John Cage


John Cage was born in Los Angeles, the son of an inventor.  After graduating from college he traveled to Europe before returning to the USA to study under Henry Cowell in New York and Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. Schoenberg taught him counterpoint and composition, and once intimated that he was more of an inventor than a composer.  Certainly, Cage was extremely inventive from the very start , his early works showing novel approaches to serial methods.  His creativity progressed yet further when called upon to provide a great deal of music at short notice for choreographer Merce Cunningham.  Cage's solution was to radically alter the sound of a standard piano by "preparing" it, effectively creating a new instrument.  Objects were placed on or between the strings, affecting the sound made by certain keys and giving the performer access to what might be called a virtual percussion orchestra.  The resulting Bacchanale of 1938 paved the way for Cage's landmark work, the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.

From the early '40s, Cage used electronic sources as an extension of the percussion ensembles he often wrote for.  Although Edgard Varèse had already made significant innovations in this field, Cage took it further, using both live electronic instruments (which could include anything from buzzers to radios) and techniques such as tape splicing to produce works such as Williams Mix.

An Eastern influence first manifested itself in the use of additive rhythms (also exploited by Olivier Messiaen) in works like First Construction, and then in studies Cage undertook in Zen Buddhism at Columbia University.  Cage's subsequent approach to music has been described as overly intellectual or Dadaist, but it probably stems more from the frequently bizarre techniques used by Zen masters to confuse or redirect their students into sudden enlightenment.  Cage considered every noise musical - he was frustrated by the inability of Western musicians to find beauty in anything other than the relationships between sounds found in Beethoven and Brahms.  Thus we have Cage confronting audiences with random works generated by the I Ching (Music of Changes), silent works (4'33"), disjointed juxtapositions of classical works (HPSCHD), aleatory, spectacle and much which has been labelled cheap gimmickry.

Cage's influence on Europe was extensive, with composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen allowing performers greater freedom in the structuring and interpretation of the pieces they were presented with.  Cage allowed his performers freedom by methods such as allowing them to rearrange pre-composed sections of a work, improvise or adjust note durations. 

Cage stands almost alone in the 20th century canon in having written a great deal of very complex music and a great deal of very simple music.  His death in 1992 robbed music of one of its most inquisitive and searching minds.

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