Charles Petersen in n + 1:
Stanley Cavell, born in 1926 and now 86 years old, is one of the greatest American philosophers of the past half-century. He was also something of a musical prodigy and like many prodigies his accomplishments struck him as a matter of fraud. During his freshman year at Berkeley, he writes in Little Did I Know, his 2010 memoir, he walked into one of his first piano courses and was asked to prove he had the requisite chops by playing a piece on the spot. Not having practiced anything but jazz for years—this was 1944, and big band swing was at its peak—the budding pianist sat down at the bench, broke into a half-remembered theme from a Liszt impromptu, and “stopped playing as the theme was about to elaborate itself, as if I could have gone on to the end were there time and need.” He could not have gone on to the end, nor even a note further, but his teacher, a brilliant young pianist with some of the look of Marlene Dietrich, was nonetheless taken in. “Isn’t it fine to hear a man’s touch at the piano?” she said to the class. Cavell felt smitten, but also unmanned. “It is true that I had really done whatever . . . . I had done, but I could not go on.” Although he could play almost anything on demand—and would later win praise from Ernest Bloch, Milton Babbitt, and Roger Sessions, rescuing the premiere of one of the latter’s works through an emergency mid-concert transposition—for Cavell it was as if each new performance followed only from instinct, without the understanding that promised a way forward. No matter his successes, he couldn’t escape the feeling that he was a fraud.
Two decades later, in 1965, Cavell, having abandoned music for philosophy, returned to the problem of fraudulence in a now classic essay, “Music Discomposed.” (It would become a centerpiece in his landmark first collection, Must We Mean What We Say? .) The motivating question of the essay — “How can fraudulent art be exposed?” — though couched in the nomenclature of composers like Cage and Stockhausen, seems now, in light of Cavell’s memoir, to be addressed as much to his own uncertainties as a young musician.