John Cage

Born:  September 12, 1912, in Ponoma, CA

Died:  August 12, 1992, in New York City, NY

Early Studies        Prepared Piano        Chance Music        Anti-Music and 4'33"



Early Studies:

John Milton Cage Jr. was born on September 5, 1912, in Los Angeles, California.  After graduating Los Angeles High school, he briefly studied at Pomona College before leaving in order to spend a year in Europe.  He returned to America in 1931 to study composition with Richard Buhling, who introduced him to avant-garde composer Henry Cowell, who demonstrated the experimental practices he had been employing in his own music (Sadie, 796).  One such practice was found in Cowell’s most famous work, The Banshee, which featured a piano played by strumming rather than striking the keys.  Cowell suggested that Cage return to Los Angeles to continue his studies with famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose serial and atonal works valued mathematical organization over traditional melodic line.  Cage enrolled as Schoenberg’s student in counterpoint at the University of Southern California, and also studied with him in a private setting.  It was in these private studies that Schoenberg attempted to teach him harmonic form, which Cage resisted due to lack of interest.  Schoenberg told Cage that if harmony did not come naturally to him, his composition career would resemble the constant running into an impenetrable wall.  Cage responded, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall” (Kostelanetz, 1970, 53).


Prepared Piano:

Cage’s early compositions strongly resembled those of Cowell and Schoenberg.  However, while studying at the University of Southern California, Cage turned his attention to another composer, Edgard Varese.  Varese’s music examined non-musical sounds and noises for their potential artistic value.  These musical studies led him to Seattle’s Cornish School of the Arts, where he worked as a composer and dance accompanist. With Varese’s work in mind, Cage turned his focus from the piano to percussion instruments (Sadie, 796).  Percussion provided ample opportunity for Cage to study sound for its own sake; it provided no melody or harmony to distract from the pure sounds of the instruments.  Cage described this fascination by saying, “The theory of percussion is much akin to atonal music.  No sound any more important than any other comes out of atonal music into organized sound” (Ewen, 105).  In 1939, Cage wrote two percussion pieces that were performed at the school.  Imaginary Landscape No. 1 used cymbals, piano, and records of test-tones played at different speeds to change the sound.  This, and other percussion pieces, utilized the school’s dancers as instrumentalists, their movements forming part of the percussive line.  Meanwhile, First Construction (in Metal) created a percussion sextet that used the element of time as its main compositional technique (Sadie, 796).   This was the beginning of Cage’s experiments with time, which would become more important to his works in the years to come.

While working with the Cornish school’s dance company, Cage was asked to compose a piece for a dancer named Syvilla Fort.  At first, Cage thought to compose a work for percussion ensemble.  However, he found that the performance space was too small to accommodate a group of musicians (Gann, 1997, 130).  He recalled the strummed piano techniques used by Henry Cowell and developed his own method of non-traditional piano performance.  Instead of strumming the strings inside the piano, Cage placed various objects between the strings, such as bolts, screws, and weather-stripping.  This created various percussive sounds with only one instrument being used, and the prepared piano work, entitled Bacchanale, premiered in 1940 (Sadie, 797).  On the success of this piece and of the accompaniment he composed and performed for a Chicago radio play, Cage moved back to New York to further his compositional career.   His percussion equipment lost in Chicago, he composed wrote In the Name of the Holocaust and Totem Ancestor for prepared piano.  These pieces included choreography by Cage’s lifelong collaborator, Cornish dance student Merce Cunningham, and added more diverse elements such as bamboo, plastic, and rubber to the strings.  In the years 1946-1948, he composed what many consider his prepared piano masterwork, Sonatas and Interludes.  These compositions earned him national recognition as Cowell’s musical heir and won him awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Academy of Arts and Letters (Sadie, 796-797).


Chance Music:

In the 1950s, John Cage studied an ancient book of wisdom and philosophy called the I Ching.  The first legendary Emperor of China, Fu Hsi (2953-2838 BC) wrote the I Ching as a way to explain the dual ideas of balance though opposites and acceptance of change.   The book detailed broken and unbroken lines that formed stacks of six lines each.  These stacks were referred to as hexagrams.  The broken lines represent the yin, or feminine principles, while unbroken lines represented the yang, or masculine principles.  There are 64 different possible stacks, or hexagrams, one can make with these two types of lines.  The tossing of coins determines which six lines are used in the hexagram (Revill, 129-130).  In the I Ching, each hexagram represents a change occurring in that particular time, and a text relating to the ideas of balance and change is provided for each hexagram (Sadie, 797).

Cage took the I Ching’s idea of determining events by chance, combined it with Varese’s theories about the intrinsic value of pure sounds, and applied them to his own music.  The first piece to use the notion of chance as a compositional technique was his Concerto, written for prepared piano and chamber orchestra.  In the third movement of this work, the piano and the orchestra play off of charts consisting of the same sets of sonorities.  The order in which they are played, along with the placement of sound and silence, are determined by chance operations (Sadie, 798).  A year later, Cage took the notion further by writing an entire work in chance form:  Music of Changes for solo piano.  In this work, Cage created 26 charts that dealt with specific aspects of composition, such as length, tempo, and dynamics.  Through the flipping of coins, the performer used the procedure from the I Ching to determine each of these aspects for his/her particular performance (Cope, 171).  Thus, even though Cage had created the basic outlines in the choices given to the performer, the actual form and sound of the work was left up to the performer’s random coin tosses.  As long as there was some random element in the work, Cage was satisfied.

Chance composition appealed to Cage because it worked to remove his personal control over the result of a composition.  It is important to note that chance music could not entirely do this.  Even though the choice of elements and the order in which they were performed were randomly determined, the composer still controlled which elements the performer could use.  Cage arranged the music charts and created the choices that a performer could make, therefore, composer control was still evident (Gann, 136).  However, this music reduced the composer’s input as no other music had before.  This reduction of his role in his own compositions helped Cage reexamine his philosophy of what was “good music.”  In Music for Changes, and in his next few compositions that relied on random choice of elements, Cage hoped that whatever sounds came from the chance operations would be musically pleasing to the ear.  However, as Cage grew more comfortable with the idea of using chance as a compositional tool, he discovered that sounds that he did not think would be enjoyable were, in fact, pleasant (Nyman, 62).  This led to the philosophical idea that permeated throughout Cage’s work; the notion that any sound could be pleasant, and that chance music could introduce Cage to sounds he did not realize could be enjoyable. 

            Further experiments with chance music also led to a greater understanding for Cage about his mission as a composer.  He felt that chance music had the power to create a greater sense of musical awareness.  If the composer removes purpose from his/her music, then the audience cannot approach the music with a preconceived notion of the music’s message or reason for existence.  This allows the audience to experience the music on its own terms, heightening their awareness of the music itself, not the message.  “Therefore,” Cage explained, “my purpose is to remove purpose” (Schwartz, 341).  By removing purpose, Cage removed the disappointment that follows when a composition does not live up to its intended goal.  For with chance music, there were no intended goals, only sound.  Yet, the removal of purpose does not mean the removal of expression.  In fact, by removing purpose, the opposite occurs.  Because the audience is not bound by traditional expectations of the music’s message or meaning, they are open to all possible meanings.  Therefore, the lack of musical expression creates full and complete musical expression.

Anti-Music and 4'33"

Because of Cage’s work in chance music, he gained the confidence needed to revisit a composition that contained his most radical and alternative musical idea to date.  This work began when he was studying the principles of Indian music philosophy and Japanese Zen Buddhism.  In 1946, Cage met Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, who introduced him to Indian philosophy and music (Sadie, 797).  He told Cage that in Indian philosophy, music’s purpose was, “…to quiet and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”  Sarabhai insisted that silence had a specific place in music, the same as sound.  Cage later studied Japanese philosophy at Columbia College with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and found a similar message.  Zen Buddhism revered silence, and Cage took personal solace and professional interest in the Ryoanji stone garden in Kyoto, Japan, a place of quiet tranquility encouraging silent thought and reflection (Sadie, 797). 

As a result of this marriage between Indian and Japanese philosophies, Cage began working on two pieces that examined different methods of removing purposeful sound.  The first was a string quartet where each part consisted of a limited set of sounds.  When the parts were performed together, the result did not produce harmonies, but rather a static, white noise.  The second was a piece he had begun in 1948 entitled Silent Prayer.  This 4’30” work was to consist of complete and total silence, reflecting the tranquility and peace he found in the Japanese rock gardens.  After some rewriting, Cage premiered his re-titled composition, 4’33”, on August 29, 1952, in Woodstock, New York.  The piece was composed for any instrument or group of instruments, but since the event featured pianist David Tudor, the work grew notoriety as a piano solo (Gann, 127).  4’33” was written in three movements: the first lasted approximately 1’40”, the second approximately 2’23”, and the last approximately 30” (Nyman, 3).  Tudor indicated the beginnings and ends of music through the lifting and closing of his piano lid (Gann, 127).   Because the instrument itself did not produce sounds, the “music” came through the incidental noises surrounding the performance.  Ten years later, Cage took this idea even further by composing 0’00”, a work, “to be played in any way by anyone” (Kuhn, 542).  In this composition, as in 4’33”, every sound that is heard becomes a vital part of the composition, making everyone and no-one the work’s true composer.  These pieces represented a genre called anti-music, which means that their very concept or intent went against music tradition (Cope, 196).  As Cage delved deeper into chance, white-noise and silent composition, he began adding electronics as an additional compositional element. One instance of electronic use occurred in 1965, when Cage wrote the Rozart Mix.  This piece was performed using 88 tape loops, one for each piano key, with the artist playing and changing the loops (Sadie, 799). 

Cage’s defense of anti-music as legitimate work sprung from philosophical debates about the meaning of music.  To begin with, Cage argued, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I see it” (Gann, 139).  Though some would argue that a piece such as 4’33” has no meaning because no musical techniques can exist in a silent piece, Cage argued that one musical element, the element of time, does exist.  This suggests that the very act of creating a silent piece, to place it into a specific time-frame, and to break that time into brackets or “movements” makes an artistic statement.  What statement is actually being made is for the audience, not the composer, to define.

Yet, even though Cage revered silence, he believed that total silence was not possible.  Cage came to this conclusion after he locked himself in a soundproof chamber and found two distinct noises in the room: his circulatory system and his nervous system (Albright, 190).  Therefore, as long as one exists, sound will also exist.  This leads to Cage’s studies of Varese’s music.  Cage analyzed Varese by stating that his music arose, “…from an acceptance of all audible phenomena as material proper to music” (Cage, 67).  Therefore, if sound always exists, and all sounds can be considered musical, then, as Cage summarized, “Everything we do is music” (Kostelanetz, 2003, 70).  The pieces 4’33” and 0’00” create their music in the sounds heard surrounding the performances, which then become part of the performance.  These sounds are natural and outside the composer’s control.  In fact, combining anti-music with chance took Cage’s partial sacrifice of composer control to an almost complete lack of influence. Cage tried to explain this concept in his 1961 book Silence with this passage:

“where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those

he does not attend.  This turning is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of

everything that belongs to humanity – for a musician, the giving up of music.  This psychological

turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and

nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given

away.  In fact, everything was gained.” (Cage, 8).

In other words, giving up as much composer control as possible does not create limitations.  Rather, it opens the doors to complete freedom and acceptance of the artistic merit of natural phenomenon.  This allows the audience to experience the beauty of its natural surroundings, and to examine these surroundings through senses trained to regard natural sounds and occurrences as genuine art.



Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano:  Sonata XIV

Sonatas and Interludes remains Cage's most significant work for prepared piano.  Items placed in the prepared piano include long, medium and furniture bolts, rubber, screws, erasers, nuts, and plastic.

        Music of Changes

This piece most clearly represents Cage's chance period.  The work's interpretive aspects are determined by coin tosses, and thus the piece varies from performance to performance.

        4'33":  I

The first movement of Cage's anti-music masterpiece 4'33" lasts approximately 1'40". 







































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