February 2, 2023
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Life & Culture

Q&A: Professor publishes research guide about innovative composer

Sara Haefeli, associate professor in the Department of Music Theory, History and Composition, has published a book titled “John Cage: a Research and Information Guide.”

The book, one in a series of guides on composers, is an annotated bibliography. It goes over research about John Cage and his life as a composer and artist and on his political influence in society. Each book in the series is written by a different author and includes research guides on influential people like Paul Hindemith, Alberto Ginastera and Miles Davis.

Cage is known for reimagining modern music. He used unconventional instrumentation and focused on the interaction between music and nature in his compositions. He also helped to promote interdisciplinary collaboration within art fields.

Staff Writer Krissy Waite sat down with Haefeli to talk about her book and how it could be useful to emerging scholars.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Krissy Waite: Can you describe the book?

Sara Haefeli: It really is a research guide. It is something that other scholars or students would use to start the research process. It would help them look at all the relevant sources for a research question about Cage.


KW: What inspired you to do this research guide?

SH: I have written previously on this piece that Cage produced at the University of Illinois in 1969 he called HPSCHD, but is pronounced “harpsichord.” The name is shortened to six letters because he wrote it with a computer. It was one of the first computerassisted musical compositions. In 1967 and 1968, computers were still in their infancy, and at that time it could only save a program with a name that had six digits in it. So this piece includes all these computergenerated tapes and chance-composed parts for seven harpsichords that were produced in the assembly hall at the University of Illinois. The students had streamers, lights and people blowing bubbles it was like this whole “summer of love” cultural event. There are a lot of interesting political issues connected to the piece and a lot of interesting artistic issues connected to it and especially the use of technology. I was also inspired by the idea that this is a project I could work on in small pieces, like a quilt. The reason I chose this project was because I have a fulltime job at Ithaca College that is demanding, and I teach a lot of courses with a lot of students. I also have two children who demand my time at home, so this was a project I could work on piece by piece a little bit at a time.


KW: What was the overall process like?

SH: I was approached to write this research guide by Routledge Publishers in 2011 and wrote a proposal and got a contract probably that year. It took me the next six years to really complete the project. This book includes a citation and an annotation on every major piece of scholarship on John Cage, so that means I really had to read every article, every book, and look at every source to make sure I could sum up the content on the argument for that source in an annotation that would help future scholars.


KW: Why use a guide style in contrast to other styles?

SH: The book does not have normal chapters or an argument or a narrative. It really is just numbered sources. They are organized by themes. For example, if you were interested in Cage’s connection to Zen Buddhism, then there is a whole section that is for Cage and Zen or a section on Cage and dance. It does have organization, but it does not have a story.


KW: Why do you feel that John Cage in particular is so important?

SH: Cage is a composer who is relatively well-known as a name, but people rarely hear his music. People say he is a more important thinker than a composer. I would like to argue that his music is also really important and that we should play it. I think the thing that fascinates me the most about Cage is that he was alive basically during the entire 20th century, and over his career, he foresaw every major accomplishment in music. For example, he was one of the very first to use technology to compose and even wrote out,Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a box and push buttons on this box, and it would create the sound that you want to have?And of course, we have that now with samplers. He was one of the first composers to use technology in a really interesting way with his music.


KW: How do you feel students at Ithaca College would utilize this to its full potential?

SH: I could see a student that was interested in doing more research on Cage using the guide, music students especially. I can also see art students using it. One of the things I did in this guide … is that I included the work he did as a visual artist. I could see a student in an art history or appreciation class or an art major using the guide if they wanted to do research on Cage or the New York School art movement. Cage also worked closely with dancers, so students interested in dance may be able to use it.

Krissy Waite can be reached at kwaite@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @krissy_waite