September 5, 1912– John Cage:
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
The John Cage Piano app takes meticulously sampled sounds of actual material Cage used in preparation for his compositions from 1946-48. One of Cage’s many innovations was the placing of objects beneath and between the strings of a grand piano to create an entirely new instrument and timbre. It was considered a profane act, but it opened up a whole new realm of possibility in the instrument. Find it on the App Store.
John Milton Cage was an 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, he 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 1950’s NYC art scene. They developed an alternative creative and very queer 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 Los Angeles, the son of an inventor. Young Cage already held a yearning for innovation and originality, qualities that became the hallmarks of his entire career.
In 1930, after two 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 to 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 dance company, and for many years, its manager, main fundraiser, cook, company philosopher, morale-booster and liaison between the introverted choreographer and the company’s 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 New York Times that read:
“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 1940s, Cage continued to pursue unorthodox musical techniques. He was fascinated with Zen Buddhism which led him to the notion of that “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 or 1960s. 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 home he shared with Cunningham. Cunningham joined his partner in summer 2009. Theirs is one of the truly great love stories.
In a surviving piece of romantic correspondence, postmarked June 28, 1943, Cage writes:
Saturday night nearly went crazy, because, not solving my problems until they occur, I ever suddenly realized you were gone. Fly away with you but was in a zoo.
I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.
I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.
I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.
Your spirit is with me.
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.”John Cage
On September 9, 1963, at a former Vaudeville theatre in Downtown Manhattan, an audience of artists, actors, and beatniks witnessed the début of a 70-year-old piece of mysterious piano music: Vexations (1893) by Erik Satie. The composition consisted of only a half sheet of notation. Its first performance had previously been deemed impossible, as the gay French composer had suggested at the top of his original manuscript that the motif be repeated 140 times. Even before its repetition, the theme music is unnerving. Above the music, Satie also included an note that reads: “It would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”
Cage was the first to insist that staging Vexations was not only possible but essential. No one knew what exactly would occur, which is part of what enticed Cage; he had at thing for unknown outcomes. The performance began at 6 pm on Monday and continued to the Tuesday lunch hour. Cage played in 20-minute shifts with a group of 11 pianists.