John Cage was already established as an influential American composer and important leader of post-World War II avant-garde music when he began his Notations project in the mid-1960s. The previous decade had seen his compositional breakthroughs with uses of silence and chance operations. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cage earned increasing public fame through travels and performances abroad, publication of his music by C. F. Peters, and publication of his book Silence (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961). As a result, Cage received many requests for commissions, performances, and speaking engagements. He was frequently on tour and held residencies at the University of Illinois, the University of California–Davis, and other institutions in the late 1960s.
It was during this busy time that the Notations project was born. In 1965, Cage sent letters to hundreds of composers, visual artists, and writers soliciting manuscripts for possible inclusion in a book to benefit the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts. Some sent Cage recent creations while others contributed older works. Cage published selections as Notations (New York: Something Else Press, 1969). In addition to the music manuscripts, the Notations collection includes much of the correspondence generated around this project.
The Notations collection spans the years 1884 to 1978, with the bulk of the material being from the 1960s. It is divided into two sub-series: manuscripts and correspondence. The manuscripts date from 1913 to 1977. 463 pieces by 274 composers are in 279 folders. Each composer is assigned a unique number that was in place by 1967. Although the numbers' significance is uncertain, it is likely that they are accession numbers assigned by Cage in the order manuscripts were received. Before the number for each item, a letter was added by the Music Library for shelving purposes. Some composers sent Cage entire pieces while others contributed excerpts, sketches, and drafts. Each item listed is the composer's original manuscript unless a printed edition or holograph reproduction is noted in the container list.
Variety is of the highest order. The collection offers unique insight into the notational practices developed by composers in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. There is a broad range of approaches, from standard clefs and staves to words on a page to graphic scores. Works by established composers, students, musicians, performance artists, visual artists, and writers are included in the collection. This international group of men and women covers a broad range of musical forms, including operas, small ensemble pieces, solo works, orchestral works, concertos, rock songs, movie music, performance art, and electronic music. While most of the works were created as musical compositions, many of the items feature unusual and striking graphic designs. This aspect of the collection has attracted the interest of museums in the United States and Europe, where items from the collection have been exhibited (see the “Exhibits” folders in Series VI: Correspondence Addenda).
Highlights of the collection include Pierre Boulez's Second Piano Sonata and its accompanying sketches and drafts, John Cage's Music of Changes and Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Morton Feldman's The King of Denmark, Witold Lutosławski's Jeux vénitiens, and Steve Reich's Piano Phase. Manuscripts by many other prominent composers are also included, such as the Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Milton Babbitt, Erik Satie, and Anton Webern.
The Notations correspondence spans 1884-1978 and relates mainly to the manuscripts and the book, although there is additional correspondence from many of the contributors. There is a relatively wide date span because there appears to have been some correspondence in Cage's possession that is not actually addressed to him, for example, an 1884 letter from Charles Gounod to Henriette and a 1925 note from Carl Ruggles to Henry Cowell. The bulk of the correspondence, however, dates from the 1960s. In many cases, Cage's sides of the conversations are preserved, but the correspondence is comprised chiefly of letters sent to Cage. Fifteen boxes of correspondence contain letters pertaining to 284 composers. Not all composers represented in the correspondence contributed manuscripts, and some who contributed to the project are not represented in any extant correspondence. There are some letters, indicated in the container list, that are housed in manuscript folders due to their large size. In some cases, the name on a folder is simply the subject of the correspondence, such as when Cage was dealing with heirs, associates, agents, or dealers. There is a folder called “Archive” that contains some technical aspects of the Notations project. Additionally, the correspondence with Alison Knowles and Dick Higgins (both associated with the Something Else Press) frequently discusses the Notations project.
Often the correspondence reveals clues about interpretation, performance, or dates of particular works. On occasion, correspondence from figures such as Nam June Paik and George Brecht includes music that was not intended to be part of project and was not included in the book. The tone of the letters is typically friendly, and Cage is generous with his replies.
Note: The fiollowing cross-reference of alternate forms of names was originally included in the container list, but has been moved here for convenience.
Bark, Jan and Folke Rabe see Rabe, Folke.
Carvalho, Jocy de see Oliveira, Jocy de
De Leeuw, Ton see Leeuw, Ton de
Hendricks, Geoff see Hendricks, Bici
Isaacson, Leonard see Hiller, Lejaren
Liebermann, Rolf see Pauli, Hansjörg and Rolf Liebermann
Llinos, Noël see Finck, Mildred
Meyer, Bill and Al Hansen see Hansen, Al
Montana, George see Crevoshay, George
Once see Ashley, Robert
Ono, Yōko see Lennon, John
Rjewski, Frederic see Rzewski, Frederic
Ten Holt, Simeon see Holt, Simeon ten
Campana, Deborah. “John Cage, life and accomplishments.” John Cage now. A week of performances and discussions in celebration of John Cage's 80th year. Program brochure. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University School of Music, 1992.
Pritchett, James. “John Cage.” Grove Music Online. Ed. L. Macy (accessed August 2006), http://www.grovemusic.com.