John Cage

John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American experimental music composer, writer and visual artist. He is most widely known for his 1952 composition 4'33", whose three movements are performed without playing a single note.

Cage was an early composer of what he called "chance music" (and what others have decided to label aleatoric music)—music where some elements are left to be decided by chance; he is also well known for his non-standard use of musical instruments and his pioneering exploration of electronic music. His works were sometimes controversial, but he is generally regarded as one of the most important composers of his era, especially in his raising questions about the definition of music.

John Cage put Zen Buddhist beliefs into practice through music. He described his music as "purposeless play", but "this play is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord." (Hence his favorite Japanese Zen Buddhist saying Nichi nichi kore ko nichi -Every day is a good day.)

Cage was also an avid amateur mycologist and mushroom collector: he co-founded the New York Mycological Society with three friends. He was a long-term collaborator and romantic partner of choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Cage is also known as the inventor of the mesostic, a type of poem.

Cage was born in Los Angeles and was of English and Scottish descent. His father was an inventor who told him "if someone says 'can't', that shows you what to do". Cage described his mother as a woman with "a sense of society" who was "never happy." It was not obvious from his early life that he would become a composer; he was born into an Episcopalian family, and his paternal grandfather regarded the violin as the "instrument of the devil". Cage himself planned to become a minister at an early age and later a writer. He graduated from Los Angeles High School in a class which included the poet Josephine Miles.

Although music was not clearly to be his chosen path, he said later that he had an unfocused desire to create, and his subsequent anti-establishment stance may be seen to have its roots in an incident while he was attending Pomona College. Shocked to find a large number of students in the library reading the same set text, he rebelled and "went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly." He dropped out in his second year and sailed to Europe, where he stayed for 18 months, working for some of this time as an architect's apprentice. It was there that he wrote his first pieces of music, but upon hearing them he found he didn't like them; he left them behind on his return to America.

John Cage returned to California in 1931, his enthusiasm for America being revived, he said, by reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. There he took lessons in composition from Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell at the New School for Social Research, Adolph Weiss and, famously, Arnold Schoenberg whom he "literally worshipped". Schoenberg told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he "devoted his life to music". Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years. Cage later wrote in his lecture Indeterminacy: "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'." Schoenberg later described Cage as being 'not a composer, but an inventor- of genius".

As a result of these studies, Cage's earliest works show a preoccupation with serialism, which he somewhat idiosyncratically interpreted in quasi-social terms as being a “holistic and democratic ideal” insofar as no one pitch predominates over another. He soon began to experiment with percussion instruments, as well as non-traditional instruments as sound-producing devices, and gradually came to use rhythm as the basis for his music instead of harmony. More generally, he structured pieces according to the duration of sections. These approaches owed something to the music of Anton Webern, and especially Erik Satie, one of his favourite composers. In 1935, Cage married artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff.

In the late thirties, Cage went to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. There he found work as an accompanist for dancers. He was asked to write some music to accompany a dance by Sylvia Fort called Bacchanale. He wanted to write a percussion piece, but there was no pit at the performance venue for a percussion ensemble and he had to write for a piano. While working on the piece, Cage experimented by placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the instrument. He liked the resulting sound, and this eventually led to his conceiving the prepared piano, in which screws, bolts, strips of rubber, and other objects are placed between the strings of the piano to change the character of the instrument. It seems clear that he was influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell, who also treated the piano in a nonstandard way, asking performers to pluck the strings with their fingers and use metal slides, among a wide variety of techniques Cowell referred to collectively as realizing the "string piano." The Sonatas and Interludes of 1946–48 are widely seen as Cage's greatest work for prepared piano. Pierre Boulez was one of its admirers, and he organized the European premiere of the work. Around this time the two composers struck up a correspondence, but this stopped when they came to a disagreement over Cage's use of chance in his music. For Boulez, a "surrendering" to chance meant the unacceptable abdication of the composer’s control over his art. However for Cage this was to be a wholly necessary step in his subsequent aesthetic evolution.

It was also at Cornish that Cage founded a percussion orchestra for which he wrote his First Construction (In Metal) in 1939, a piece that uses metal percussion instruments to make a loud and rhythmic music. He also wrote Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in that year, possibly the first composition to employ record players as instruments. Around this time, he met the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who became a major creative collaborator and his lifelong partner following Cage's split from his then-wife Xenia (the couple divorced in 1945 or 1946).

While at the Cornish School, Cage became interested in many things that informed much of his later work. He learnt through the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai the saying of the seventeenth century music commentator Thomas Mace who stated that "The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." He developed an interest in Hindu aesthetics through the writings of the Nineteenth Century mystic Sri Ramakrishna, the Twentieth Century Indian art historian Anada K. Coomaraswamy and, through Coomaraswamy, the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. These influences had a strong impact on Cage’s sense of expression, with pieces such as The Seasons and the String Quartet in Four Parts suggesting the cyclical dynamics of nature through anti-directional and harmonically static forms.

However it was Cage’s subsequent discovery of Taoism and ultimately Zen Buddhism, introduced to him by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki in the late forties, which was to have the greatest effect of all Asian philosophies upon his own. His music altered from exhibiting from the reduced, static expression of the Indian inspired works to that through which he aimed to dissolve personality, intention and expression altogether, via the use of chance techniques, first apparent in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1951.

After leaving the Cornish School, Cage joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Design. While there he was asked to write a sound effects-based musical accompaniment for Kenneth Patchen's radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat. Cage then moved to New York City, but found it very hard to get work there. However, he continued to write music, and establish new musical contacts. He toured America with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company several times, and also toured Europe with the experimental pianist (and later composer) David Tudor, whom he worked with closely many other times.

Introduced to him by Christian Wolff, Cage began to use the I Ching (Chinese “Book of Changes”) in the composition of his music in order to provide a framework for his uses of chance. He used it, for example, in the Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951, to determine which notes should be used and when they should sound. He used chance in other ways as well; Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) is written for twelve radio receivers. Each radio has two players; one to control the frequency the radio is tuned to, the other to control the volume level. Cage wrote very precise instructions in the score about how the performers should set their radios and change them over time, but he could not control the actual sound coming out of them, which was dependent on whatever radio shows were playing at that particular place and time of performance. This piece marked a move away from scores which had been merely composed with indeterminate methods, to those which were also performatively indeterminate. Such pieces as the Variations series paradoxically placed great responsibility in the hands of the performer in the demands the music made in terms of realising indeterminate (chance) procedures. When applied to the often-conservative infrastructure of the symphony orchestra in pieces such as the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) and Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), Cage’s radical demands resulted in markedly hostile performer reactions.

The detailed nature of Cage's compositional use of chance remains poorly understood. Generally, Cage proceeded from the broadest aspects of a new composition to extremely specific ones. For all these decisions, he determined the number of possibilities for each aspect and then used chance to select a particular possibility: the number of possibilities would be related to one or a series of numbers corresponding to the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. For instance, Cage might choose a musical pitch from three possibilities. Possibility A could be related to I Ching numbers 1–24, possibility B to 25–48, and possibility C to 49–64. The actual choice of an I Ching number, as described in the book itself when it is used as an oracle, was accomplished by tossing coins or (later) by running a computer program, initially the print-out of one designed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under the supervision of Lejaren Hiller and later one designed by Cage's assistant, the composer Andrew Culver. Cage called the generation of an I Ching number a chance operation.... A finished composition generally entailed numerous chance operations.

During the same time period, author Philip K. Dick used the I Ching to aid in plotting his first novel, The Man in the High Castle.

In 1948, Cage joined the faculty of Black Mountain College, where he regularly worked on collaborations with Merce Cunningham. Around this time, he visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University (an anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed.) Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he "heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet sound was nevertheless discernible. He stated "until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most notorious piece, 4′33″. However, Cage repeatedly claimed that he composed 4′33″ in small units of silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equalled the duration of the title--he further claimed that he might have made a mistake in addition. The theory that the title of the work refers to absolute zero (4’33’’″ expressed in seconds is 273 seconds. Minus 273 degrees Celsius - the lowest temperature that can be obtained in any macroscopic system- is referred to as Absolute zero), however, continues as a kind of urban legend that no doubt will always remain attractive to certain people.

Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and Black Mountain colleague, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, had, while working at the college, produced a series of white paintings. These were apparently blank canvases that, in fact, changed according to varying light conditions of the rooms in which they were hung, as well as the shadows of people in the room. These paintings inspired Cage to use a similar idea, using the 'silence' of the piece as an 'aural blank canvas' to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance.

The premiere of the three-movement 4′33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952 as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano and lift the lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And after a further period of time, he closed the lid once more and rose from the piano. The piece had passed without a note being played and without Tudor having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. Only then could the audience recognize what Cage insisted upon, that “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound." Richard Kostelanetz suggests that the very fact that Tudor, a man known for championing experimental music, was the performer, and that Cage, a man known for introducing unexpected non-musical noise into his work, was the composer, would have led the audience to expect unexpected sounds. Anybody listening intently would have heard them: while nobody produces sound deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as challenging the very definition of music.

While it may challenge the definition of music, it does not challenge any definition of composition — the earliest score was written on conventional manuscript paper using graphic notation similar to that used in Music of Changes, with the three movements precisely scored to reflect their individual lengths. The most famous version of the score is the so-called Tacet edition, which features three movements all on one page, each labelled tacet — the traditional musical term for when a musician does not play for a movement. The score provides no time limits for any of the parts. Neither the whole piece nor the duration of the first performance were decided using chance operations. The piece can have any duration and thus any title, but is stuck with the famous first performance duration and title (i.e. movement I: 30’’;- movement II: 2’23’’;- movement III: 1’40’’;). Cage himself refers to it as his "silent piece" and writes; "I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece... for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have published. At one performance... the second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium." (in John Cage: Silence: Lectures and Writings).

It is a potential problem though if one wishes to regard the unpredictable sounds as constituting the music in this piece. This comes forward clearly in the recording made by the Amadinda Percussion Group, in which the group place themselves in a park. One hears birdsongs, of course, only interrupted twice due to the pauses following each part. If the sounds during the parts are the music, then the sounds between the parts are not, and then the Amadinda recording is true to its source. However, in a performance the listener would not be able to distinguish the parts in sounds, but only in the acts of the performer(s). In this respect Cage’s silent pieces constitute theater more than sound.

John Cage's 'Experimental Composition' classes from 1957 to 1959 at the New School for Social Research have become legendary as the origin of the fluxus movement. The majority of his students had little or no background in music, most of whom were artists. His students included Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, Al Hansen, George Brecht, Alice Denham and Dick Higgins, as well as the numerous artists he invited to attend his classes unofficially. Several famous pieces came from these classes: George Brecht's Time Table Music, and Alice Denham's 48 Seconds.

Conceived in 1952, Theater Piece No. 1 consisted of Cage collaborating with Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, and Charles Olson at Black Mountain College where the performance took place amongst the audience. "Happenings", as set forth by Cage, are theatrical events that abandoned 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. Cage believed that theater was the closest route to integrating art and (real) life. The term "Happenings" was coined by Allan Kaprow, one of his students, who was to define it as a genre in the late fifties. Cage met Kaprow while on a mushroom hunt with George Segal and invited him to join his class. In following these developments Cage was strongly influenced by Antonin Artaud’s seminal treatise The Theatre and Its Double, and the “Happenings” of this period can be viewed a forerunner to the ensuing Fluxus movement.

On May 9, 2006 at Christie's in New York City, a work of art by Robert Rauschenberg titled "Cage," dedicated to John Cage, sold for $1,360,000, a record for a Rauschenberg piece on paper.

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 Richard 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. As much synaesthetic spectacle as ‘composition’, in any conventional sense, HPSCHD demonstrated Cage’s concern to enact a visceral experiential environment in which the myriad complexities of the individual elements combine together to negate the possibility of a single, dominant, centre of interest.

Two years prior to this piece was the first Musicircus (1967), conceived by Cage and essentially an extension of the “Happenings” from the fifties. 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 of many different musics on top of one another as determined by chance distribution, producing an event with a specifically theatrical feel. Many Musicircuses have subsequently been held, and continue to occur even after Cage’s death. This concept of circus was to remain important to Cage throughout his life and featured strongly in such pieces as Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979)- a many-tiered rendering in sound of both his text Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake and traditional musical and field recordings made around Ireland.

During the seventies and eighties, Cage's compositions took on a variety of guises, from the overtly political and polemic Lecture on the Weather (1975- based on the texts of the naturalist-anarchist author Henry David Thoreau), through to the hyper-virtuosic- an example being the Freeman Etudes- Books I and II (1980), composed for the violinist Paul Zukovsky. Cage conceived the latter as a useful social demonstration of the performer practically surpassing his own abilities. In their hyper-virtuosity such pieces can be considered to be a precursor of the New Complexity movement.

Between 1987 and 1990 Cage composed a major series of works entitled Europeras, numbered 1 to 5. Due to the initiative of Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn who became the chief dramatic advisors of the Frankfurt opera under Gary Bertini in 1987, Cage had been invited to compose the first two works for the Frankfurt Opera as a critical deconstruction of the operatic form, yet the degree of superimposition and complexity of the works makes them difficult to define as simply parodic, in any straightforward sense. Plots and librettos were determined via chance methodology from a wide range of conventional 18th and 19th century operas, and arias were picked via chance to be sung by the singers, many at the same time. Chance also strictly determined all other aspects, from stage lighting, scenery, costumes and props to the actions of the singers. There was no conductor, with performers instead being guided via large projections of a digital clock according to strict time intervals. Cage even went so far as to hand out two separate sets of librettos to the audience at the premiere, themselves culled from previous operatic works. Being overtly based as they are upon previous models, the Europeras provide one of the most intriguing examples of Cage defamiliarising the familiar, rendering a complex new web of symbols and meanings overlapping across conventional aesthetic domains.

Yet other works, such as Cheap Imitation (1972), Hymns and Variations (1979), and Litany for the Whale (1980) resemble the less radical works of his early career. Cheap Imitation, for example, was based on a re-writing of Satie’s Socrate, and marked a return to conventional staff notation. In two groups of compositions from his last years — Music for _____ and the Number Piece series — Cage attempted to reconcile the experimental, process-oriented character of his mature compositions with the idea of a musical work or object. In the Number Piece series in particular, Cage believed that he had finally discovered a way to write music that had harmony, which he now defined as sounds noticed at the same time.

Another of Cage's works, Organ² / ASLSP, is currently being performed near the German township of Halberstadt; in an imaginative and controversial interpretation of Cage's directions for the piece to be played "As Slow As Possible", the performance, being done on a specially-constructed autonomous organ built into the old church of St. Burchardi, is scheduled to take a total of 639 years after having been started at midnight on September 5, 2001. The first year and half of the performance was total silence, with the first chord -- G-sharp, B and G-sharp -- not sounding until February 2, 2003. Then in July 2004, two additional Es, an octave apart, were sounded and are scheduled to be released later this year on May 5. But at 5:00 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Thursday, 5 January, the first chord progressed to a second -- comprising A, C and F-sharp -- and is to be held down over the next few years by weights on an organ being built especially for the project.

Europeras 3 & 4 were commissioned in the spring of 1989 and were to be premiered at the Almeida Festival in London the following year and with a subsequent European tour. David Revill, in his biography on John Cage ("The Roaring Silence"), writes, "Europeras 3 & 4, while clearly related to the first two, and bringing with them features such as the "Truckera", stand in relation to them as chamber to grand opera." John Cage’s Europera 3 was completed in 1990. The instrumentation is as follows: 6 singers, 2 pianos, 6 victrola players (each operating 2 gramophones with 50 discs), lighting (72-96 light projectors). Europera 4 is written for soprano, mezzo-soprano, solo piano, victrola player (with 6 discs), lighting (72-96 light projectors). Both operas are to be performed in sequence.

While at the Almeida Festival in London during the premiere of Europeras 3 & 4, Cage described hearing Pindemonium, a "comic opera" by William Le Page, in Boston in April of 1989. Based on the comic strip character Zippy the Pinhead created by Bill Griffith, Pindemonium is scored for upright piano, string quartet, soprano, tenor, and bass-baritone, radio, television and tape, toy piano, and three percussionists playing toy trumpet, toy saxophone, slide whistles, barnyard animal sounds, and household kitchen items. The score also includes lighting cues for two spotlight operators and for one operator of stage lights. At the end of the opera, there is a prolonged section in complete silence where the singers move across the stage according to chance-determined blocking; the stage is completely dark and the only light comes from one spotlight, which also moves randomly based on chance-determined lighting cues.

One of Cage's last works entitled One11, written only several months before his death in 1992, is a silent work entirely composed of images of the chance-determined play of electric light. Cage said of this work, of which a film was directed and produced by Henning Lohner, "Of course the film will be about the effect of light in an empty space. But no space is actually empty and the light will show what is in it. And all this space and all this light will be controlled by random operations."

Cage was also highly prolific as a writer, producing a series of increasingly experimental texts that were largely incorporated into several books published during his lifetime. These are Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1968), M (1973), Empty Words (1979), X (1983) and Anarchy (1988). In these books, featuring writings stemming from straightforward essays to diary entries and latterly the ‘writing through’ in mesostics of texts such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Cage employed chance methodologies to create texts which were often presented spatially on the page in a striking variety of font sizes, typefaces and layouts- an approach towards creating an increasingly visual dimension to text, perhaps inspired by the experimental poetry of E.E. Cummings and lettrism.

In addition a series of intriguing interviews between Cage and the critic Daniel Charles are collected in the book For the Birds (1981), whose title is a reference to one of Cage's favorite sayings, which is typical of his often subtle, self-referential humor: "I am for the birds, not for the cages people put them in." Richard Kostelanetz assembled a collage of various interviews in Conversing with Cage (second ed., 2003), and a volume of conversations with Joan Retallack from the 1990s, Musicage, appeared in 1996.

From the late sixties Cage was also active as a visual artist, working on annual projects at Crown Point Press, from which he produced a series of drawings, prints and watercolours. Some of these were inspired by the drawings made by Thoreau in his Journal, and by the aesthetics of his earlier friend (and chess partner), artist Marcel Duchamp. One of his most striking visual pieces is the 1969 work Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, which is comprised of a complex array of superimposed type encased within plexiglas panels. It seems at times as though Cage’s increasing interest in writing and visual art indicated a certain frustration with musical composition. However, as Cage pointed out, he aimed to remain faithful to his promise to Schoenberg to devote his life to music.

John Cage died in New York City, only weeks before a celebration of his 80th birthday organised in Frankfurt by the composer Walter Zimmermann and the musicologist Stefan Schaedler was due to take place; however the event went ahead as planned, including a performance of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra by David Tudor and Ensemble Modern.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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