John Cage (1912–1992) was undeniably one of the most significant and controversial composers of the 20th century. His musical and philosophical ideas profoundly influenced countless artists in many fields. He was an experimentalist who challenged pre-existing ideas about music, asserting that “everything we do is music” and that art should imitate life. Accordingly, Cage embraced the use of chance and unpredictability—“nature in its manner of operation,” as he said—in an attempt to free art from the ego of the artist.
Cage was born and raised in Los Angeles. Similarly to experimentalist Charles Ives, his father was an inventor. Cage studied at Pomona College, and also with Richard Buhlig and Arnold Schoenberg. In between he spent about 18 months in Europe, where he explored poetry, painting, and architecture in addition to music, and eventually settled in New York City. Poetry and painting were to figure prominently in his later work.
Some of Cage’s greatest innovations came about through necessity. This is especially true of the prepared piano, which he invented in the 1940s because of a need to downsize percussion ensembles with which he had accompanied Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Cage realized he could create his own percussion “ensemble” by inserting various objects among the strings of a piano, thus practically inventing a new instrument. His Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946–48) ranks among the most highly regarded compositions of the 20th century. Cage also embraced the budding medium of electronic music, recasting tape recorders and phonograph cartridges as instruments.
In the 1950s Cage became seriously interested in Zen Buddhism. Although he never meditated formally—he considered his work the equivalent of a contemplative practice—Zen philosophy was to infuse his work for the rest of his life. Seeking to make art more like life, and to remove his ego from the process of making music, Cage began to employ chance operations in his works, most notably using the I Ching book of changes. From this point on, indeterminacy played a central role in his music: sometimes in its creation, sometimes in its performance, and sometimes both.
Moreover, Cage often avoided distinguishing between sounds that were “musical” versus “unmusical.” For instance, in his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), performers follow a score that directs them precisely to change the stations and volumes of a dozen radios, yet without regard to what was being broadcast. The use of silence also became a hallmark. Perhaps Cage’s most (in)famous piece was 4’33” (1952), an ultimate exploration of silence in which a pianist sits quietly at the keyboard, marking the beginning and end of each of three sections but never playing a single note. Cage once remarked that this was his best piece.
In addition to being a prolific composer, Cage was also a writer and visual artist. His work in these fields also tended to feature chance procedures, and showed influences of Dada artists and such literary figures as Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Additionally, Cage often used unconventional notation and markings in his musical scores, making them, in addition to “instructions” for a given piece, works of visual art in their own right.
While many may dislike Cage’s works or question his ideas, it is impossible to deny their significance in the development of modern art. Beyond the actual sounds of his music lies a key premise that seems ever more relevant in our busy society: that an important purpose of art may be not to entertain, but to open the mind and senses of its perceiver. As Cage put it in his book A Year From Monday, ”We open our eyes and ears seeing life each day excellent as it is. This realization no longer needs art, though without art it would have been difficult to come by.”