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Music Library Adds Rare John Cage Score To Its Rich Collection

January 30, 2007 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In 1952, 20th century American experimental composer John Cage shocked the music world when a pianist playing a new Cage work simply sat at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without hitting a key.

Now Northwestern University Library -- home to the world's largest collection of correspondence and ephemera collected and written by Cage -- has added an important original score written by Cage in 1945 to that collection.

“It's one of the most significant rare manuscript acquisitions that the library has made in recent years,” says D.J. Hoek of the work titled “Daughters of the Lonesome Isle.” It was composed for dancer Jean Erdman, a collaborator with Cage and modern dance innovator Merce Cunningham. Hoek is head of Northwestern's Music Library.

With hand-written revisions that include a crossed out original ending and the draft of the ending Cage wrote to replace it, Hoek says the piece reveals more about the composer's creative process than would an unrevised piece.

“By the mid-1950s, Cage was trying to eliminate the influence of personal taste from his compositional process and had developed rigorous systems to govern the way he composed,” Hoek says. As a result, revisions generally appear only on the avant-garde composer's earliest pieces.

The score also is particularly significant as one of Cage's earliest compositions for what he called “prepared piano.” Hoek describes prepared piano as a way of attaching screws, nuts, bolts and weather stripping to a piano's strings to dramatically alter the instrument's sound and allow a single pianist to become the equivalent of a percussion orchestra.

Cage - probably the 20th century's most influential composer -- donated his correspondence and materials documenting his life from childhood until his death in 1992 to the library. Although the library possesses Cage's large collection of original works by many other composers, it contains only a handful of his own compositions.

“The acquisition highlights our commitment to enhance our unique and distinctive collections in the electronic era,” says Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian Sarah Pritchard. “Today's university library needs to offer access to an increasingly large spectrum of digital information, which is critical to scholars but tends to be similar from institution to institution. What may be more important in differentiating research libraries are the rare and specialized primary source materials that we collect and preserve for current and future generations of scholars.”

Among the nation's largest music libraries, Northwestern University Library is known internationally for its extensive holdings of printed music and archival materials that document music composed since 1945. It serves not only the Northwestern University community but also researchers from around the world.

Topics: University News