John Cage


The American composer John Cage is one of the true giants of 20th century composers. He was a visionary whose influence transcended the genres in which he is best known, including avant-garde, minimalism and electronic, and led many others to question and redefine the very essence of what constitutes music and sound. Many of his works are considered to be some of the first examples of performance art, years before the term was even coined.

Born in Los Angeles, Cage began studying piano at the age of eight. He spent many of his teenage years searching for direction as he enrolled briefly in Pomona College before dropping out to explore Europe for a year. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Cage met Henry Cowell, the first of a series of mentors that would convince him to devote his life to music. Cowell taught him non-Western, folk and contemporary music and, seeing Cage’s propensity for chromatic counterpoint, encouraged him to seek out Arnold Schoenberg, who had just moved to the West Coast. The two finally met in 1934, and Cage was so struck with Schoenberg’s passion and devotion to music that immediately following the meeting he vowed to dedicate his life to composition.  

Cage’s early works around this time were often direct emulations of Schoenberg’s, although he still trying to expand upon what the older composer had accomplished. Cage developed his own variation of Schoenberg’s infamous 12-tone serialism by using 25-tone rows, writing pieces such asSix Short Inventions on the Subjects of the Solo (1934) and Composition for Three Voices (1934) using this system. However he was dissatisfied with the limitations of working within a framework where pitch is the main variable, and soon lost interest. Over the course of the next several years Cage’s work would develop a much stronger rhythmic and percussive basis, influenced by his role teaching for and accompanying dance classes and his significant professional and romantic relationship with choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham.

Where Cage would begin to find his true voice was with the prepared piano, which he began experimenting with in the late 1930s. By inserting various objects between the strings of the piano Cage was able to create a huge palette of bizarre and percussive sounds, which were understandably appealing to his restless mind. One of his first forays into this world was the composition Bacchanale (1940), originally a dance-accompaniment piece, which was meant to emulate an entire percussion ensemble with only one instrument. Other works for prepared piano includedIn the Name of the Holocaust (1942), which featured the additions of wood, bamboo, plastic, rubber and coins between the strings, Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48), and A Book of Music (1944) and Three Dances (1945), both written for prepared piano duo. At this stage it was primarily his work in this field that led Cage to be labeled as an “experimentalist” who had “extended the boundaries of musical art,” and the successor to his mentor Cowell.

While writing for prepared piano Cage was also beginning to become known as one of the first to delve into electronic music, using oscillators, turntables and amplification years before the arrival of the first synthesizers. One of his first electronic works wasImaginary Landscape no.1 (1939), written for piano, cymbals and turntables playing oscillating test tone recordings. Another electronic piece,Imaginary Landscape no.4 (1951), composed for 12 radios, 24 performers, and conductor also introduces the element of chance or randomness that would define his later works. Since the settings for the radios were predetermined, the resulting sounds are entirely dependent on what is playing on the airwaves at the time, which effectively guaranteed that no two performances would be the same.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s Cage began to delve increasingly into Eastern philosophies, primarily Zen Buddhism, through which he began to view composition as a natural process subject not only to the whims and interpretations of the performer but also to complete chance, which he termed “indeterminacy.” To achieve this end Cage began using deliberately ambiguous notation to guarantee a unique performance each time. His compositionConcert for piano and orchestra (1957) was a mammoth 63-page work using dozens of different notation techniques, many of which had never before been used.

A favourite technique of his was to overlay sheets of transparent plastic, each containing some musical information, often limited to simple dots and lines. By changing the orientation and alignment of these sheets the performer could conceivably come up with an infinite variety of interpretations of the piece. Cage used this method to great effect in hisVariations II (1961), which featured 11 sheets of plastic, six with lines, five with dots. Once arranged randomly the distances between objects on the page was used to represent musical variables such as pitch, tone, and dynamics.

By far his most controversial and famous work was 4’33” (Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds) written in 1952. The piece featured any number of performers sitting on stage for three movements, each silent, and epitomized many of Cage’s central beliefs, including the element of randomness, and that any sound can be music. Originally titledSilent Prayer while in its working stages, the piece reflects the influence of Zen Buddhism on Cage’s work, and reverses the traditional roles of performer and spectator by creating a work where the small movements and coughs of the audience provide the sonic background. Although4’33” was met with a wide array of responses from audiences and critics it has undoubtedly achieved the status of one of the defining musical statements of the post-war period.

Cage continued to push the envelope of his listeners’ expectations throughout the 1970s and 80s, remaining an active composer until his death in 1992. Works from this period include hisChild of Tree (1975), which calls for an amplified potted plant,Il Treno (1978), for prepared trains and Roaratorio (1979), a piece combining electronics, Irish folk musicians and Cage’s own reading of excerpts from the text of James Joyce’s novel,Finnegans Wake. Although Cage had lived most of his life outside the confines of the musical mainstream, by his later years he had been elevated to the status of reluctant popular icon, and he remains one of the most controversial and innovative composers of the 20th century.

Header image courtesy of MusiCage Other images courtesy of La BPI and Dresslab