John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage

John Cage

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John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer and music theorist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. 

John Cage began serious music studies in the 1930s, and quickly gravitated to the avant-garde and the idea of composing music through chance. He wanted to release his music from the limits of his own taste, memory and emotion. His radical ideas about composition led to equally radical experiments with instruments. By 1937, Cage created what he called the prepared piano, a method of altering the piano's tonal and percussive qualities by placing wood, metal or rubber objects on the piano strings. He later became one of first composers to use synthesizers and computers. Sometimes Cage didn't use instruments at all but used recorded voices and even radio static to help build his chance compositions.

He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage's romantic partner for most of their lives.

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not "four minutes and 33 seconds of silence," as is often assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance. The work's challenge to assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience made it a popular and controversial topic both in musicology and the broader aesthetics of art and performance.

Every something is an echo of nothing

Though Cage invented the “prepared piano,” a piano with carefully altered strings, at Cornish, it was at Black Mountain College that he staged the first of his infamous “happenings” with Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg, and poet Charles Olson. Beginning in 1942, Cage lived primarily in New York.

Influenced by the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, the design of Buckminster Fuller, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Cage created inventive, nonintentional musical compositions with unorthodox musical sources, which often utilized elements of chance involving computer programs or the I Ching. PBS, in a feature on Cage for their American Masters series, described the ambition of Cage’s 4'33", in which the performer sits before a piano for four and a half minutes without playing a note: “Cage broke from the history of classical composition and proposed that the primary act of musical performance was not making music, but listening.”

Beginning with Silence (1961) and A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (1967), Cage used writing to pursue his investigations into the structure of syntax and chance. Much of Cage’s writing was composed within a prose poem form he called “mesostic” (similar to acrostic, but led by middle rather than initial letters). His mesostic on the text of James Joyce, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979), was also layered with the sounds mentioned in the text as well as traditional Irish music.

Silence: Lectures and Writings is a book by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992), first published in 1961 by Wesleyan University Press. Silence is a collection of essays and lectures Cage wrote during the period from 1939 to 1961.

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

Most of the works are preceded by a short commentary on their origins, some have an afterword provided. Several works feature unorthodox methods of presentation and/or composition. "The Future of Music: Credo" juxtaposes paragraphs of two different texts.


The text of the first part of "Composition as Process" is presented in four columns, the text of "Erik Satie" in two. "45' for a Speaker" is similar to Cage's "time length" compositions: it provides detailed instructions for the speaker as to exactly when a particular sentence or a phrase should be said.

"Where Are We Going? and What Are We Doing?" is presented in several types of typeface to better reflect the concept of the lecture, which was originally presented as four tapes running simultaneously. "Indeterminacy" is a collection of various anecdotes and short stories taken from life or books Cage read: the concept is to tell one story per minute, and to achieve the speaker has to either speed up or slow down, depending on the length of the story.

Notations is a book that was edited and compiled by American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992) with Alison Knowles and first published in 1969 by Something Else Press. The book is made up of a large collection of graphical scores, facsimiles of holographs, from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, with text by 269 composers, which are presented in alphabetical order, with each score allotted equal space, and in which the editor has no more authority than the reader in assigning value to the work.[3] The book includes the manuscript for the Beatles song "The Word" (song lyrics, but no musical notation) from the Rubber Soul album (1965).

The text of the book was created using chance procedures to determine which of the 269 composers would be asked to write about their work, and how many words each entry was to consist of. These pieces of writing, which contain from one to sixty-four words, are proceeded by paragraph signs.

The typesetting was done by Alison Knowles using chance-derived mixtures of typefaces and sizes. There are also comments by Cage and other writers included throughout the book, typeset using similar procedures.

In 2009, Mark Batty Publisher released Notations 21. Inspired by the work of Cage and Knowles, it contained illustrated musical scores from more than 100 composers along with commentary from each composer.

His teaching was equally revolutionary. He put together a list of 10 "Rules and Hints for Student and Teachers, or Anybody Else." Rule 4 is "Consider everything an experiment." Rule 6 begins "Nothing is a mistake." Rule 9 advises "Be happy whenever you can manage it." Rule 10 advocates breaking all the rules, "even our own rules." It was at the UCLA elementary school where Cage first experimented with placing household objects on or in between the strings of the piano to create a new percussion effect.

Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) was a non-profit and tax-exempt organization established to develop collaborations between artists and engineers. The group operated by facilitating person-to-person contacts between artists and engineers, rather than defining a formal process for cooperation. E.A.T. initiated and carried out projects that expanded the role of the artist in contemporary society and helped explore the separation of the individual from technological change.

E.A.T. was officially launched in 1967 by the engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman.[2] These men had previously collaborated in 1966 when they together organized 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of performance art presentations that united artists and engineers. 10 New York artists worked with 30 engineers and scientists from the world-renowned Bell Telephone Laboratories to create groundbreaking performances that incorporated new technology. Artists involved with 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering include: John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman.

Video projection, wireless sound transmission, and Doppler sonar had never been seen in the art of the 1960s. These art performances still resonate today as forerunners of the close and rapidly evolving relationship between artists and technology. The performances were held in New York City's 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets as an homage to the original and historical 1913 Armory show.

E.A.T. activity has entered the canons of performance art, experimental noise music and theater, bridging the gap from the eras of Dada, Fluxus and the Happenings/Actions of the 1960s, through the current generation of digital artists for whom multimedia and technology are the norm. The lineage from E.A.T. experimentations in the 1960s which led to media-art explorations of the 1990s and beyond, is the same historical pathway that has led to the ArtScience movement of the 2000s -- the latter an amalgamation of E.A.T., the environmental/ecology movements, and the expanding ontological impact scientific practice has on society.

Cage's work from the sixties features some of his largest and most ambitious, not to mention socially utopian pieces, reflecting the mood of the era yet also his absorption of the writings of both Marshall McLuhan, on the effects of new media, and R. Buckminster Fuller, on the power of technology to promote social change. HPSCHD (1969), a gargantuan and long-running multimedia work made in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, incorporated the mass superimposition of seven harpsichords playing chance-determined excerpts from the works of Cage, Hiller, and a potted history of canonical classics, with fifty-two tapes of computer-generated sounds, 6,400 slides of designs, many supplied by NASA, and shown from sixty-four slide projectors, with forty motion-picture films. The piece was initially rendered in a five-hour performance at the University of Illinois in 1969, in which 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.

On March 5, 1968 in Toronto, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage played a game of musical chess. Titled “Reunion,” the event drew an audience of hundreds to the Ryerson Theatre, where the two creative giants would activate a unique auditory experience through a specially constructed chess board that triggered different electronic compositions with each individual move.

When Cage first met Duchamp in the 1940s, he was immediately enamored of the older artist, and by several accounts Cage eventually asked Duchamp to teach him to play chess merely as an excuse to spend time with him. After many nights of lessons at Duchamp’s New York apartment, it was Cage’s idea to play a public game of musical chess.

While Mr. Cage's famous silent piece [i.e. 4′33″], or his Landscapes for a dozen radio receivers may be of little interest as music, they are of enormous importance historically as representing the complete abdication of the artist's power.

Cage's influence was also acknowledged by rock acts such as Sonic Youth (who performed some of the Number Pieces) and Stereolab (who named a song after Cage), composer and rock and jazz guitarist Frank Zappa, and various noise music artists and bands: indeed, one writer traced the origin of noise music to 4′33″. The development of electronic music was also influenced by Cage: in the mid-1970s Brian Eno's label Obscure Records released works by Cage.


Prepared piano, which Cage popularized, is featured heavily on Aphex Twin's 2001 album Drukqs. Cage's work as musicologist helped popularize Erik Satie's music, and his friendship with Abstract expressionist artists such as Robert Rauschenberg helped introduce his ideas into visual art. Cage's ideas also found their way into sound design: for example, Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom cited Cage's work as a major influence. Radiohead undertook a composing and performing collaboration with Cunningham's dance troupe in 2003 because the music-group's leader Thom Yorke considered Cage one of his "all-time art heroes".