John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist, printmaker, and amateur mycologist and mushroom collector. A pioneer of chance music, electronic music and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage’s romantic partner for most of their lives.
Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, the three movements of which are performed without a single note being played. The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, and the piece became one of the most controversial compositions of the twentieth century. Another famous creation of Cage’s is the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by placing various objects in the strings), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces, the best known of which is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).
His teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage’s major influences lay in various Eastern cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”.
Cage returned to the United States in 1931. He went to Santa Monica, California, where he made a living partly by giving small, private lectures on contemporary art. He got to know various important figures of the Southern California art world, such as pianist Richard Buhlig (who became his first teacher and arts patron Galka Scheyer. By 1933 Cage decided to concentrate on music rather than painting. “The people who heard my music had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings”, Cage later explained. In 1933 he sent some of his compositions to Henry Cowell; the reply was a “rather vague letter”, in which Cowell suggested that Cage study with Arnold Schoenberg—Cage’s musical ideas at the time included composition based on a 25-tone row, somewhat similar to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Cowell mentioned, however, that before approaching Schoenberg, Cage should take some preliminary lessons, and recommended Adolph Weiss, a former Schoenberg pupil.
Following Cowell’s advice, Cage travelled to New York City in 1933 and started studying with Weiss as well as taking lessons from Cowell himself at The New School. He supported himself financially by taking up a job washing walls at a Brooklyn YWCA. Cage’s routine during that period was apparently very tiring, with just four hours of sleep on most nights, and four hours of composition every day starting at 4 AM. Several months later, still in 1933, Cage became sufficiently good at composition to approach Schoenberg. He could not afford Schoenberg’s price, however, and when he mentioned it, the older composer asked whether Cage would devote his life to music. After Cage replied that he would, Schoenberg offered to tutor him free of charge.
Cage studied with Schoenberg in California: first at USC and then at UCLA, as well as privately. The older composer became one of the biggest influences on Cage, who “literally worshipped him”, particularly as an example of how to live one’s life being a composer. The vow Cage gave, to dedicate his life to music, was apparently still important some 40 years later, when Cage “had no need for it [i.e. writing music]”, he continued composing partly because of the promise he gave. Schoenberg’s methods and their influence on Cage are well documented by Cage himself in various lectures and writings. Particularly well-known is the conversation mentioned in the 1958 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.”
Cage studied with Schoenberg for two years, but although he admired his teacher, he decided to leave after Schoenberg told the assembled students that he was trying to make it impossible for them to write music. Much later, Cage recounted the incident: “[…] When he said that, I revolted, not against him, but against what he had said. I determined then and there, more than ever before, to write music.” Although Schoenberg never complimented Cage on his compositions during these two years, in a later interview he said that none of his American pupils were interesting, except Cage: “Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor—of genius.”
At some point in 1934–35, during his studies with Schoenberg, Cage was working at his mother’s arts and crafts shop, where he met artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff. She was an Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest; her work encompassed fine bookbinding, sculpture and collage. Although Cage was involved in a relationship with Don Sample when he met Xenia, he fell in love immediately. Cage and Kashevaroff were married in the desert at Yuma, Arizona, on June 7, 1935.
1950s: Discovering chance
Sonatas and Interludes were received well by the public. After a 1949 performance at Carnegie Hall Cage received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, which enabled him to make a trip to Europe, where he met composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. More important, however, was Cage’s chance encounter with Morton Feldman in New York City in early 1950. Both composers attended a New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where the orchestra performed Webern’s Symphony, op. 21, followed by a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Cage felt so overwhelmed by Webern’s piece that he left before the Rachmaninoff; and in the lobby, he met Feldman, who was leaving for the same reason. The two composers quickly became friends; some time later Cage, Feldman, and Cage’s pupil Christian Wolff came to be referred to as “the New York school.”
In early 1951 Wolff presented Cage with a copy of the I Ching—a Chinese classic text which describes a symbol system used to identify order in chance events. The I Ching is commonly used for divination, but for Cage it became a tool to compose using chance. To compose a piece of music, Cage would come up with questions to ask the I Ching; the book would then be used in much the same way as it is used for divination. For Cage, this meant “imitating nature in its manner of operation”: his lifelong interest in sound itself culminated in an approach that yielded works in which sounds were free from the composer’s will:
When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound […] I don’t need sound to talk to me.
Although Cage had used chance on a few earlier occasions, most notably in the third movement of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950–51), the I Ching opened new possibilities in this field for him. The first results of the new approach were Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radio receivers, and Music of Changes for piano. The latter work was written for David Tudor, whom Cage met through Feldman—another friendship that lasted until Cage’s death. Tudor premiered most of Cage’s works until early 1960s, when he stopped performing and concentrated on composition. The I Ching became Cage’s standard tool for composition: he used it in practically every work composed after 1951.
Despite the fame Sonatas and Interludes earned him, and the connections he cultivated with American and European composers and musicians, Cage was quite poor. Although he still had an apartment, at 326 Monroe Street (which he occupied since around 1946) his financial situation in 1951 worsened so much that, while working on Music of Changes, he prepared a set of instructions for Tudor as to how to complete the piece in the event of his death.
Nevertheless, Cage managed to survive and maintained an active artistic life, giving lectures, performances, etc. In 1952–53 he completed another mammoth project—the Williams Mix, a piece of tape music, which Earle Brown helped to put together. Also in 1952, Cage wrote down the piece that became his most well-known and most controversial creation: 4′33″. The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece—four minutes, thirty-three seconds—and is meant to be perceived as consisting of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. Cage conceived “a silent piece” years earlier, but was reluctant to write it down; and indeed, the premiere (given by Tudor on August 29, 1952 at Woodstock, New York) caused an uproar in the audience. The reaction to 4′33″ was just a part of the larger picture, however: on the whole, it was the adoption of chance procedures that had disastrous consequences for Cage’s reputation. The press, which used to react favorably to earlier percussion and prepared piano music, ignored his new works, and many valuable friendships and connections were lost. Pierre Boulez, who used to promote Cage’s work in Europe, was opposed to Cage’s use of chance, and so were other composers who came to prominence during the 1950s, i.e. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis.
From 1953 onwards, Cage was busy composing music for modern dance, particularly Cunningham’s dances (Cage’s partner adopted chance too, out of fascination for the movement of the human body), as well as developing new methods of using chance, in a series of works he referred to as The Ten Thousand Things. In Summer 1954 he moved out from New York and settled in a cooperative community in Stony Point, New York. The composer’s financial situation gradually improved: in late 1954 he and Tudor were able to embark on a European tour. From 1956 to 1961 Cage taught classes in experimental composition at The New School, and during 1956–58 he also worked as an art director of a typography. Among the works completed during the last years of the decade were Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58), a seminal work in the history of graphic notation, and Variations I (1958).
Since chance procedures were used by Cage to eliminate the composer’s and the performer’s likes and dislikes from music, Cage disliked the concept of improvisation, which is inevitably linked to the performer’s preferences in music. However, in a number of works beginning in the 1970s, he found ways to incorporate improvisation. In Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) the performers are asked to use certain species of plants as instruments, for example the cactus. The structure of the pieces is determined through the chance of their choices, as is the musical output; the performers had no knowledge of the instruments. In Inlets (1977) the performers play large water-filled conch shells – by carefully tipping the shell several times, it is possible to achieve a bubble forming inside, which produced sound. Yet as it is impossible to predict when this would happen, the performers had to continue tipping the shells – as a result the performance was dictated by pure chance.