Cage, John

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: Thursday, September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles, California (USA)

Died: Wednesday, August 12, 1992 in New York, New York (USA)

Nation of Origin: United States

Major Works:

Opera: Europera I/II (1987)
Ballet: The Seasons (1947)
Orchestral, percussion, electronic, and chamber music

Other Information:

John Cage was born on 5 September 1912 in Los Angeles. His father was an inventor, and his mother was a founder of Lincoln Study Clubs in Detroit and Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, John Cage attended Pomona College but dropped it after two years. Wanting to become a writer, he went to Europe (Paris, Berlin and Madrid) and studied music, art and architecture. After returning to States in 1933, he met Henry Cowell and attended his classes on contemporary music. At Cowell's suggestion he went to study with Arnold Schoenberg (Schoenberg agreed to teach him free of charge). But the two of them separated rather quickly (in 1935) because of their arguments about harmony.

Cage's early pieces were devoted mainly to percussion instruments. Works were based around rhythmic patterns and were more oriented to Eastern that to Western music. Perhaps, the most important works from this period are Imaginary Landscape no. 1, and Construction I & II. At the end of the 1930s Cage, working on Cowell's ideas, developed what is now known as "prepared piano" in order to obtain new percussive sounds from classical instruments (Schoenberg's opinion was that Cage "is not a composer, he is an inventor"). From that time to the mid-1950s he wrote a number of pieces for that instrument. Bacchanele (1940) was the first one to be performed, but his best pieces for prepared piano are in collection called Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, a cycle of pieces written from 1946 to 1948. Cage did not neglect percussion during work on the prepared piano. He even wrote some pieces for prepared piano and percussion (Amores, 1943 - 2 solos for prepared piano and 2 solos for 3 percussionist; She is Asleep, 1943 for percussion quartet, voice and prepared piano).

Meeting with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham marked a beginning of a long and fruitful association. In 1952 Cage wrote "Theatre Piece" for Cunningham which is regarded as the first musical "happening" (a spontaneous event). During the same year Cage "wrote" his most famous work 4' 33'' ". (Cage thought of it as his most significant piece.) It is written for an instrument or any number of instruments. The performer/performers sit silently on stage not playing a single sound for four minutes and 33 seconds - the music is any sound that comes from the audience or from out the hall. Cage's aim was to reveal to the audience the impossibility of silence and to focus their attention to a number of sounds that are around them. At the same year he wrote his first piece involving tape: Imaginary Landscape no. 5 - the score for which is a set of instructions for producing a tape from fragments of recordings from any 42 records. An interesting piece, written 3 years later is Speech (1955) for 5 radios with news reader.

At the beginning of the 1950s Cage's work was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism and the "I Ching" (the Chinese book of changes). He wrote Music of Changes in 1951, a piece in which he used a "chance" and which was written not in conventional manner but rather in visually startling graphic design. For Renga, a piece dating from mid-1970s, notation consists of drawings by Thoreau.

All this led to a period (late 1950s and 1960s) in which Cage used theatrical and multimedia elements in his work (4' 33' no.2, 1962 - to be performed in any way by anyone).

In his vocal works Cage treated the human voice as an instrument of endless possibilities. His vocal works include: Solos for voice 3-92 (1970), Litany for the Whale (1980, for 2 voices), Five (1988, for 5 voices or instruments), etc.

Among other Cage compositions, one should note: The Seasons (ballet, 1947), Concerto for prepared piano (1951), Concerto for piano and Orchestra (1957-58), Water music (1952, a piece in which a performer is required to perform many actions away from the piano - e.g., pouring water from pots, using a radio etc.), But what about the noise of crumpling paper... (1986, percussion ensemble), Where are we going? And what are we doing (1960, tape), Lecture on the Weather (1975, 12 instruments or voices, tapes, and films). His books on music include: Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967) and For the Birds (1981).

John Cage died in New York on 12 August, 1992.

John Cage's legacy can not be placed into any one category. Some think of him as charlatan, some thought him a guru, but Cage challenged the music, experimented with the instruments to find new sounds and new effects from instruments. He himself wrote "My favourite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write: I write in order to hear the music I have yet heard." Some of his music was not well received both by the audiences and the performers but he received honours and commissions constantly. Whatever one thinks of his legacy, there is no doubt that John Cage was one of the most important composers in 20th century.

One recommended recording of some of Cage's percussion works is CD WERGO WER6203-2. It contains works written from 1939 to 1943 performed by Quatuor Helios. His vocal pieces are on Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 90718 performed by Theatre of Voices. Music for prepared piano can be found on variety of CDs. The complete works for prepared piano can be found on Dabringhaus und Grimm 3 CD box (MDG 613 0781-2), which is Vol. 1 of Complete music for piano, performed by Steffen Schleiermacher. This volume is followed by Vol. 2 Music for piano and Vol. 3 Music of Changes. If one is interested only in Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, they can be found on a very good recording, Etcetera KTC 2001, performed by Gerard Fermy and variety of others.

Alen Hadzovic
April 2000
Used by permission of the author

Essay contributed by:
Alen Hadzovic

General Bibliography:

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

Links to essays at other sites:

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Biographical essay from Wikipedia
The visual art of John Cage at

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