American Composer, Theoretician, and Writer
Los Angeles, California
Stony Point, New York
Summary of John Cage
Working during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, John Cage honed his skills in the midst of the growing American avant garde. Neither a painter or a sculptor, Cage is best known for revolutionizing modern music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of environmental music dictated by chance. His approach to composition was deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, focusing on the harmony that exists in nature, as well as elements of chance. Cage is famous not only for his radical works, like 4'33" (1952), in which the ambient noise of the recital hall created the music, but also for his innovative collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. These partnerships helped break down the divisions between the various realms of art production, such as music, performance, painting, and dance, allowing for new interdisciplinary work to be produced. Cage's influence ushered in groundbreaking stylistic developments key to contemporary art and paved the way for the postmodern artistic inquiries, which began in the late 1960s and further challenged the established definition of fine art.
- Cage discovered that chance was as important of a force governing a musical composition as the artist's will, and allowed it to play a central role in all of his compositions. Although each piece has a basic, composed structure, the overall effect varied with each performance as different variables like the location and audience directly affected the sounds that were produced.
- By breaking with the historically determined preconception that music was made by musicians using traditional instruments to perform structured and prearranged compositions, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art. His revolutionary performances ushered in an era of experimentation in all media and shifted the focus away from the artist's inner psyche to the artist's contemporary environment.
- Cage focused his compositional career on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal sheets, various common objects, and even silence into his works to change the way modern audiences listened to music and appreciated their surroundings.
Biography of John Cage
John Cage was born in Los Angeles to John Milton Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia ('Crete') Harvey, an amateur artist and occasional journalist for The Los Angeles Times. The range of his father's inventions (including a diesel-fueled submarine and electrostatic field theory), could be characterized as both revolutionary and eccentric, and certainly left an impression on the young Cage.
Important Art by John Cage
Heavily influenced by Cage's studies of Indian music and philosophy in the early 1950s, this cycle of 16 sonatas and four interludes was composed to express the eight "permanent emotions" of the rasa Indian tradition. These emotions are divided into two groups: the white (humor, wonder, erotic, and heroic) and the black (anger, fear, disgust and sorrow). Sonatas and Interludes was dedicated to Armenian-American pianist Maro Ajemian, who performed in the recording of the piece and during its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Her performance of the work resulted in Cage's receipt of a generous grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Considered by many to be the composer's first masterpiece and highly characteristic of his oeuvre, the work was crafted to include improvisation while following a highly melodic structure based on a simple mathematical formula.
Theater Piece No. 1 was one of Cage's first large scale collaborative, multimedia performances, created and performed while Cage was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Referred to by many as simply "The Event," the piece involved several simultaneous performance components - all orchestrated by Cage, where chance played a determining role in the course of the performance. Some of the components included in "The Event" were: poetry readings, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and the four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. Cage sat on a step ladder and lectured about Buddhism, or said nothing, and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read different poems from ladders, while Rauschenberg played Edith Piaf records, Merce Cunningham danced amidst the audience (chased by a barking dog), coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and David Tudor played improvised notes on a prepared piano, fitted with pieces of felt and wood between the strings. Cage composed the piece such that each participant did whatever they chose during assigned intervals of time and within certain parameters, but the overarching principle of chance guided the course of events. The highly involved multimedia characteristics of No. 1 are a wonderful example of the Neo-Dada movement and its incorporation of the everyday into modern art. This early proto-happening prefigured later developments in modern art, particularly the increasing focus on the outside world, as evidenced in later movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, as well as performance art in general.
Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.
This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on John Cage
- Begin Again: A Biography of John CageOur PickBy Kenneth Silverman
- Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of ArtistsBy Kay Larson
- John CageBy Rob Haskins
- No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"Our PickBy Kyle Gann
- Silence: Lectures and WritingsOur PickBy John Cage, Kyle Gann
- A Year from Monday: New Lectures and WritingsBy John Cage
- Composition in RetrospectBy John Cage
- M: Writings '67-'72By John Cage
- Empty Words: Writings '73 -78Our PickBy John Cage
- The Music of John CageOur PickBy James Pritchett
- Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John CageOur PickBy John Cage, Jeremy Millar, Lauren Wright, Roger Malbert
- The Sight of Silence: John Cage's Complete WatercolorsBy Ray Kass
- John Cage's Sonata V performed on piano, from Sonatas and InterludesOur Pick
- "John Cage playing amplified cacti and plant materials with a feather"From Nam June Paik's 1984 TV special, "Good Morning Mr. Orwell"
- "John Cage: 4'33" for piano"Our Pick
- "John Cage, about silence"Our PickInterview with the artist
- "John Cage: 'Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 for 12 radios (1952)"
- American Masters: John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying ItOur PickPBS Documentary
- John Cage's Greatest HitsBy Julie Coe / Departures Magazine / May/June 2012
- Searching for SilenceOur PickBy Alex Ross / The New Yorker / October 4, 2010
- Zen Composer Meets Boombox ImpresarioBy Steve Smith / The New York Times / December 20, 2009
- Letting John Cage Ring Out; Then Space OutBy Jeremy Eichler / The New York Times / October 29, 2003
- Summoning the Sprits of Minimalist MusiciansOur PickBy Bernard Holland / The New York Times / September 7, 1999
- Aspects of John Cage, for the EyeBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / May 6, 1994