September 5, 1912– John Cage:
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
John Milton Cage was a most important American experimental music composer, writer, performance and visual artist. His most famous and most controversial musical composition is the 1952 piece 4’33”, whose three movements are performed without playing a single note. Pronounced “4 minutes 33 seconds”, it is a composition for any instrument, or combination of instruments. The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece. Cage intended 4’33’’ to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is being performed. Get it?
Cage was a pioneer of what he called “chance music”, music where some elements are left to be decided simply by chance. He is also known for his unconventional use of musical instruments, household appliances and tools, and his early use of electronic music. Cage is one of the most important composers of his era, especially because he asked questions about the very definition of music.
Along with painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, partners in life, Cage and his own partner in life and in art, choreographer Merce Cunningham, became a part of a circle of fascinating young gay artists whose ideas and execution challenged the macho Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollack who dominated the 1950s NYC art scene. They developed an alternative creative and very gay spirit that became the trademark of Post-Modern Art.
Cage pushed the boundaries of the definition of music, experimenting with sound, environment and audience perception. His work influenced classical music, popular music, painting, dance, performance art and poetry in the last half of the 20th century and beyond.
Cage was born in LA, the son of an inventor. Young Cage held a yearning for innovation and originality, qualities that became the hallmarks of his entire career.
In 1930, after 2 years at Pomona College, Cage left for a less traditional education in Europe. He chose Paris, where he spent 18 months painting, writing poetry and composing music, before returning refreshed and inspired to California to focus on his music.
From 1932-1936, Cage studied composition with the famous modernist, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was a gay Austrian Jew who fled those nasty Nazis for the USA. Schoenberg declared the young Cage: “…is not a composer, but an inventor of genius.”
In 1937, Cage took a job as a dance accompanist while taking classes at The Cornish School Of The Arts in Seattle. It was there that he met student Merce Cunningham. During the Seattle years, Cage organized an all-percussion band, collected unusual instruments and explored the Pacific Northwest.
Cage and Cunningham’s artistic and romantic partnership would last 54 years, until Cage left this world in 1992. Together and apart, the couple changed the relationship of music to dance. Cage served as music director of Cunningham’s company, and for many years, its manager, main fundraiser, cook, company philosopher, morale-booster and liaison between the introverted choreographer and the dancers.
In 1938, Cage began to experiment with pieces for the prepared piano, a piano he created with objects placed on and between the strings to alter sound. He also used record players and phonographs, kitchen appliances, kiddie toys, and flower pots as instruments. He actually received a review in The NY Times that said:
“Mr. Cage’s music had an inescapable resemblance to the meaningless sounds made by children amusing themselves by banging on tin pans and other resonant kitchen utensils.”
In Water Music (1952), Cage had a pianist pour water from one pot into another, and perform with a whistle and a deck of cards. Critics and audiences of traditional music were not amused.
In the 1940’s, Cage continued to pursue unorthodox musical techniques. He was fascinated with Zen Buddhism which led him to the notion of “chance music”. Based on the I Ching, the Zen book of changes, Cage created compositions solely by happenstance.
Cage worked best when he would compose and collaborate with other artists. In his later years, he focused exclusively on electronic music, sometimes using radios, and holding “Happenings,” pieces that are mostly unwritten, except for timed intervals in which a note, a sound, or silence is scheduled.
Cage’s work and life had a huge impact on Pop Art, Modern Minimalism, Performance Art, Installation Art, Process Art, Design and Pop Music. The late 20th century artists that created and worked with those forms had each come in contact with Cage at some point in the 1950s. He was an influence on pop figures: Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Phillip Glass, Brian Eno, David Bowie and David Byrne. The Beatles’ song A Day In The Life was inspired by John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s time spent hanging out with Cage in the 1960s.
Cage was also a writer, philosopher, visual and performance artist. He was a self-taught expert on mushrooms. Early in his career, he made a living gathering mushrooms in the country and selling them to gourmet restaurants in NYC, including the late, great The Four Seasons. Cage said that mushrooms reminded him of the ephemeral nature of life. He was co-founder of the NY Mycological Society, dedicated to the study, collection and appreciation of mushrooms and fungi. I can totally dig it.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about hunting mushrooms, they grow up and they’re fresh at just a particular moment, and our lives are actually characterized by moments.”
Cage insisted that music is everywhere in the ordinary moments of our lives. We just have to learn to hear it. Cage’s lasting influence is in his ideas about the artistic freedom that comes with breaking the rules. I couldn’t agree more.
Cage left this world in August 1992, taken by a stroke when he was 79 years old in the NYC home he shared with Cunningham. Cunningham joined his partner in summer 2009. Theirs is one of the truly great love stories.
Cage’s work remains thought provoking and continues to spur arguments, and still spreads mischief. People who knew him have told me he was warm and modest.
“I like everything.”