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John Cage

22 Dec 2016Personal Essays

John Milton Cage is among the most mysterious figures, who managed to reach the Bohemian Olympus, moreover, to maintain their status, as his professional development occurred throughout his whole life span. Cage seems to have exceeded his own time, that’s why he is often declared as a scandalous figure as well: Zen Buddhist, vanguard philosopher, writer and composer, who interpreted his own music as “purposeless play”, which, however, 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 ot act of its own accord” (Cage, 1991, p. 158). The present paper is designed to discuss both biography and creative heritage of John Cage.

Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and originated from a Scottish family. His father was a creative personality, a famous inventor, who used to teach his son in the following statement: “of someone says ‘can’t’, that shows you what to do” (Cage, 1991, p. 158). His mother, on the contrary, was a strict woman with strong common sense, who, in addition, was Episcopalian (Dyson, 1992) and therefore hated violin as a devil’s instrument and tried to prevent his son from studying music. As the composer writes (Cage, 1991; Nyman, 1974), his aspiration to create became consciousness at Pomona College, when he was shocked to see all his classmates reading the same book in the library. In order to manifest his protest, he took a book, whose author’s name began with Z and received the highest grade in the class on the next day (Nyman, 1974). In his opinion, Cage made a right conclusion and alleged that the institution didn’t work appropriately; consequently, he dropped out in the second year and moved to Europe, where he began to write his first pieces of audio art (Dyson, 1992).

Nevertheless, he was dissatisfied with his work as architect’s apprentice and thus returned to America in 1931. His interest in his motherland was completely renovated after he read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, so he decided to  make famous both himself and his native state and ped into the art of composition, comprehending and learning it with such celebrities as Richard Buhlig, Adolph Weiss, Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg (Dyson, 1992). Schoenberg agreed to teach Cage for free, but put forth an important condition – the young prodigy was supposed to devote his life to music – Cage agreed without any redundant reflections.

Cage remembers Schoenberg’s tutorship as a contradictory experience: “After I have been studying with his for two years, Schoenberg said: ‘In order to write, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said 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’.” (Kostelanetz, 1990, p. 295).

After these studies, the composer got preoccupied with serialism, which he used to explain with his humor as the application of holistic and democratic ideals, so that the certain pitches did not predominate over the others. Soon, his experimentation with percussion and non-traditional instruments began, so he gradually replaced harmony with rhythm (Nyman, 1974). Furthermore, he employed Anton Webern’s and Eric Satie’s approaches to music, which prescribed structuring pieces in accordance with the duration of the section or episode (Kostelanetz, 1990; Sumner et al, 1986). In 1935 he married a Russian immigrant artist, Xenia Kashevaroff.

Towards the end of the 1930s, the composer began to attend the Cornish School of the Arts and was at the same time hired in Seattle as an accompanist for dancers – his most prominent work in this field was the project “Bacchanale” (Dyson, 1992; Sumner et al, 1986), which constituted a dance for Syvilla Fort. Due to the fact that the music was supposed to create the atmosphere of a Bacchanalia, Cage attempted to adjust percussion and other music instruments to the dance and began to put metal objects (screws, bolts and so forth) on the tops of or between the strings of his piano and really enjoyed  the subsequent ‘melody’.

Thus, his concept of “prepared piano” (Sumner et al, 1986) came into being – similarly to his teacher Henry Cowell, he also viewed the instrument as an incomplete tool, which needed additional improvement, depending upon the situation (Sumner et al, 1986). “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” (Dyson, 1992, p. 382). In Cage’s opinion, the chance was an important step towards the refined art.

His later work, entitled ‘First Construction (In Metal)’ was less ‘disordered’, comparing to the ‘Sonatas and Interludes’, where he left much more freedom for a composer and created different versions of the ‘prepared piano’. Cage’s ‘First Construction (In Metal)’ consisted of rhythmic and cold music, produced by percussion instruments, which sometimes is structures into a peculiar ‘march’, but further changes the rhythm (Kostelanetz, 1990).

In the middle of the 1940s, Cage met choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham (Nyman, 1974), for whom he would write a number of pieces. In several years, the composer adopted Zen Buddhism as his philosophy of life and began to add the elements of mystery and existential themes into his pieces of art.

Approximately at the same time Cage employed the I Ching, the Book of Changes in order to determine the structure of his new composition. For instance his, ‘Imaginary Landscape No.4’ was created under the influence of this writing (Furlong, 1994) 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 the time of performance” (Furlong, 1994, p. 63).

The composition therefore was not performed in accordance with the prescriptions and sounded then in the indeterminate mode; as a result, his later  pieces had been long rejected by orchestras, as the major responsibility for the successful and appropriate structuring was placed upon the performer, rather than the composer. Although the “Concept for Piano and Orchestra” and “Atlas Eclipticalis” were intended for a symphonic orchestra, they had been viewed as a ‘taboo’ by conservative musicians, who talent was nurtured in conservatoriums, up to the middle of the 1970s (Dyson, 1992, Furlong, 1994).

In parallel with his experiment, Cage visited the anaechoic chamber, where all surfaces were designed to absorb all sounds, where he wished to hear the true silence, but instead heard two sounds, one of which was louder, another one – lower. He informed the engineer on his finding, but, as Cage remembers in his autobiographic sketch (Cage, 1991), the specialist explained that the louder sound referred to the work of his nervous system, and the lower one – to his blood circulation. For many years Cage was searching for a totally soundless and quit place and concluded that merely death was likely to eliminate all sounds (Nyman, 1974).

His understanding of the impossibility of silence as embodied in his most extraordinary composition entitled ‘4’33’ (Dyson, 1992), which, however, was composed of several rhythmic silent episodes, as he later argued. The title can be interpreted also as 273 seconds, and due to the fact that minus 273 C is the absolute zero, the lowest temperature which can be achieved, so the author also tried to produce a background, or zero-level, from which the noise and sound derive and develop. The premiere of the composition took place in 1952 and was performed by David Tudor. “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” (Dyson, 1992, p. 400).

The audience’s reaction was ambivalent; some visitors left the auditorium in the middle of the performance, others began to whisper to one another – thus, the piece was a great opportunity for everyone to hear themselves and realize that even in the silent settings, the sound penetrates the accommodation.  As Cage later alleged, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound” (Kostelanetz, 1990, p. 293). This work can be compared to Malevich’s “Black Square”: in the darkness and homogeneity of the illustration, everyone finds certain hidden senses and meanings, moreover, adjusts this interpretation to the conditions of his own life and might even decide that the square is in fact the prophecy concerning his own life.

Similarly, the contradictory piece inescapably results in the search for a deeper understanding and probably in the attempt to tie the structure and the nature of the composition to the existing political or social problems. In fact, Cage was absolutely apolitical and to great extent asocial, as he never vacillated between daring oppose the minority’s opinion and daring not. As Cage 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” (Snyder, 1992, p. 62).

‘4’33’ can also be compared to the piece, written ten years later and entitled with the similar simplification ‘0’0’. Cage decided to perform this composition by himself, as it included merely the sound of slicing vegetables, putting them into a blender and drinking the resulting juice (Nyman, 1974). In my opinion, both compositions are designed for giving no heed of them – on the contrary, inpiduals need to conduct introspection and involve into the useful process of thinking and reflecting while listening.

Cage’s philosophy is also experimental and consists of the following writings: ‘silence’ (1961), ‘A Year From Monday’ (1968), ‘M’ (19730, ‘Empty Words’ (1979), ‘X’ (1983) and ‘Anarchy’ (1988). Most of them are written under the influence of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and his concept of consciousness flow, as the books usually narrate about the different days of Cage’s life, his essays easily switch from one year to another and provide not merely textual image, but are also intended to construct the reader’s hearing and seeing of the events (Dyson, 1992).  

Furthermore, “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 watercolors” (Sumner, 1986, p. 263). At the same time, the composer didn’t give up the art he was really faithful to and continued to create music, including the re-interpretations of his earlier works: for instance, the ‘Litany for the Whale’ (1980) to great extent resemble his ‘Hymns and Variations’ (1979), whereas his ‘cheap Imitation’ is designed as a rebirth of Satie’s ‘Socrate’. Just before his death, Cage created ‘One 11’, the silent piece, which consists of images and electric light, which, in his opinion, should highlight the spaces, used in the work and demonstrate that they are not empty. The composer therefore knew no spiritual emptiness or exhaustion even in his last days. Cage died on August, 12, 1992.  

To sum up, Cage’s creative works were a true novelty and therefore influenced a number of artists and composers. In addition, one can conclude from the paper that the major value in Cage’s life was freedom: “I am for birds, not for the cages people put them in” (Snyder, 1992, p. 62). In fact, the compositions like ‘4’33’ could be created only by an independent person, who didn’t care about public opinion and oriented to his own ideas and perceptions.


  • Cage, J. 1991. An Autobiographical Statement. Southwest Review, 12: 154-178.  
  • Dyson, F. 1992. The Ear that Would Hear Sounds in Themselves: John Cage, in ‘Wireless Imagination. Sound, Radio, Avant-Garde’, edited by D.Kahn and G.Whitehead. Cambridge (Massachusetts), the MIT Press, pp. 373-408.
  • Furlong, W. 1994. John cage, in ‘Discourse and Practice in Contemporary Art’, edited by W.Furlong. London, Academy Editions, pp. 62-64.
  • Kostelanetz, R. 1990. John Cage on Radio and Audio Tape, in ‘Sound by Artists, Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery’, edited by D.Lander and M.Lexier. Toronto, Banff, pp. 289-300.
  • Nyman, M. 1974. Experimental Music. Cage and Beyond. New York: Harper.
  • Snyder, E. 1992. John Cage Discusses Fluxus. Fluxus, Vol. 26 (1-2), pp.59-68.
  • Sumner, M., Burch, K. and Sumner, M. 1986. The guests go in to supper. John Cage, Robert Ashley, Yoko Ono, laurie Anderson, Charles Amirkhanian, Michael Rappe. San Francisco, Burning Books.

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