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30 January 2011

John Cage & Electronic Publishing

"We can't be satisfied with distribution now because it won't be very good. For instance, my book (Silence), published in the United States, is very difficult to get outside the United States, and that won't be solved, because all of the publishing problems of books, and objects, and things in quantity are still those of the previous culture. Yet with the number of people who work now -- the number of composers, the number of authors, and so on -- has vastly increased over the 19th century; but the number of publishers has not increased. The result is that you have traffic problems, so you have the kind of problems that all large cities encounter with automobile traffic. And I hear, where I go now, that in the future we may expect that private traffic in large cities will be forbidden. It may then equally be forbidden to produce a book that would require people to distribute it, but it will not be forbidden, certainly, to send information by electronic media throughout the world." (John Cage, 1965)

John Cage is ever presaging, but, to date, electronic publications of his writings are scant. Kindle (my e-reader of choice) offers only three: Ken Silverman's Begin Again: An Autobiography of John Cage (Knopf, 2010), Kyle Gann's No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Yale University Press, 2010), and Richard Kostelanetz's Conversing With Cage (Limelight Editions, 1988).* Apple's iBooks (and wouldn't Cage's mesostics positively shine on an iPad) offers nothing at all.

As the three Cage e-books go, it's not a bad line-up: a detailed biography, a comprehensive look at Cage's most infamous (and arguably most guiding) composition, and a compilation of conversational engagements (this last, happily, with an index). But, things are going to change. Wesleyan University Press, Cage's stalwart principal publisher for now 50 years, is hard at work with renderings of their entire Cage catalog into electronic form. But, here as elsewhere in the workaday world, Cage poses challenges: Cage's texts are anything but e-reader friendly, so publication (launch) dates are still uncertain. And while I'm at it, let me reveal (a bit ahead of the game) that Wesleyan University Press is busily preparing a 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Cage's maverick Silence (1961), with a beautiful foreword by none other than Kyle Gann.

*The Kindle Store also offers Kostelanetz's Preambles to the New (2009), comprised entirely of prefaces created for previous books. Collectively they span more than four decades (1963-2010), and are grouped
together chronologically under headings that suggest the direction each takes: "Criticism", "Literature", "Artists & Composers", "Politics", etc. There's a new "preamble" by Kostelanetz, and a new introduction, entitled "Master Kosti," contributed by John Rocco. This work is nothing short of masterful recycling, and an elevation of the foreword to dizzying heights. Richard Kostelanetz is an accomplished writer, and prolific to boot; Cage's personal library houses some 14 of his tomes, while the John Cage Trust's print archive includes nearly two dozen. My personal favorites, in addition to the Cage-infused works, are Esthetics Contemporary (Prometheus Books, 1978), Text-Sound-Texts (William Morrow & Co., 1980), and The Theatre of Mixed Means (Dial Press, 1968), all long out of print. A few of his writings are also available for online reading at, a division of Gale, Cengage Learning.

Laura Kuhn