The following FEATURE was written for the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, DC. It is copyrighted and appears in its original publication here. While links TO this FEATURE from other sites are welcome, the FEATURE itself may not be reprinted for any reason without express agreement in writing from the copyright holder/author. Please contact Stacie Birky Greene to facilitate this.


by Don Gillespie – John Cage's Editor at publisher C.F. Peters Corporation, New York

I first heard the name John Cage in an undergraduate music history class at the University of Georgia in the late ‘50s. My elderly teacher, who adored Palestrina above all, unexpectedly, but not disapprovingly, told us about a composer who placed all sorts of objects on the piano strings thus altering its sounds. As a piano student, attracted to Bartók, Hindemith and soon to Ives’ Concord Sonata, this sounded fascinating. But I never heard Cage’s music at that time.

As a musicology student at the University of North Carolina in the late ‘60s, I finally heard a number of Cage’s prepared piano and percussion works, and was immediately hooked. On a program of 20th century American music, which I and three friends organized in 1970, we ended our concert with a serious performance of 4'33'' performed on flute, clarinet, piano and harpsichord. Although the audience shouted “encore!”, we denied them that pleasure.

I moved to New York in late 1970 to finish my dissertation on John J. Becker and luckily got a job at C. F. Peters Corporation, billing, assisting in the rental department and proofreading music to be printed.  The “Peters composer” I most wanted to meet, having just read Richard Kostelanetz’s 1970 compilation John Cage, was – yes, John Cage. I was astonished to find that Cage himself often worked at Peters, where his letraset collection was stored, and where he had composed much of his Song Books. He was in fact then composing his Sixty-Two Mesostics re Merce Cunningham, as I recall. I suppose Cage could recognize an enthusiastic fan when he saw one! At any rate, I gradually gained his trust and he eventually regarded me as the person to phone about most problems with his music. I think that Cage recognized that, after the death in 1969 of Walter Hinrichsen, who had accepted and embraced all his music, the publishing house’s catalogue was gradually becoming more reflective of strictly organized pitch compositions and twelve tone music, and was slowly moving away from the strong influence of John Cage on its production schedule. My first impression? Despite his celebrity, he was the one composer who did not intimidate me at all. It was the nature of his personality to make one feel relaxed and at ease.

During the ensuing twenty-two years I had the privilege of seeing his works being created and performed. It was an incredible adventure for me. How surprised I was in 1972 when he invited me to perform as one of the 20 pianists at the Steinway building for Hans G. Helms’ film of Winter Music. And he gave me the piano next to his own! In 1973, Jim Burton and I organized two Cage concerts that initiated the reopening of the Kitchen at Broome and Wooster Streets in New York. The concerts featured the first performance of Speech, the New York City premiere of Bird Cage, an exciting performance of the Concert for Piano (with Philip Corner as pianist) and a host of “downtown” participating performers and composers. The second concert ended with a mushroom buffet feast, with fresh mushrooms from the Essex Street Market. Cage and Cunningham and many of their painter and dance friends were delighted.

I edited a number of works in the ‘70s (Sonata for Clarinet, Three Pieces for Flute Duet, etc.). But, in fact, there was very little “editing” to do with these facsimiles of his music, for Cage was perhaps the most fastidious proofreader I ever met in the publishing business. I recall how a wrong street address I discovered in his Forty-Nine Waltzes for the Five Boroughs (1977) upset him so much that he spent many hours going over the whole map of New York City, checking the street addresses carefully again. (This was a piece for performers or listeners or record makers, listing 147 chance-derived addresses in New York City arranged in groups of three – hence “waltzes”. )  

For his seventieth birthday in 1982, I was responsible for putting together A John Cage Reader (reprints of essays from Jonathan Brent’s and Peter Gena’s TriQuarterly  magazine collection, plus new essays, musical and art pages, and supplementary material.) Cage received the first copy on the day of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge (5-25-83), and wrote a mesostic for me in the middle of the night in which he noted the bridge’s fireworks, the flotilla, etc., as being ephemeral and ended with, “what’ll last ‘re my books!”

In 1979, I was appointed head of copyright and rights clearance at Peters and my responsibilities towards Cage’s music assumed a different direction: licensing his music to film producers, record companies, authorizing reprints in books, etc. In this connection, I was especially proud of one development.  Since 1960 his television piece Sounds of Venice (the companion piece to Italian TV’s 1959 Water Walk) had languished in silence, for reasons unknown to me. It turned out to be a copyright problem.  The tape accompaniment to the solo TV performer’s part contained snippets of the well-known Italian pop song “Come Prima”. It was rewarding to clear this with the Italian publisher (for a fee of course) and see the piece come alive again.

There are too many experiences to be touched on here: the premiere of Renga with Apartment House 1776, the world premiere of Europeras 1 & 2 in Frankfurt in 1987 (preceded by the disastrous fire at the Old Opera), the advent of the “Number Pieces” in 1987. I’ll never forget how Cage phoned me about Two for flute and piano, commissioned by an Italian duo. The I Ching had unfortunately given the pianist a meaty part while the flutist had only a few tones. Would the flutist be offended? “I don’t think so, they’ll be honored,” I answered. And how, when the first newly engraved copies of Living Room Music (1940) arrived from the printer, and we asked Cage how many copies he needed, he replied, smiling as he stepped into the elevator, “None. I don’t have a living room.”

Cage’s sudden death in August 1992 affected everyone dramatically. I had to go over to Madison Square Park (near Peters) and sit for several hours trying to absorb the news. My tribute to his memory was the video-taping (with Roberta Friedman and Gene Caprioglio) of all the locations of 49 Waltzes, done throughout 1994. With durations determined from Cage’s own computerized I Ching software, we wanted the work to reflect how his city looked near to the time of his death. Mode Records issued the work on DVD.

It is gratifying to see that Cage’s music has not only survived, influencing so many composers, but continues to thrive in this 100th anniversary, and will continue to do so for generations. I have not the slightest doubt of that.
– Don Gillespie