John Cage



John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912August 12, 1992) was an American composer, a pioneer of indeterminacy in music and non-standard use of instruments, especially prepared piano.

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is "four minutes and 33 seconds of silence" intended to make musical content of the sounds of the environment, and to challenge assumed definitions.

Education and influences

Cage's major influences lay in various East and South Asian cultures. He described music as "a purposeless play".[1]

Cage's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, stated in reference to Cage: "… he's not a composer, but he's an inventor—of genius."[3] Cage would later adopt the "inventor" moniker and deny that he was in fact a composer.

During 193638 Cage first started experimenting with unorthodox instruments, such as household items, metal sheets, and so on. In 1941 Cage was invited to teach at the Chicago School of Design. He left for New York City in 1942.

Cage's artistic life went through a crisis in mid-1940s. The composer was experiencing a growing disillusionment with the idea of music as means of communication. In late 1940s, Cage started developing further methods of breaking away with traditional harmony.

1950s: Discovering chance

Due to common interests and place of work, Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, David Tudor and Cage's pupil Christian Wolff came to be referred to as "the New York school."

In early 1951, Wolff presented Cage with a copy of the I Ching — a Chinese classic text which describes a symbol system used to identify order in chance events. Commonly used for divination, for Cage it became a tool to compose using chance. His lifelong interest in sound itself culminated in an approach that yielded works in which sounds were free from the composer's will.

Although Cage had used chance before, the I Ching opened new possibilities for him. One of the first results of the new approach was Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radio receivers. In 1952, Cage composed the piece that became his best-known and most controversial creation: 4′33″ and he organized what has been called the first "happening" in the United States (Theatre Piece No. 1). As set forth by Cage, "happenings" were theatrical events that abandon the traditional concept of stage-audience, have a minimal script, with no plot, and aim to occur in the present, to arrest the concept of passing time.

From 1956 to 1961 Cage taught classes in experimental composition at The New School. Among works of this period, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58) was a seminal work in the history of graphic notation, and Variations I (1958) present the performer with six transparent squares, one with points of various sizes, five with five intersecting lines. The performer combines the squares and uses lines and points as a coordinate system, in which the lines are axes for characteristics of the sounds.

The majority of Cage's students at The New School had little or no background in music. Most were artists, many of whom later gained fame as part of Fluxus movement. They included Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, Al Hansen, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and others…

1960s: Fame

In October 1961, Wesleyan University Press published Silence, a collection of Cage's lectures and writings on a wide variety of subjects, including the famous Lecture on Nothing that was composed using a complex time length scheme, much like some of Cage's music. Silence was Cage's first book of six but it remains his most widely read and influential.

By the mid-1960s, Cage was receiving so many commissions and requests for appearances that he was unable to fulfill them. This was accompanied by a busy touring schedule; consequently, Cage's compositional output from that decade was scant. Cage gradually shifted to, in his own words, "music (not composition)". The score of 0′00″, completed in 1962, originally comprised a single sentence:

In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.

In the first performance the disciplined action was Cage writing that sentence. The score of Variations III (1962) abounds in instructions to the performers, but makes no references to music, musical instruments or sounds.

New departures

Musicircus (1967) simply invites the performers to assemble and play together. The first Musicircus featured multiple performers and groups in a large space who were all to commence and stop playing at two particular time periods, with instructions on when to play individually or in groups within these two periods. The result was a mass superimposition.

Reunion (1968) was a performance done together with Marcel Duchamp consisting of a chess-board connected to different electronic sound sources (see below).

HPSCHD (1969), a long-running multimedia work incorporated the superimposition of seven harpsichords playing chance-determined excerpts and other items. For a five-hour performance the audience arrived after the piece had begun and left before it ended, wandering freely around the auditorium in the time for which they were there.

Another series of works (1969-1979) applied chance procedures to pre-existing music by other composers like Satie. In these works, Cage would borrow the rhythmic structure of the originals and fill it with pitches determined through chance procedures, or just replace some of the originals' pitches. Yet another series of works, the so-called Number Pieces make use of time brackets: the score consists of short fragments with indications of when to start and to end them.

Since chance procedures were used by Cage to eliminate the composer's and the performer's likes and dislikes from music, Cage disliked the concept of improvisation, which is inevitably linked to the performer's preferences. In a number of works beginning in the 1970s, he found ways to incorporate improvisation.


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Play yourself


1. Cage, John. 1961. Experimental Music (1957) in: Silence. Lectures and Writings
2. Cage, John. 1961. Indeterminacy (1958) in: Silence. Lectures and Writings
3. Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage

See also:

Szczelkun, Stefan. Improvisation Rites: from John Cage's Song Books to The Scratch Orchestra's Nature Study Notes- collective practice 2011 - 2017, Routine Art Co. London. 2017.

Included in Play now set/collection.

Included in Learn set/collection.

Activities outside of the library:

For living takes place each instant and that instant is always changing. The wisest thing to do is to open one's ears immediately and hear a sound suddenly before one's thinking has a chance to turn it into something logical, abstract or symbolical.

John Cage John Cage (1952)

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