A friend and I were recently talking about John Cage and his close relationships to important contemporary innovators in other art forms (Cunningham, of course, but also several generations of visual artists (Duchamp and Miro to Tobey and Graves to Rauschenberg and Johns to Anastasi and Bradshaw), and writers (from Jackson Mac Low to Chris Mann) as well as some major unclassifiables (like Fuller, MacLuhan or N.O. Brown) and how these relationships gave a wonderful charge — without superficially or arbitrarily mixing ideas, forms, media — to his own work.
While almost every composer I know among my contemporaries has some non-trivial, indeed deep and productive, interests in the extra-musical, few, if any, composers working today can claim a wealth or variety similar to that enjoyed by Cage. In part, this is because of a simple management issue: there's so much going on, in music alone, that it's tough to have any overview here, let alone to have real bearings out there in literature and/or dance and/or visual arts and/or film etc.. Also, in part, it is due to a certain insularity among musicians reinforced by the market pressure of such quantity and diversity within our discipline; perhaps because we need to continuously woo and cultivate performers and presenters, our social networks tend to be rather musician-centric.
I was lucky, as an undergraduate, to be in an arts-themed liberal arts college where more of my friends happened to have been writers or visual artists than fellow or sister music majors.** To this day, I can recall, almost word-for-word, the conversation of so many late nights spent in dorm lounges or all-night diners arguing over a novel (the term of art back then was "lit wanking") a gallery show gone well or a performance art event gone awry. Today, I still have my own set of reference points among writers, visual artists, and film makers, even a dancer or two, but I will confess that this is, with some small additions, close to the list I had when I was still a student, and among those artists still kicking about, most of them are of my teachers' generation rather than of my own. This may just be part of aging, but I honestly think that I haven't done a good enough job of keeping up with my contemporaries outside of music. A quick read-through of McSweeney's or n+1 * or a chance walk-through of an interesting gallery or keeping a handful of blogs under casual surveillance is not really keeping on top of things very far afield, let alone a real avant-garde. I realized this perhaps most acutely when David Foster Wallace died, a writer from my own age cohort, and it struck me that the writers I was otherwise following most closely — Pynchon, Abish, Matthews — were dancing about 70, not my own age. My New Year's resolution is thus set: I've got to make more time to pay more attention and to pay attention outside of my habitual interests.
* BTW: This article, picked up from n+1, about the divisions between the country mouse of academic creative writing and the town mouse of NYCentric writing is well worth a read; there are interesting parallels and contrasts to the relationship between academic and free-lance composing.