Today is the 109th birthday of the composer John Cage. On 1952, David Tudor sat down in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and did nothing. The piece 4’33” written by John Cage, is possibly the most famous and important piece in twentieth century avant-garde. 4’33” was a distillation of years of working with found sound, noise, and alternative instruments. In one short piece, Cage broke from the history of classical composition and proposed that the primary act of musical performance was not making music, but listening. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: John Cage
AKA: John Milton Cage, Jr.
DATE OF BIRTH: 5-Sep-1912
PLACE OF BIRTH: Los Angeles, CA
DATE OF DEATH: 12-Aug-1992
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City
CAUSE OF DEATH: Stroke
REMAINS: Cremated (ashes scattered at Stony Point, NY)
WIFE: Xenia Kashevaroff (m. 7-Jun-1935, div. 1945)
BOYFRIEND: Merce Cunningham (dancer/choreographer, together 1943-92)
Guggenheim Fellowship 1949
American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1978
American Academy of Arts and Letters 1989
Kyoto Prize 1989
BEST KNOWN FOR: John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, music theorist, artist, and philosopher.
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.
Cage took piano lessons as a child, beginning around age ten, and, although he enjoyed music and showed great academic standing, his first real passion was writing. Following his graduation from Los Angeles High School as valedictorian of his class, he enrolled at Pomona College, but dropped out less than two years into his studies, feeling he wasn’t challenged enough as an aspiring writer.
In 1930, Cage traveled to Europe, spending several months in Paris followed by visits to cities in Germany, Spain, Capri, and Majorca. He experimented with a number of mediums while abroad, including painting, architecture, and poetry, but nothing moved him to create innovative works. However, during the latter portion of his grand tour, Cage first encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky, and was inspired to create his own compositions.
By 1931, Cage had returned to the United States, initially settling in Santa Monica, not far from his childhood home. He continued to experiment with composition (often attempting things far beyond his training and skills) and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Cage desired a more refined understanding of music composition, but was not yet fully committed to a singular artistic vocation. During this interim, he traveled to New York and began taking classes at The New School, where his instructor and friend Henry Cowell recommended Cage seek out the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, whom Cowell believed could provide the kind of instruction that Cage needed. After months of a grueling schedule honing his composition skills, Cage was secure enough in his ability to approach Schoenberg, who agreed to take him as a pupil – free of charge – on the condition that he would dedicate his life to music.
Cage spent two years training under Schoenberg at USC and UCLA, and, although Schoenberg’s tutelage proved fruitful and he remained a lifelong influence on the young composer, he needed to part ways with his mentor in order to develop a completely new and innovative style of music. An oft recounted exchange between Cage and Schoenberg describes the impetus for their parting: “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.’
While studying at UCLA and working at his mother’s craft shop, Cage met Xenia Kashevaroff, an American-Russian artist whom he married in 1935. Following the whirlwind romance and marriage, Cage found work composing music for various choreographies at UCLA, and began the practice of incorporating non-musical elements into his work such as kitchen utensils, metal sheets, and household items. Despite several teaching engagements throughout the 1940s, including posts at Mills College in Oakland and the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, the young couple still endured regular financial hardship. However, it was at Cornish College of the Arts where Cage first met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham – who would eventually become his life-long collaborator and partner. While at the college, Cage gained notoriety for his prepared piano – a traditional piano with objects placed amidst, under, and above the strings to alter its sound – which he invented in 1940.
The Cages moved to Chicago in 1941. A year later, after receiving a commission from CBS, Cage sought more commissions and moved to New York with Xenia. Upon arriving in New York, the Cages stayed with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim generously offered to support the couple as long as they needed and offered Cage a concert at her gallery. However, he had already been offered a performance at the Museum of Modern Art, and, when Guggenheim learned of this performance, she felt betrayed and withdrew her support, leaving the couple homeless and without any immediate income. The Cages’ marriage was on the rocks and ended in divorce in 1945, after Cage became romantically involved with Merce Cunningham, who had also moved to New York.
In 1946, Cage began studying Indian music and philosophy from Gita Sarabhai – an Indian musician whom he was tutoring in Western music. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage attended several lectures given by the famous Zen Buddhist, D.T. Suzuki, who would also have a large influence on his work. In 1951, he received a newly translated copy of the I-Ching – the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes” – from his pupil, and became fascinated with the text’s symbol system used to identify order in chance events. This was a major breakthrough for Cage and inspired him to compose music incorporating the elements of chance and randomness as guided by the ancient Chinese text. For example, he would take a tape recording of a music performance, cut it up at random, and then consult the I-Ching for how to re-assemble the tape for a new, final composition.
By the 1950s, Cage had spent two summers as an instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and was in residence there in 1952, along with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. This radical institution provided the environment for the development of the young Neo-Dada movement as well as some of Cage’s most experimental and avant-garde works, including Theater Piece No. 1(1952), and 4′ 33″(1952). Both works used standard musical instruments in unorthodox manners and relied heavily on aspects of chance to create the music. Cage began incorporating more non-musical elements like radios, seashells, and recordings of random events into his work. Some performances lacked any specifically created sound whatsoever.
Cage’s close relationship with Cunningham – by 1954 the two were living together in Stony Point, NY – allowed the two to collaborate often, combining Cage’s musical scores with Cunningham’s choreography, often calling upon Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns for theater set design. Cage began teaching experimental composition at The New School in New York, where one of his students was Allan Kaprow. Kaprow applied Cage’s instruction in the importance of chance to a new form of performance art that he called “happenings”.
Cage was affiliated with Wesleyan University from the late 1950s through his death. In addition to his artistic and musical pursuits, Cage was also an avid mycologist throughout his life, co-founding the New York Mycological Society – a group dedicated to the scientific study and appreciation of fungi – in 1962. Until the early 1990s Cage continued composing, but due to increasing arthritis in his hands, he conducted fewer and fewer live performances. However, Cage’s creative output did not slow down, even though he was obliged to rely on other performers to carry out his work. In his final years, his work had returned, in a sense, to the diverse multimedia practice that had consumed him as a young man in Europe; in addition to working on a number of operas and other musical scores, Cage practiced printmaking and watercolors. In the last five years of his life, nearly paralyzed by arthritis, a recent stroke, and other ailments, he created his lauded works, the Number Pieces, which many consider the final masterpieces from one of the 20th century’s greatest avant-gardists. In the late summer of 1992, while enjoying a quiet day at his Stony Point home with Cunningham, John Cage suffered a second stroke and succumbed the following day, less than one month shy of his 80th birthday.
Cage’s innovations with sound, instrumentation, performance, and composition all helped redefine music in the 20th century. More specifically, his use of chance and the creative ways in which he utilized performers in his works helped inform and shape avant-garde movements like Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Conceptual art. His innovations also had a profound influence on late-20th-century developments in sound art and performance art, which focused increasingly on context and variability. Through his collaborations at Black Mountain College, Cage also encouraged artists such as Rauschenberg to explore visual art that incorporated chance, an element that would have a major impact on the course of modern art during the second half of the century.
Cage’s radical oeuvre has encouraged many composers after him to utilize chance in their work as well, including artists like Witold Lutoslawski and Mauricio Kagel, among others. Through his unique developments in rhythm and sound elements, Cage influenced musicians like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich, who were inspired to pursue similar non-traditional instrumentation in their compositions. His style also deeply affected late-20th-century rock bands like Stereolab, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth, while Aphex Twin even featured the prepared piano on one of their albums in 2001.