John Cage

From New World Encyclopedia

John Cage
John Cage (1988).jpg
Background information
Birth name John Milton Cage
Born September 5, 1912
Flag of United States Los Angeles, California, United States
Died August 12, 1992 (age 79)
New York City, New York, United States
Genre(s) Avant-garde, chance, experimental
Occupation(s) Composerphilosopher, printmaker, writer
Years active 1938-1992
Label(s) Mode

John Milton Cage, Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer. He is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4'33", whose three movements are performed without a single note being played. He was a pioneer of chance music, non-standard use of musical instruments, and electronic music. Though he remains a controversial figure, he is generally regarded as one of the most important composers of his era.

Cage was a long-term collaborator and romantic partner of choreographer Merce Cunningham. In addition to his composing, Cage was also a philosopher, writer, printmaker, and avid amateur mycologist and mushroom collector. With the many interests of John Cage, he never deviated from serving the specific purposes of new music as well as the larger purposes of the independence of mankind. He made audiences think about themselves and others in an unselfish give and take through new musical ideas.

He particularly disdained the European notion of music and the "vogue of profundity" and once proclaimed in a speech that "Beethoven was wrong" and that the traditional compositional rational of "goal-oriented harmonic narratives" as practiced by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Dvorak, and so on, was antipodal to nature.

Reinforcing that particular assertion he states: "The writing of music is an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvement in creation but simply a way of waking up to a to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desire out of the way and let it act of its own accord."

Early life and work

Cage was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Los Angeles High School. He was of English and Scottish descent. His inventor father said to him, “if someone says ‘can't,’ that shows you what to do.”[1] Cage described his mother as a woman with "a sense of society" who was "never happy."

Cage's family was Episcopalian. Cage himself planned to become a minister or writer. He said that even before he chose a musical path, he had an unfocused desire to create. He took piano lessons as a child, but did not devote himself fully to music until much later. There are some hints of his subsequent anti-establishment stance in his early life; for example, while attending Pomona College, he was 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."[1]

Cage dropped out in his second year of college 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 did not like them and 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."

Cage soon began to experiment with percussion instruments, as well as non-traditional instruments and 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 favorite composers.

In 1935, Cage married artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff.

The Cornish School years

In the late 1930s, 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 Syvilla 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 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. This creation was influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell, who wrote pieces requiring performers to pluck the piano strings with their fingers and use metal slides.

The Sonatas and Interludes of 1946–48 are usually considered Cage's greatest work for prepared piano. Pierre Boulez was one of the work's admirers, and he organized its European premiere. The two composers struck up a correspondence which ended when they disagreed over Cage's use of chance in composing. For Boulez, this was an 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.

An autobiographical piece

Another significant prepared piano work is The Perilous Night (1943). "Cage always referred to it as his "autobiographical" piece, and his biographer, David Revill has convincingly associated it with the traumas associated with Cage's sexual reorientation, culminating in divorce from his wife (1945) and the beginning of a monogamous homosexual partnership with Merce Cunningham, that lasted to the end of his life. [This piece was] Cage's attempt to express, and thereby relieve, the anxieties he was experiencing in his private life"3.

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. It consisted of a quartet using "a muted piano, a suspended cymbal, and two variable-speed turntables on which single-frequency radio test records were played at various steady speeds and also sliding between speeds in siren-like glissandos"3. 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.)

In late 1942 and early 1943 Cage composed his "'Ten-Piece Percussion Ensemble' whose members included his [then] wife Xenia and Merce Cunningham"3. This piece was performed at the New York Museum of Modern Art, February 7, 1943. "It was widely written up in the press, including a picture spread in LIFE magazine, and won him his first fame"3.

Asian Influences

While at the Cornish School, Cage encountered ideas that influenced his later work. From the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai he heard Thomas Mace's saying "The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Cage 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 are detectable in such pieces such as The Seasons and the String Quartet in Four Parts, whose anti-directional and harmonically static forms suggest the cycles of nature.

Most influential, though, was Cage’s discovery in the late 1940s of Daoism and then Zen Buddhism, through Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. In 1950, Cage received a copy of the I Ching from composer Christian Wolff. Rather than fortune-telling, Cage used it to make compositional decisions. The first work Cage composed by tossing coins was titled, appropriately enough, Music of Changes"3. The reduced, static expression of the Indian-inspired works faded as Cage aimed to dissolve personality, intention and expression altogether via the use of chance. Another important work from this era is the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1951.

John Cage put the influence of Zen Buddhism 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."[2] Hence comes his favorite saying nichi nichi kore kōnichi or, every day is a good day.


After leaving the Cornish School, Cage joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Design for a time, then moved to New York City. 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 David Tudor, his other closest collaborator during this period.

After it was 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. Another piece Cage wrote consisted of lines, running horizontally and some vertically across the page of all different length. The performer must determine the speed, pitch, clef, and length of each note based on what he perceived the line to instruct. He used chance in other ways as well; Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) is written for 12 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 realizing 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.

Techniques of Chance

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. There, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cage wrote a "mixed-media performance called HPSCHD (computerese for "harpsichord"). Programming the computer to make the I Ching coin tosses for him enabling Cage to make enough random decisions-more than a million-to keep seven keyboard players, 52 tape recorders playing random computer-generated 'tunes' in 52 different tuning systems, 52 film projectors and 64 slide projectors (showing scenes of space travel, some from old science-fiction movies) constantly busy for four-and-a-half hours, May 16, 1969"3. Cage called the generation of an I Ching number a chance operation. … A finished composition generally entailed numerous chance operations. Before "HPSCHD," He composed Atlas eclipticalis (1961). This piece was written for "86 instrumental parts that could be played in whole or in part, for any duration and in any combination from soloist to full orchestra. The I Ching decided which staves carried which clefs, and how they were to be assigned to the various instruments. The performance was a fiasco. The orchestra rebelled along with the audience… some so enraged that they threw their microphones on the floor and stamped on them"3. These are just a few examples of 'Chance Music' that Cage comprised and the reactions he received. Most performers often felt that Cage's 'chance' music was so detailed that there was nothing left to chance (or improvise). The performers felt more like slaves of the music rather than interpreters. Cage later went on to say "In my opinion it is the composer's privilege to determine his works, down to the minutest detail"3.

Black Mountain, 4’33’’

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, 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 realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the "composition" of his most notorious piece, 4′33″.

Did you know?
The twentieth century composer John Cage is best known for his composition 4'33", whose three movements are performed without a single note being played

Cage repeatedly claimed that he composed 4′33″ in small units of silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equalled the duration of the title. Cage suggested that he might have made a mistake in addition. Some have speculated that the title of the work refers to absolute zero, as 4’33″ expressed in seconds is 273 seconds, and minus 273 degrees is absolute zero in the Celsius scale; there is, however, no evidence that this relationship is anything more than a coincidence.

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 blank canvases, the idea being that they 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.

Precedents of the use of silence

Cage was not the first composer to write a piece consisting solely of silence. One precedent is "In futurum," a movement from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. Written in 1919, Schulhoff's meticulously notated composition is made up entirely of rests. [3] Cage was, however, almost certainly unaware of Schulhoff's work. Another prior example is Alphonse Allais's Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, written in 1897, and consisting of nine blank measures. Allais's composition is arguably closer in spirit to Cage's work; Allais was an associate of Erik Satie, and given Cage's profound admiration for Satie, the possibility that Cage was inspired by the Funeral March is tempting. However, according to Cage himself, he was unaware of Allais's composition at the time (though he had heard of a nineteenth-century book that was completely blank).[4]

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, to mark the beginning of the piece, close the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements.[5] The piece had passed without a note being played—in fact without Tudor (or anyone else) having made any deliberate sound as part of the piece. 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 among those who continue to take it seriously, 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."[6]

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 publishers later sued Mike Batt for having created a track on his album, Classical Graffiti, with one minute of silence. The track was named "A One Minute Silence" and credited to John Cage. An out of court settlement was reached, with Batt paying a six-figure sum to the John Cage Trust.

Happenings and Fluxus

John Cage's 'Experimental Composition' classes from 1957 to 1959 at the New School for Social Research have become legendary as an American source of Fluxus, the international network of artists, composers, and designers. 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 1950s. 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. In October of 1960, Mary Baumeister's Cologne studio hosted a joint concert by Cage and the video artist Nam June Paik, who in the course of his 'Etude for Piano' cut off Cage's tie and then washed his co-performer’s hair with shampoo.

On May 9, 2006 at Christie's auction house 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.

Subsequent works

Cage’s work from the 1960s 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 52 tapes of computer-generated sounds, 6,400 slides of designs many supplied by NASA, and shown from 64 slide projectors, with 40 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 1950s. 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 1970s and 1980s, 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)[7], through to the hyper-virtuosic- an example being the Freeman Etudes- Books I and II (1980), composed for the violinist Paul Zukofsky. 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 one to five. Cage was invited to compose the first two works for the Frankfurt Opera. They deconstruct operatic form, yet are not merely parodic. Plots, librettos, and arias (often sung simultaneously) were assembled via chance methods from a wide range of conventional 18th and 19th century operas whose texts and scores were in the public domain. Chance determined other aspects as well, from stage lighting, scenery, costumes and props to the actions of the singers. There was no conductor; performers were instead guided by 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 works, 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.

Re-emergence of 'harmony'

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 being been performed near the German township of Halberstadt, in an imaginative interpretation of Cage's directions for the piece. The performance is being done on a specially-constructed autonomous organ built into the old church of Saint Burchardi. It 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 sounded later this year on May 5. But at 5:00P.M. (1600 GMT) on Thursday, January 4, 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.

Subsequent europeras

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.

Cage's One11, written only a few 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."

Writings, visual art, and other activities

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 ranging from straightforward essays to diary entries to wholly experimental writing. For example, he invented the mesostic, a type of poem in which Cage ‘wrote through’ 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 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 1960s 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 watercolors. 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.

Cage had a lifelong interest in mushrooms. He co-founded the New York Mycological Society with three friends and his mycology collection is presently housed by the University of California, Santa Cruz.


John Cage died in New York City on August 12, 1992, only weeks before a celebration of his 80th birthday organized 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.


John Cage was the most influential composer of aleatory or chance music where he chose pitches, rhythms and tone colors by random and allowed the musicians or performers to select the ordering of the pitches, rhythms and tonal colors or in some cases, to choose the musical elements themselves. This was a complete break-away from traditional music wherein Cage was suggesting that one sound or rhythmic element was just as important as any other sound or element. Cage shocked his musicians and audiences into opening their minds to a new way of collecting and hearing sounds.

Cultural Influences

  • The Tragically Hip recorded a song called "Tiger the Lion" for their Music @ Work album which refers to John Cage and some of his ideas.[8]
  • The character John Cage in the American television legal situation comedy Ally McBeal was named after him.
  • Sonic Youth on their SYR4 album adapted pieces composed by John Cage.
  • Stereolab on their Refried Ectoplasm album recorded a song entitled "John Cage Bubblegum."
  • In chapter 75 of Charles Bukowski's Women the narrator states, "If John Cage could get one thousand dollars for eating an apple, I’d accept $500 plus air fare for being a lemon."


  1. 1.0 1.1 John Cage, An Autobiographical Statement Southwest Review (1991).
  2. John Cage, Experimental Music Music Teachers National Association, Chicago, 1957. Retrieved December 28, 2012.
  3. Erwin Schulhoff: In Futurum Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  4. Peter Dickinson, "Reviews of three books on Satie" Musical Quarterly 75 (3)(1991): 404-409.
  5. Tudor's movements in performance are often misdescribed: Cage's score (written after the first performance) states that the lid was closed during the movements, and raised for the breaks.
  6. John Cage, Silence: lectures and writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, ISBN 978-0819560285).
  7. Cage self-identified as an anarchist in a 1985 interview: "I'm an anarchist. I don't know whether the adjective is pure and simple, or philosophical, or what, but I don't like government! And I don't like institutions! And I don't have any confidence in even good institutions." John Cage at Seventy: An Interview by Stephen Montague. American Music (Summer 1985). Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  8. The Tragically Hip – Tiger The Lion Retrieved December 12, 2012.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cage, John. Silence: lectures and writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. ISBN 978-0819560285
  • Dickinson, Peter. Cage talk: dialogues with and about John Cage. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006. ISBN 1580462375
  • Nicholls, David. The Cambridge companion to John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521783488
  • Taruskin, Richard. "Indeterminacy" 55-101, Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 5. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0195386301
  • Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise-Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 978-0374249397

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.




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