John Cage



John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, artist, and philosopher. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music and non-standard use of musical instruments (extended techniques).

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed by doing nothing aside from being present for the duration. The content of the composition is not "four minutes and 33 seconds of silence", but rather the sounds of the environment. The work's challenge to assumed definitions made it a popular and controversial topic. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano.

Education and influences

Cage's major influences lay in various East and South Asian cultures. He described music as "a purposeless play" which is "an affirmation of life — not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living".[1]

Schoenberg's methods and their influence on Cage are well documented by Cage himself in various lectures and writings. Particularly well-known is the conversation:[2]

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

Although Schoenberg was not impressed with Cage's compositional abilities during these two years, in a later interview, he stated in reference to Cage: "… of course 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 1936–38 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: the public rarely accepted his work, and Cage himself, too, had trouble understanding the music of his colleagues". In late 1940s, Cage started developing further methods of breaking away with traditional harmony.

1950s: Discovering chance

Important was Cage's chance encounter with Morton Feldman in New York City in early 1950. Both composers attended a concert of Anton Webern's Symphony, op. 21. Cage felt so overwhelmed by it that he left before the next programmed piece; and in the lobby, he met Feldman, who was leaving for the same reason. The two composers quickly became friends; later Cage, 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.

When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don't have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound … I don't need sound to talk to me.[4]

Although Cage had used chance before, the I Ching opened new possibilities for him. The first results of the new approach were Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radio receivers, and Music of Changes for piano. 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).

In the summer of 1954 he moved out of New York. From 1956 to 1961 Cage taught classes in experimental composition at The New School. Among his works completed during the last years of the decade were Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58), a seminal work in the history of graphic notation, and Variations I (1958). The score presents 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.

Cage's "Experimental Composition" classes at The New School have become legendary as an American source of Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers, and designers. The majority of his students had little or no background in music. Most were artists. They included Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, Al Hansen, George Brecht, and Dick Higgins, and others…

As set forth by Cage, "happenings" were theatrical events that abandon the traditional concept of stage-audience and occur without a sense of definite duration. Instead, they are left to chance. They have a minimal script, with no plot. In fact, a "happening" is so-named because it occurs in the present, attempting to arrest the concept of passing time.

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. After the orchestral Atlas Eclipticalis (1961–62), a work based on star charts, which was fully notated, 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
4. John Cage, in an interview with Miroslav Sebestik, 1991. From: Listen, documentary by Miroslav Sebestik. ARTE France Développement, 2003.

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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