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Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 19, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

John Cage, whose pieces dazzled and confounded audiences for six decades, hardly seems the easiest of subjects for the biographer, but this is a well-researched, coherent, quite readable account of the composer and his work. What comes across is a man who was ferociously driven to create music and to promote it to those who could most effectively advance it. Cage was an iconoclast, yet he developed relationships—often symbiotic—with some of the iconic artists of the past century, including Arnold Schoenberg, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Pierre Boulez, Robert Rauschenberg, and longtime companion Merce Cunningham. What also comes across is a humanity and openness that served Cage well in his personal life and his work, personified in his advice to young percussion student Cunningham: “You were playing everything absolutely perfectly. Now go a little further and make a few mistakes.” --Alan Moores

Review


"Begin Again is a much more nuanced picture of Cage’s personal life than has currently been available . . . What emerges most powerfully is Cage’s enormous capacity for work, together with his exceptional self-discipline as an artist and his willingness to approach every new challenge with a ‘beginner’s mind.’ For this alone it is a book worthy of being read by anyone, young or old, who is faced with the daunting task of a new creative beginning." —John Adams, The New York Times Book Review

"The life of Cage is meticulously told." —The New Yorker

"Outstanding." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Arty connoisseurs might find the definitive John Cage biography, Begin Again, by Kenneth Silverman, thrilling."
–James Hannaham, Village Voice, Holiday Gift Books for Any Kind of Troublesome Friend

"Excellent, thoroughly researched . . . The first in-depth, detailed account of Cage's rich and colorful life . . . Silverman's prose is lively and occasionally mirrors Cage's own wit." --Library Journal (starred review)

“Since his death almost two decades ago, Cage's influence has increased to the point where he is now seen as one of the major creative spirits of his age. This marvelous biography brings into focus the many elusive facets of his music, and situates them against the background of his personal life and the seething cultural currents of the era.” —John Ashbery
 
“Silverman’s artful narrative lays bare Cage’s compositional processes, aesthetic posturing and the cross-cultural philosophical underpinnings to his work with a clarity that musicologists and art historians have yet to achieve.  Not just an exemplary biography, but a significant contribution to the cultural history of American music.”—Kirkus, starred review
 
“John Cage, whose pieces dazzled and confounded audiences for six decades, hardly seems the easiest of subjects for the biographer, but this is a well-researched, coherent, quite readable account of the composer and his work.”  —Alan Moores, Booklist  
 
“John Cage, a master of musical modernism, meets Kenneth Silverman, a master of the biographical art.  Cage, the most innovative composer of recent times, comes freshly alive in Kenneth Silverman’s magisterial biography.  Silverman distills an astonishing amount of information in an engaging, fluid narrative that brings alive every facet of John Cage’s life—his loves, his friendships, his career, and his path-blazing experiments with sound.   Cage expanded music, and Silverman considerably expands our knowledge of Cage by interweaving fascinating new details of his everyday life with insightful accounts of his musical maturation. A gripping, ceaselessly revelatory biography.” —David S. Reynolds, author of Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson and Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.
 
Begin Again is a glittering manifestation of the biographer’s craft. With impeccable aim and pitch-perfect tone, Kenneth Silverman has curated the crowded, cacophonous, frenetic and fractured details of modernist master John Cage’s life into a witty and sensuous literary exhibition. Readers will feel privileged to attend the gala opening of this cosmopolitan show—performance art between two covers!” —Neil Baldwin, author of Man Ray: American Artist



 

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400044375
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400044375
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,237,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am very impressed by the amount of research the author has accomplished. As far as I know, he has found and used sources noone else has mentioned before. Yet, I find most of this new information nonessential and, at times, unnecessary. Although he seems to be a great admirer of Cage, he doesn't give the impression that he is familiar with the essence of the arguments. I got the impression that he has collected the biographical material, put all in chronological order and composed a narrative which cannot really hide this mechanical organization in the background: you often read a somewhat detailed description of a work (without much focus on the ideas behind it), followed by the introduction of a person who became a friend of Cage (with no significant role in his creativity) or by some gossipy information. The titles of the sections reflect this mechanical chronology: "Health; Xenia; New Quarrel with Teeny," for example. Another example: if the author has found a letter to or from Cage, that letter gets mentioned at its place in the chronology no matter how irrelevant or unnecessary it may be.

This book can serve as further reading material for those who want to know a bit more about Cage (mostly as a person). For those who are looking for a better biography of John Cage, I would recommend David Revill's "The Roaring Silence" (his approach is not very objective and there seem to be some minute errors in chronology but the information is much more relevant). Apart from Cage's own "Silence" and "A Year from Monday," I would highly recommend "Conversing with Cage" by Richard Kostelanetz: it is a book compiled from many interviews given by Cage and contains lots of good information (in Cage's own words).
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Format: Hardcover
It's hard to understand from this book how Mr. Silverman ever won a Pulitzer. This is a flaccidly written, amazingly uninteresting biography of one of America's greatest and most influential artistic thinkers. I have the following specific objections (in no particular order):

(1) An overly leering tone. The author seems to have an adolescent fascination with sexual matters. Most adult readers, however, don't really want to know about individuals' pubic area moles or choice of specific sexual positions.

(2) Nothing in this book convinces me that the author has ever heard a single note of Cage's music -- or any other music, for that matter. (Of course I'm sure he must have, but it doesn't come through in his book.) There is nothing indicating any depth of musical understanding, or even a particular love of music on the author's part.

(3) Too much interest in journalistic reviews. I haven't counted to prove the point, but I suspect more words are devoted to describing what critics wrote about Cage's music than to the music itself.

(4) An apparent unwillingness to understand anything remotely technical. At various places in the book, the author refers to semi-technical engineering and music matters with a baffled tone more appropriate for an anti-intellectual making fun of "big words" than for an NYU professor.

(5) There is little if anything new in this book. Nothing suggestive of reflective probing or careful original research. Why did it need to be written?
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Format: Hardcover
As another reviewer said, this is a somewhat impersonal biography. It gives details of many things that Cage did, including just about every piece of music he ever composed, but I came away not really understanding Cage as a person. It's not clear - other than the fact that his father was an inventor - what prompted him to follow the beat of his own drummer. I'd have liked to know more about Cage the human being, not the chance-operated music-making machine.

John Cage was a fascinating man, and I met him in 1987, to interview him for a journal I worked on about the I Ching. We discussed his compositional process, which was, in fact, quite sterile. But he was one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. Just sitting and talking with him for an hour, in has apartment on 18th street, was a moving experience. (And I wasn't, then, very much interested in his music.)

Everyone who's met Cage says the same thing: when you spoke with him, you were his entire world. He was a wise man - at least in his later years - friendly, open, generous, and willing to talk to almost everyone. I was looking, in this biography, for something that would help me understand how he became that way. (There are some clues in Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists; see my review of that book.)

This said, if you do want all of the major signposts of Cage's career, as a composer, writer, and visual artist, this is a good book. It's readable and interesting, but it just doesn't get to the heart of the man.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Having just finished Begin Again, I feel compelled to write a review. There have been some damning reviews of this book, speaking of over-emphasis on Cage's sex life and not enough details for a musical scholar to appreciate. I found the opposite to be the case. This was an extremely well-written book and covered just the right amount of Cage's life, his relationships and his music. Musical scholars may want to use this as a starting point for more in-depth analysis of the great composer's works. I found the book to be interesting, in-depth, and it captured Cage's personality and the way he approached the world which is probably the crux of a good biography. I am an avid music listener and player who knew little more than the basics about John Cage and I appreciate the way that Silverman handled this book. Several places in the book I would earmark for more in-depth study of the music and art that was addressed in the various periods of Cage's life.

The main problem with any book about a composer or artist is the same as the problem I see when watching a TV show about cooking--you can't taste the food, you can't hear the music. That being said, Silverman delivers an extremely well-written biography of a very important artist.
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