Cage, John

Cage, John
in full John Milton Cage, Jr.

born Sept. 5, 1912, Los Angeles, Calif., U.S.
died Aug. 12, 1992, New York, N.Y.

U.S. avant-garde composer and writer.

The son of an inventor, Cage studied music with Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell. From the early 1940s he was closely associated with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Though he began as a 12-tone composer (see serialism), by 1943 his sonic experiments had marked him as notably original. He soon turned to Zen Buddhism and concluded that all activities that make up music are part of a single natural process and that all sounds are potentially musical; thenceforth he advocated indeterminism and endeavoured to ensure randomness in his works, using increasingly inventive notation and often relying on the Confucian classic Yijing. By the 1960s he had expanded into the realm of multimedia. His disparate works include Bacchanale for prepared piano (1938), Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radios (1951), Fontana Mix for tape (1958), HPSCHD for seven harpsichords, 51 tapes, and nonmusical media (1969), and Roaratorio (1979). His widely read books include Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967), Notations (1969), and M (1973). His international influence was far greater than that of any previous American composer.

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▪ American composer
in full  John Milton Cage, Jr. 
born September 5, 1912, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
died August 12, 1992, New York, New York
 American avant-garde composer whose inventive compositions and unorthodox ideas profoundly influenced mid-20th-century music.

      The son of an inventor, Cage briefly attended Pomona College and then traveled in Europe for a time. Returning to the United States in 1931, he studied music with Richard Buhlig, Arnold Schoenberg (Schoenberg, Arnold), Adolph Weiss, and Henry Cowell (Cowell, Henry). While teaching in Seattle (1936–38), he began organizing percussion ensembles to perform his compositions, and he began experimenting with works for dance in collaboration with his longtime friend, the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham (Cunningham, Merce).

      Cage's early compositions were written in the 12-tone (12-tone music) method of his teacher Schoenberg, but by 1939 he had begun to experiment with increasingly unorthodox instruments such as the “prepared piano” (a piano modified by objects placed between its strings in order to produce percussive and otherworldly sound effects). Cage also experimented with tape recorders, record players, and radios in his effort to step outside the bounds of conventional Western music and its concepts of meaningful sound. The concert he gave with his percussion ensemble at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1943 marked the first step in his emergence as a leader of the American musical avant-garde.

      In the following years, Cage turned to Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and concluded that all the activities that make up music must be seen as part of a single natural process. He came to regard all kinds of sounds as potentially musical, and he encouraged audiences to take note of all sonic phenomena, rather than only those elements selected by a composer. To this end he cultivated the principle of indeterminism (aleatory music) in his music. He used a number of devices to ensure randomness and thus eliminate any element of personal taste on the part of the performer: unspecified instruments and numbers of performers, freedom of duration of sounds and entire pieces, inexact notation, and sequences of events determined by random means such as by consultation with the Chinese Yijing (I Ching). In his later works he extended these freedoms over other media, so that a performance of HPSCHD (completed 1969) might include a light show, slide projections, and costumed performers, as well as the 7 harpsichord soloists and 51 tape machines for which it was scored.

      Among Cage's best-known works are 4′33″ (Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds, 1952), a piece in which the performer or performers remain utterly silent onstage for that amount of time (although the amount of time is left to the determination of the performer); Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), for 12 randomly tuned radios, 24 performers, and conductor; the Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) for prepared piano; Fontana Mix (1958), a piece based on a series of programmed transparent cards that, when superimposed, give a graph for the random selection of electronic sounds; Cheap Imitation (1969), an “impression” of the music of Erik Satie (Satie, Erik); and Roaratorio (1979), an electronic composition utilizing thousands of words found in James Joyce (Joyce, James)'s novel Finnegans Wake.

      Cage published several books, including Silence (1961) and M: Writings '67–'72 (1973). His influence extended to such established composers as Earle Brown (Brown, Earle), Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman (Feldman, Morton), and Christian Wolff (Wolff, Christian, Freiherr (Baron) von).

Additional Reading
Interviews with Cage are found in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. (2003); and Joan Retallack (ed.), Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (1995). A good introduction is David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life (1992). Collections of critical essays on Cage include David Nicholls (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to John Cage (2002); David W. Patterson (ed.), John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950 (2002); David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch (eds.), Writings Through John Cage's Music, Poetry, and Art (2001); Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Writings About John Cage (1993); Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (eds.), John Cage: Composed in America (1994); and James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (1993).

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