Bern Porter, USA | 1911-2004

Memogram Correspondences

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Julie Lazar, who was working intensively with Cage at his death (on Rolywholyover A Circus, an exhibition-composition for museum designed by Cage), selected these letters from his voluminous correspondence. Cage replied personally to every letter he received, in keeping with his ideal of the meaning of citizenship. In the 1960s he began responding to the steady stream of inquiries on Memograms, small triplicate forms that not only provided a framework for his concise responses but also allowed him to maintain a record of each exchange. He sharpened his interest in whatever happened next (Duchamp's dictum) by listing his address and phone number in the Manhattan telephone directory. As he once said to an interviewer, "It is of the greatest urgency--even an ethical matter--that we be able to reach one another."

John Cage, who died on August 14, 1992, at the age of seventy nine, is most often identified as a composer, but the scope of his accomplishments defies categorization. Arnold Schonberg, with whom Cage studied as a young man, is reputed to have said that Cage was "not a composer but an inventor of genius." Cage often repeated this remark and took it as a compliment.

He was a composer who redefined the meaning of the word. Chance in a variety of forms--from ambient noise, to the I Ching, to computer-generated random sequences--played an increasing role in such compositions as Cage's works for prepared piano, the controversial, silent 4' 33'', his music for dance (as musical director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), and his operas. He was also the author of a number of books, among them Silence, a collection of essays that extended the influence of Zen Buddhism on the artistic vanguard of the sixties. He was involved in the visual arts as well: he worked with Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and he was closely associated with a group of artists (several of whom he met during his time at Black Mountain College) including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Ad Reinhardt (one of whose letters to Cage is reproduced here). And he was a visual artist in his own right, creating original graphic works, as well as musical scores of such elegance that they are prized as art objects.

Originally Published in Grand Street

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