finish it, but I'm glad I did.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jae Choi

    I didn’t like neither his writing style nor the somewhat dry, roundabout discussions of his compositional techniques and pieces, but the biography nonetheless retains moments of wonderful insight and inspiration. The last few pages dedicated to responses to Cage’s passing were moving.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joel

    GIves a good idea of John Cage's life, and to a lesser extent his works. However, the writing itself is rather dry and impersonal. GIves a good idea of John Cage's life, and to a lesser extent his works. However, the writing itself is rather dry and impersonal.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    A workmanlike, straightforward chronology of the life of the man ahead of the avant-guard as it screamed through the 20th century.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Kenneth Silverman's writing is atrocious. John Cage is rad. Kenneth Silverman's writing is atrocious. John Cage is rad.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    Does what a biography of an artist should do: gives you the events of the life in clear concise fashion; provides a tour of the work with occasional forays into the details; lets you know why he mattered. I'm in the camp of those who consider Cage the most influential 20th century American modernist/post-modernist artist. He touched visual artists, film makers, poets, "serious" composers, rock and rollers including Frank Zappa and the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. And by all accounts, Cage w Does what a biography of an artist should do: gives you the events of the life in clear concise fashion; provides a tour of the work with occasional forays into the details; lets you know why he mattered. I'm in the camp of those who consider Cage the most influential 20th century American modernist/post-modernist artist. He touched visual artists, film makers, poets, "serious" composers, rock and rollers including Frank Zappa and the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. And by all accounts, Cage was just a good person, handling his notoriety with good humor and the right mix of humor and determination. Kay Larson's Where the Heart Beats gives a better sense of Cage's wide-ranging importance, but Begin Again's an excellent companion.

  18. 4 out of 5

    George

    Kenneth Silverman takes an incredible subject, and all of the content around him, and boils it down into a digestable narrative and character for John Cage. I did not always find his prose crisp, and sometimes the jumps between sections could be a little jarring, but for a person with no musical background, I found this easy to follow and, even with the occasional deep-dive into musical theory and notation, I still was riveted by the sheer breadth of innovations that Cage developed over his life Kenneth Silverman takes an incredible subject, and all of the content around him, and boils it down into a digestable narrative and character for John Cage. I did not always find his prose crisp, and sometimes the jumps between sections could be a little jarring, but for a person with no musical background, I found this easy to follow and, even with the occasional deep-dive into musical theory and notation, I still was riveted by the sheer breadth of innovations that Cage developed over his lifetime. A good coverage of Cage's life, overall, with a lot of material for the musically oriented and the more casual reader.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cobertizo

    "No hay UN centro. La vida es un 'circo': pluralidad de centros. Cage es sólo alguien que crea actividades positivas: 'musicircus'. Tan interesado por la variedad como por los hongos, Cage devora las cosas más distintas para crear situaciones-circo. La música se convierte en vuelo: 'que los sonidos surjan en cualquier punto del espacio, sorprendiéndonos, como cuando caminamos por bosques o calles de una ciudad'. También escuchamos con los pies. La música deviene una febril y fértil danza" John Ca "No hay UN centro. La vida es un 'circo': pluralidad de centros. Cage es sólo alguien que crea actividades positivas: 'musicircus'. Tan interesado por la variedad como por los hongos, Cage devora las cosas más distintas para crear situaciones-circo. La música se convierte en vuelo: 'que los sonidos surjan en cualquier punto del espacio, sorprendiéndonos, como cuando caminamos por bosques o calles de una ciudad'. También escuchamos con los pies. La música deviene una febril y fértil danza" John Cage (1985). Llorenç Barber

  20. 5 out of 5

    Paschalis

    elibrary

  21. 4 out of 5

    David Ryan

    A man of extraordinary talents. A long-time favorite musician and composer who established many new boundaries for contemporary music and culture. A fascinating figure deservedly well documented.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Shane C

    these book is so action packed!!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jelena Bruncevic

  24. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  25. 4 out of 5

    Foolianajarley

  26. 4 out of 5

    Erevis

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sara

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daksha

  29. 4 out of 5

    Grant Faulkner

  30. 5 out of 5

    John B

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