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John Cage [Paperback]

Rob Haskins

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Book Description

June 15 2012 Reaktion Books - Critical Lives

American writer, composer, artist, and philosopher John Cage (1912–92) is best known for his experimental composition 4’33,” a musical score in which the performer does not play an instrument during the duration of the piece. The purpose, Cage said, was for the audience to listen to the sounds of the environment around them while the piece was performed. Groundbreaking pieces such as 4’33”, as well as Sonatas and Interludes not only established Cage as a leading figure in the postwar avant-garde movement, but also cemented the enduring controversy surrounding his work.

In this new biography, Rob Haskins explores Cage’s radical approach to art and aesthetics and his belief that everyday life and art are one and the same. Scrutinizing Cage’s emphasis on chance over intention, which rejected traditional artistic methods and caused an uproar among his peers, Haskins elucidates the ideas that lay behind these pillars of Cage’s work. Haskins also demystifies the influence of Eastern cultures, particularly Zen Buddhism, on Cage, including his use of the Chinese text I Ching as his standard composition tool in all his work after 1951. Adding to our understanding of the art, music, and ideas of the twentieth century, this book provides an engaging look at a man who continues to challenge and inspire artists worldwide.

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Review

“Haskins does a fine job of dealing with Cage’s many facets—his use of chance and thoughts about the ego and individualism, his flair for populism, his poetry and visual art—in much the same way he handles the Buddhist element: he deals with them intelligently and succinctly and then moves along. . . . Haskins does a laudably thorough job. It’s a quick, intelligent, and quite readable book.”
(New Music Box)

“[An] excellent introductory volume for the Reaktion Critical Lives series.”
(Times Literary Supplement)

“This excellent biography by Rob Haskins sweeps away any possibility of Cage being considered a joker. It illuminates the composer’s life and work and makes eminently clear the intellectual underpinning and circumstances of his multivarious activities. . . . This compact volume has plenty for the layperson and devotee alike. It is well laid out and the references and bibliography are excellent. The story of Cage’s life is fascinating and Haskins tells it well, clearly explaining the developments of the maverick composers musical ideas.”
(BBC Music magazine)

 “Rob Haskin . . . shows, with an often lovely turn of phrase, how brilliantly—and profoundly musically—Cage was able to apply Zen to the process of writing music.”
(Los Angeles Times)

 “[Haskins’] book is part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series and is a miracle of concision. A mere 180 pages, the book not only tells the story of Cage’s eventful life but also explores the composer’s use of chance, his interest in Zen Buddhism and the I Ching, his painting and his writings. Haskins deals with each in a deceptively easy manner. On closer inspection, his discussions are clearly distillations of wide knowledge. References, internet links, exhibition catalogues, bibliography and select discography are all impeccably managed. . . . Coming to Cage’s output for the first time via Haskins would be an informative and life-enhancing experience. For those of us who came in altogether more random a fashion (surely Cage would have approved?), Haskins would have saved us a lot of time.”
(Tempo)

“Haskins’ style is pleasingly crisp and transparent—the complexities and subtleties to which Cage sometimes seems to adhere are always clearly explained; yet without simplification. Where examples help to explain, they are chosen. . . . An ideal introduction and companion to the work, thinking and to some extent the influence of a composer whose place in music is still being assessed. Recommended.”
(Choice)

“Rob Haskins’ John Cage is not just another book on Cage; in various ways, Haskins manages to include in only 154 pages of main text more than other authors have covered in toms with many more pages. . . . The narration flows extremely smoothly, and the book is a good and enjoyable read. However, Haskins goes far beyond this: he gives us deep insights into various aspects of Cage’s oeuvre, not only the musical works, in the narrow sense, but also the literary and poetic examples of his aesthetic thinking, as well as his numerous visual art objects. . . . This volume is a crucial contribution to Cage scholarship; in its compact form it should be bought by any library that wants to provide the best possible introduction to Cage’s oeuvre in all its expressions and manifestations.”
(Notes)

About the Author

Rob Haskins is assistant professor in the Department of Music and the University of New Hampshire, Durham. He is the author of Anarchic Societies of Sounds: The Number Pieces of John Cage.


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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book on Cage, a model of critical thought Aug. 5 2012
By George Grella - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This new, slim, beautifully thought and written book on John Cage is the first book anyone interested in Cage's life and work should turn to. It's also a model for what a 'critical life' should be.

Haskins explains in his introduction that he finds the experience of playing Cage's music beautiful, and then goes on to elucidate the path to and means of that beautify in Cage's career. He loves Cage, and out of that love is willing to think critically about the man and the composer, an essential feature. There was no one like Cage, and he was one of the most important artists in the history of civilization, but that does not mean that every though he had was good, nor that every piece he made was successful, that made sense even on his own terms, and Haskins is clear about this.

Haskins depth of knowledge is impressive, but the book is not weighty. He expresses important and difficult concepts clearly and ties them in directly to Cage's actual practice and experience. The biographical details are cogent but brief, and Haskins emphasizes the flow and change of Cage's musical output. He doesn't fetishize "4',33"" and the "Sonatas and Interludes," but identifies the truly fertile periods of Cage's work, and makes lucid critical judgements on what pieces stand in the first rank of achievement. Throughout, he has great intellectual and emotional affection for Cage, but it never clouds his thinking or his writing. The best single book on Cage that has been published.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Dec 25 2012
By Louie Goldstein - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the best Cage biography for the general reader who wants a concise introduction to the full spectrum of Cage's thoughts and accomplishments. There is no need for the reader to be able to read music in order to follow the discussions about music, no need to be an accomplished reader of poetry in order to understand the discussions of poetry, and ditto for the references to visual art, various East Asian philosophies, and all the other topics that need to be encompassed in a thorough introduction to this amazing man.

I used Haskins' biography as a text in a college course on John Cage. In the final class evaluations, 80% of the students gave this book the highest possible rating for "the textbook made a valuable contribution." The remainder of the responses were at the second highest level. And yet this book is also an interesting read for someone well-versed in Cage scholarship, for Haskins spices his concoction with his own opinions (always well-defined as opinions). Cage is fascinating simply in terms of his own biography, but Haskins actually likes the music, the poetry, and the art that he is dealing with, and is a compelling advocate for the work itself.

Just a brief mention of the "one star" review here. It is mostly about another matter entirely, having nothing to do with the Haskins biography. It also criticizes Haskins for a book he has not yet written.
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