No, that’s a little harsh. But some of the most fascinating pages of Kenneth Silverman’s new biography of Cage, the pioneer of chance and indeterminacy in music, are devoted to his politics, including a passing and naive admiration for Mao. Silverman’s biography is well done, and evenhanded. The author accepts the importance of Cage’s legacy, which I dispute in a review for The New Republic’s The Book, and he doesn’t attach too much significance to the Maoist leanings. I raise the following question, more philosophical than political:
How seriously should one take his dalliance with Maoism? Silverman lays out a nuanced history of Cage’s political views, which suggests that Cage eventually realized that his admiration for Mao was inconsistent with his deeper disgust for militarism and crass political power. But it was a fascinating moment. In Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a society demoralized by its political failures decides to choose its king by chance. Submitting to chance may have been, for Cage, a kind of modesty; but it was submission, nonetheless. A society that valorizes the arbitrary force of chance may well be more susceptible to submission to other forms of arbitrary power.
And I let Cage’s friend, composer Lou Harrison, bring the question back to music:
In a gentle and wise way, Cage’s friend Lou Harrison got to the essence of the problem. Harrison, a composer whose legacy is not philosophically dense as Cage’s but musically much more satisfying, once said: “I would rather chance a choice than choose a chance.” The remark has the pithiness of Cage’s best lines, and it emphasizes the degree to which Cage’s chance procedures, done with the I Ching, or later with computers, were highly constructed, deeply intentional choices. And it implicitly broaches two impolite questions: What does one risk by making artistic, aesthetic choices? And what was John Cage afraid of?