The University of Illinois Press has embarked on a series of short monographs devoted to American composers, to which David Nicholls has contributed an excellent introduction to John Cage's life and music. Barely 100 pages in length, Nicholls provides a high-level overview, and in the process he is able to highlight major trends and developments that are underemphasized in more specific and technical books.
Nicholls divides his book into four sections, loosely based around where Cage lived at the time. After covering his early years on the west coast, where Cage studied most notoriously with Arnold Schoenberg, Nicholls gives the most emphasis given to Cage's first stay in New York, in the years leading up to chance composition. Cage decided early on that he would only write music which he could get performed (usually his own ensembles, although he met David Tudor during this period). In the middle period, when Cage moved to Stony Point in the hopes of creating a Center for Experimental Music and during which he toured extensively, the demands on his time were such that he wrote relatively few pieces, culminating in the wide open indeterminate works such as the Variations for any number of performers doing any kind of activity. Nicholls compares Cage's move back to New York City in 1970 with a renewed interest in Thoreau's philosophy as well as an expansion of his creative energies into writing and graphic arts as well as music. He also points out that technology permitted Cage to extend his music composition, using computer programs for the chance operations instead of tossing coins, with the result that he composed more pieces, and for larger forces, than at any time earlier in his life. Nicholls covers Cage's non-musical activities as well, especially his writings and mesostics.
Nicholls' book is not intended for primary research, as a replacement either for David Revill's biography or James Pritchett's examination of the music, both of which were written largely during Cage's lifetime and with his assistance. But in the fifteen years since Cage passed on, scholars and enthusiasts are looking closer at the music and the composer. Through the autobiographical anecdotes in his own writings as well as the book-length interviews that have been published, Cage projected his own mythical image, the story of his life that he fashioned for his own ends. Nicholls, who edited the Cambridge Companion to John Cage, sends the reader back to the music and the writings, with enough critical distance to see trends that remained obscure while Cage was still alive.
It has been several years since I read Revill and Pritchett, and in the intervening time Cage has grown in personal significance. Although the more sensationalistic and theatrical aspects were the early attractors, Cage's dictum to "let the sounds be themselves" has become a catch phrase to represent a large class of music where discrete events don't have any necessary connection to each other. This doesn't means that the music doesn't evolve, but it contrasts sharply with tonal music from the classical period (Beethoven, etc.), where the linear nature of the music means that the beginning of a piece already presages what happens at the end. Cage's music, and a considerable amount of music since World War II, avoids this kind of narrativity, preferring instead a music that reflects the natural world in all of its chaos and anarchy.