More on Marshall McLuhan & John Cage (1912 – 1992)


picture of John Cage

The New York Times has just reviewed The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust. See .  Asked about the connections of music and art to life by composer-editor R.I.P. Hayman, Cage explained why people create art: “Two good reasons: 1) To quiet and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences (and since electronics is the extension of the central nervous system – McLuhan – revolution is therefore feasible); 2) to imitate nature in her manner of operation.”


The following excerpt is from a 2012 essay titled JOHN CAGE’S CANADA, which opines that “The twentieth century’s most important avant-garde composer may have been American, but he found his greatest inspiration north of the border”.

Edmonton-born Marshall McLuhan, whose image Cage broadcast during [follow the link to read the full essay] Reunion, happened to be a friend of the composer’s. They had met in 1965 following a few months of exchanging letters. “For several years now, your work is in my mind and entering into what I do and think,” Cage initially wrote. It wasn’t surprising that the first man to write musical scores for electronics was bewitched by the herald of the information age. Though McLuhan was only a year older than Cage, the composer nevertheless saw him as a mentor. “It was like striking flint against a piece of metal,” McLuhan’s son Eric says. “When they got together, they sparked ideas.”

Like Cage, McLuhan thought that artists opened eyes. An artist should help people “notice what the conditions are in which they live and try to work,” Eric says of his father’s ideas. “In other words, pay attention to all the things that they are accustomed to ignoring.” The two men also shared the conviction that “the medium is the message,” a concept McLuhan had famously unpacked in 1964’s Understanding Media. This was in line with Cage’s thinking: he hoped that his music’s meaning would arise from the very act of experiencing it, of being shocked and confused. McLuhan lent Cage the academic theory (and bombastic epigrams) to back up his beliefs.

Cage gushed about McLuhan in the Toronto Star; the Globe and Mail referred to Cage as the “Musical McLuhan.” But perhaps McLuhan’s biggest influence on Cage came in the form of a suggestion for a new work, one that would confound the composer for years, and that eventually evolved into two of his most important Canadian premieres.

From the start, McLuhan and Cage had bonded over their love of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Not surprisingly, it’s a confusing, esoteric text. Cage had first read it serialized as a teenager in Paris, where he’d run away to be a writer after dropping out of university. McLuhan was working on a book that argued that the “thunders”—ten hundred-letter words—in Finnegans Wake described the evolution of human technology. McLuhan suggested that Cage write a piece of music featuring the text of the thunders. The epic work would be called Atlas Borealis with Ten Thunderclaps, and it would be a sonic torrent, blending the words with recordings of actual storms and electronic sounds. Like Atlas Eclipticalis, it would be written with a star map.

In the fall of 1967, McLuhan moved to New York, where Cage lived, for a year. Cage began to say that he was “studying with” McLuhan. He also told the University of Illinois that he’d submit Atlas Borealis for its centennial commission. But in November, McLuhan underwent brain surgery to remove a tumour. It was, at the time, the longest neurological operation ever performed. He suffered extreme pain and memory loss, and visits between the two men temporarily grew less frequent. Atlas Borealis slowed down, too; Cage didn’t complete the work in time for the Illinois commission. But McLuhan’s and Cage’s thinking continued to overlap. McLuhan’s surgery had made him hypersensitive to noises that one would normally ignore. “We’d be walking down the street and he’d stop and say, ‘Did you hear that?’ says Rosenboom. “He’d notice every change in the soundscape.” In effect, McLuhan was forced to live inside Cage’s philosophy. Read the rest at .

See also on this blog Marshall McLuhan & John Cage (2012) at .

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