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16 October 2013

John Cage on Music Publishing (1959)

In my ongoing work on a volume of collected John Cage Correspondence for Wesleyan University Press, I came across this very thoughtful letter by John Cage on the subject of music publishing.  It struck me that Cage's words here have continuing relevance to today's composers, many of whom find it difficult to disseminate their work.  It is addressed to John Edmunds*, written by Cage on New Year's Eve, 1959, and is transcribed in its entirety below, unadorned.

Shortly after writing this letter, Cage would find a publisher in C.F. Peters/Henmar Press, Inc., an alliance that was not without early turbulence and mishap.  Stay tuned for a blog soon on some of the early exchanges between Cage and Walter Hinrichsen, President of Henmar Press, Inc.

Dear Mr. Edmunds:

You may remember that I approached Schirmers with the project of publishing my music.  Mr. Heinsheimer, after six weeks or so, came to the conclusion that he did not want to have anything to do with it.  This has prompted me to give the question of music publication some thought, the result of which is this letter.

I assume that what is wanted is not just the publication of my music but a solution of the problem of making experimental music available to those who are interested no matter who wrote it.  This is necessary for the encouragement of the musical life (one might say in America, but I mean everywhere).

The following paths are the ones I have thought of:

1.  A composer's cooperative.  This was suggested by Heinz Klaus Metzger and Franco Evangelisti.  Since there suggestion, Evangelisti's music is being published by Universal (Vienna) so that their suggestion is no longer forthcoming.  It could be established here and I know a young man who might organize it.

2.  Publication outside this country.  Universal is willing to handle my music.  I could also, I believe, get it published elaborately with records by Ernst Brucher in Cologne.

3.  Publication by a University in this country.  I am thinking of the University of Illinois or Wesleyan or Dartmouth University.  These three are interested in the music more than others.

4.  The free publication (or distribution) of music by the Public Libraries of this country.

1) does not particularly interest me because it merely extends the business of individual profit and loss to group profit and loss.  I object to 2) on the grounds that I am an American.  3) provides prestige etc. but it is of no help to composers who are not as experienced and famous as I happen to be; it would suffer from weight of the academy.

I am definitely interested in 4).  If it could me made to work it would provide a useful means for the advance of musical life that would continue.  I am willing, that is, to give free of charge my music to the Public Libraries.  I would give up the question of profit from it, only collecting (if I remain a member of ASCAP) royalties from its performance.  Much of this music is on transparencies, so that it could be reproduced.  The rest could be photostatted, or I could gradually put it on transparencies.  It should be made known, if this comes about, that the music is available through the libraries.  That could be, it seems to me, by loan without charge of copies in the library collection or by payment of copying charges, just as it is now possible for me to purchase photostats of certain things at the library.  These privileges, naturally, should be available to foreigners.

Furthermore, this means of publication should be made known as available to any composer, regardless of his fame or quality.  (Just as the Libraries contain all the novels, good, bad, and indifferent.)  The question of available space may arise.  However, not too many people will follow this path since it means the renunciation of profit.

That about covers my thoughts on the subject.  I do hope it interests you.  Conversation would surely elaborate the means.

I, personally, feel very strongly the obligation to get my own music out of my hands.  Even Mr. Heinsheimer said he felt a certain obligation to publish it.  But he said it would only produce a headache for Schirmers.

Satie said somewhere that Beethoven was the first to give his music to a publisher.  It would be a pleasure to establish another means appropriate to another time.

With friendliest greetings,

John Cage

*John Edmunds (1913-1986) was an American composer and librarian who, from 1957 to 1961, was curator of the Americana Collection (later American Music Collection) of the Music Division of the New York Public Library, where the "John Edmunds Correspondence and Other Papers, 1957-1961" is held.  See Amy C. Beal, "'Experimentalists and Independents are Favored': John Edmunds in Conversation with Peters Yates and John Cage, 1959-1961," in Notes, Vol. 64, No. 4 (June 2008).

Laura Kuhn