American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) experimented with the nature of sound and devised new systems of musical notation. His innovative ideas on composition and performance influenced musicians, painters, and choreographers.
John Cage questioned all musical preconceptions inherited from the 19th century, and he flourished in an atmosphere of controversy. The teacher-composer Arnold Schoenberg once called him "not a composer, but an inventor—of genius." He received awards and grants; a few important music critics wrote perceptively and enthusiastically about his works. However, to most of the public and even to many musicians his compositions—especially the late ones—remain baffling and outrageous, an anarchic world of noise that cannot even qualify as music.
To Cage, "everything we do is music." He believed that the function of art is to imitate nature's manner of operation, and to this end he tried to make music that resembles forms of organic growth—taking into account ugliness, chaos, and accidents, as well as beauty, order, and predictability. In addition, the manner of nature's operation appears to change according to scientific advances. One can find roots of Cage's experiments with "chance" and "indeterminacy" in the work of such French Dadaists as painters Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst and the surrealist poet André Breton in the early part of the 20th century, when quantum theory and the theory of relativity in physics were giving rise to new ways of conceiving space, time, and causality.
Cage was born in Los Angeles, California, on September 5, 1912, the son of John Milton Cage, an inventor and electrical engineer. John studied piano as a boy. After two years at Pomona College, he spent a year and a half in Europe, trying his hand at poetry, painting, and architecture, as well as music.
Cage dedicated himself to music shortly after returning to the United States in 1931. His first composition teacher was pianist Richard Bühlig, a noted interpreter of Schoenberg. In a musical world then divided between the serialism of Schoenberg and the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky, Cage found himself in the Schoenberg camp. In 1933 Cage went to New York City to study with a former pupil of Schoenberg, and also took Henry Cowell's classes. In 1934 he returned to Los Angeles and was accepted as a pupil by Schoenberg himself.
During the years with Schoenberg, Cage developed three new interests: percussive music, silence, and dance. He started experimenting with percussion ensembles, discovering or adapting instruments as he went along. Finding Schoenberg's use of tonality as a structural principle inappropriate for percussion music, Cage sought a workable method. He decided that silence was the opposite coexistent of sound and determined that of the four characteristics of sound—pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration—only duration was also characteristic of silence; so he abandoned harmonic structure and began to use a rhythmic structure based on the duration of segments of time. Much of this early music is quiet, delicate, full of silences. Construction in Metal (1937) is a good example.
Rising Avant-garde Composer
Cage's interest in modern dance was immediately reciprocated; dancers were eager to collaborate. Cage spent two years in Seattle as composer and accompanist for the dance classes of Bonnie Bird. During this time he found that inserting screws between the strings of a piano would create a kind of one-man percussion ensemble. This "prepared piano" became one of his most admired contributions to music, and he wrote a good deal of music for it.
After spending a year in San Francisco and a year teaching at the Chicago School of Design, Cage moved to New York City in 1942. A concert at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943 established him as a rising avant-garde composer.
In 1945 Cage developed an interest in Eastern philosophy that soon had a profound effect on his work; he studied Indian music and attended Daisetz T. Suzuki's lectures on Zen Buddhism. About this time Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; this was the beginning of a long-term association.
In 1949 Cage won an award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for the invention of the prepared piano and a Guggenheim grant. His Sonatas and Interludes, performed at Carnegie Recital Hall, was very well received. Cage and Cunningham gave recitals in Europe, which brought Cage into contact with the new generation of French musicians, including Pierre Boulez and Pierre Schaeffer. This year marked a culmination and a turning point.
Chance and Indeterminacy
Until 1950 Cage had been writing what he considered to be expressive music. Now his interest in Zen led him to question this. "When we separate music from life," he wrote in Silence, "what we get is art (a compendium of masterpieces). With contemporary music, when it is actually contemporary, we have no time to make that separation (which protects us from living), and so contemporary music is not so much art as it is life and anyone making it no sooner finishes one of it than he begins making another just as people keep on washing dishes, brushing their teeth, getting sleepy, and so on." To make his work consonant with the workings of nature and to free it from the tyranny of the ego, he experimented with "chance" procedures. Chance played a limited role in Sixteen Dances (for Merce Cunningham), but to create Music of Changes (premiered in 1952) Cage adapted methods from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, which involved tossing coins onto a series of charts to determine pitch, duration, and so forth. These experiments found little favor with the musical establishment, although Cage became closely involved with a circle of musicians with similar interests.
Cage swept forward into radical departures from all traditions, including his own. His Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1952) involved 24 men turning the dials of 12 radios. At Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 he created a proto-"happening" that involved simultaneous dance, poetry, live music, records, films, slides, and an art exhibit. He produced his ultimate exploration of silence, 4'33"(1952), in which the pianist sits immobile before the instrument, marking the beginning and end of each of the three sections in any way he chooses.
By 1958 Cage wished his music to be even more indeterminate in performance, that is, to give the performer a hand in the creation. Thus he did away with the usual score, instead devising a kit of materials: plastic sheets marked with predetermined codes, which the player was to superimpose in order to arrive at his "part." His improvisations did not endear him to the musical establishment. In 1958, when a group of artists presented a Cage retrospective at Town Hall in New York City, the audience that had enthusiastically applauded the earlier works expressed loud dissatisfaction during the performance of Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958). And in 1964, when Leonard Bernstein presented Cage's Atlas Enclipticalis with the New York Philharmonic, not only members of the audience but also some of the musicians hissed the composer. This saddened Cage but did not deter him.
In 1954 Cage moved to a small art colony in Stony Point, New York. Here he developed an interest in mushrooms. He taught about them at the New School for Social Research and founded the New York Mycological Society in 1962. He also delivered a series of lectures. These talks, full of charm and wit, were, like his music, compositions of words and silence; they were not "about" anything so much as aggregates of thought on whatever interested him: music, mushrooms, Erik Satie, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, life.
As early as 1939 Cage had been interested in electronics. He believed that his Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) was the first piece of magnetic-tape music to be created in America. In the 1960s Cage decided that pure electronic music might be boring for a concert audience, since there was nothing to look at. He experimented with placing contact microphones on conventional instruments; once he even placed a mike against his own throat, turned the volume up, and swallowed thunderously. The microphones, with the feedback used as a musical element, produce unbeautiful and often deafening effects. But Cage's belief that man must come to terms with the loud and ugly noises of modern life accords with his belief that if art has a purpose it is to open the mind and senses of the perceiver to life.
Cage's music became louder and more dense. One of his works, HPSCHD (produced in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, finished in 1968), was created with the aid of a computer. It involves a possibility of playing up to 51 audio tapes and up to seven harpsichord solos simultaneously. A computer printout is supplied with the recording, which gives the listener a program for manipulating the controls of his stereo phonograph. Thus the music can still remain indeterminate in performance. Cheap Imitation (1969), based on a piece by the French composer Erik Satie, replaces the original pitches with randomly selected notes.
Cage's compositions of the 1970s continued to blend electronic noise with elements of indeterminacy. He created the score for the piano work Études Australes (1970) using astronomical charts. His 1979 piece Roaratorio in corporated thousands of sounds from James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake
The increasing sophistication of computers helped shape Cage's work in the 1980s, most notably in the stage work Europeras 1 & 2 (1987). The piece, written, designed, staged, and directed by Cage, is essentially a collage of snippets from existing operas woven together by a computer program designed by Cage's assistant, Andrew Culver. The opening performance of Europeras 1 & 2 was itself a casualty of chance, however, when a vagrant set fire to the Frankfurt Opera House a few days before its debut. In all, Cage would complete five Europera works between 1987 and 1991.
Cage was also a prolific author. Drawing on influences like Gertrude Stein and Dada poetry, he created works such as M (1973), Empty Words (1979), Theme and Variations (1992), and X (1983). Some of these Cage designed as performance pieces, which he read aloud to the accompaniment of his own music. In other cases, he relied on computer assistance to generate evocative, semi-coherent poetry.
Cage also created and collected visual art: photographs, prints, paintings, and etchings. His musical scores, which eschew conventional notation in favor of idiosyncratic graphic markings, were exhibited in galleries and museums. A collection of his watercolors was exhibited at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in 1990.
As he grew older, Cage was the recipient of numerous honors and awards. Each milestone birthday past the age of 60 was celebrated with a series of concerts and tributes the world over. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and was one of 50 artists inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1989. In 1981, he received the New York Mayor's Honor Award of Arts and Sciences. The following year, the French government awarded Cage its highest cultural honor when it made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. Cage traveled to Japan in 1989 to accept the prestigious Kyoto Prize.
A longtime New York City resident, Cage was known as an affable if soft-spoken man who was obliging toward young musicians and critics. He would often attend concerts in downtown Manhattan. Cage's only marriage ended in divorce in 1945. For the last 22 years of his life, he lived with his former collaborator, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage died of a stroke on August 12, 1992.
Further Reading on John Cage
Many of Cage's articles, lectures, and anecdotes were published in two collections: Silence (1961) and A Year from Monday (1967). The most detailed biographical account is the essay on him in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965). A brief but excellent discussion of Cage's position in 20th-century music is in Eric Salzman, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction (1967). John Cage, a bibliography of his works compiled by Robert Dunn (1962), contains a brief biography, excerpts from reviews, an interview, lists of available recordings, and details of many first performances. Cage's philosophy and music are discussed in Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music (1967). More recent studies of Cage include Fleming and Duckworth's John Cage at 75 (1989) and Paul Griffiths, Cage (1981). A series of Cage's later lectures are collected in Cage: I-VI (1990). Cage's obituary appeared in New York Times on August 13, 1992.