Sunday 3 February 2008

Book Review: 674pp – A Biography of John Cage by Matthew Ng and Norman DeSauza

While many biographies of composer John Cage have been written, 674pp claims to be the definitive story of his life, from his birth, through to the composition of his most famous piece, 4’33’’, up to his death in 1992. Setting it apart from the other books is a single, simple fact: Just as 4’33’’ is a piece of music consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, 674pp is a book consisting of 674 numbered, but otherwise empty pages.

This book, therefore, is not for the casual reader who has a passing interesting in John Cage’s life and works. This is certainly for someone who already has some (ideally extensive) knowledge of the composer, and who will be able to meditate on their existing knowledge while staring at the blank pages.

Despite the lack of any sentences or words on the pages, I found this book took me rather a long time to read. The feeling of the paper against my finger as I turned from chapter 8 to chapter 9, for example, conjured up wonderful memories of the first time I heard Cage’s Musicircus being performed. The last two chapters were very difficult for me to read, knowing the impending death of one of the world’s greatest living composers was approaching. Indeed, I could not bring myself to read the final eight pages at first, setting the book aside for several days in an attempt to delay the inevitable. But then, as I came back to the empty, ink-free pages, the sadness I had been avoiding flooded in, and I was moved to tears.

But to concentrate on the sadness in the book is folly. Look at the highlights of Cage’s life, which, while not actually mentioned in the book, appeared in chapters 12 to 15 for me. The sense of accomplishment and pride one feels on behalf of Cage when his star grows, and when he is described as a genius by his tutors, comes through wonderfully during this period of the book.

There has been some argument regarding this book and the usefulness thereof; Mike Blatt has published a very similar, yet more concise biography one hundred pages long, again with no words. But it is the length of this work and the quality of the non-writing that set 674pp apart from the others. If you look beyond the actual blank pages, and dwell upon the words that Ng and DeSauza didn’t write, you will gather an additional layer of enjoyment from the book.

674pp is a great addition to the works about John Cage. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the composer, Zen Buddhism, or anyone who needs a large and well-bound sketchpad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You write very well.