John Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and died in New York in 1992, less than a month before his eightieth birthday. Cage was perhaps the most influential classical American composer of the 20th century. His lifelong exploration was for new sounds to be heard as music. Cage's experiments with random procedures and indeterminacy in composition as well as performance, his unique systems of graphic notations, and his innovative live electronic and mixed-media events of the 1960's through the 1980's served as the groundwork for radical experiments in avant-garde music by composers in both the classical and rock genres of music.
This is not to say that his music was ever popular or commercially successful. In fact, it has been said that Cage's music was more interesting to think about than to hear. Traditional, conservative musicians and audiences alike found his music difficult, and reacted often to his work with indifference at best, and hostility at worst.
After high school, John Cage attended Pomona College for two years, but decided to study art, music and architecture on his own. He traveled to Europe, where he stayed for periods of time in places like Berlin, Madrid and Paris. In Paris, he met the avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamp.
He returned to the United States in 1933, and spent time in New York City. Cage studyed music with the noted composer, Henry Cowell. THen in 1934, he moved to Los Angeles where he studied with Arnold Schoenberg, who was another important contemporary composer, who taught at UCLA. In 1938 he moved to Seattle where he worked at the Cornish School as a musician accompanying a dance group.
It was at the Cornish School that he first met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who became his life long partner. They began artistic collaborations that would dramatically change ideas in contemporary music and dance. In Seattle, Cage organized a percussion group and began to compose for the group, often using serial procedures. This early work demonstrates that he was concerned with time as a structural unit in musical composition, an interest that would later be fully realized in the infamous composition titled "4'33".
In 1940, he and Cunningham moved to San Francisco, where Cage composed his first piece for prepared piano, a composition called "Bacchanale". The story behind this composition begins with Cage working as an accompanist for the Cunningham dance troupe. Cage wanted to use percussive sounds to accompany the group in the dance studio, but the room was so small that only one instrument (a piano) could be used. He turned the piano into a percussion instrument by opening the piano and inserting objects between the strings. When the piano keys were struck, the resulting sound was changed from the conventional sound of a piano to what sounded more like a drum, though a strange drum.
In this inventive experiment, Cage pushed a musical instrument beyond its usual functionality. Cage began a tradition that was followed by a number of classical and rock composers and performers. This genre included the guitar work of Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.
Most of John Cage's work in the 1940's was for the prepared piano. He also worked on compositions in that decade that flirted with Minimalism. In 1947, Cage composed a piece for prepared piano titled "Music for Marcel Duchamp," which, reconfirming the Cage's close relationship with Duchamp. As Duchamp believed that anything could become art, Cage showed Duchamp's influence in his belief that any sound could become music. Likewise, Cunningham was influenced by both Duchamp and Cage and he believed than any movement could become dance. Ideas like these changed art, music, and dance in the 20th century.
You may want, at this point, to hear an example of music for a prepared piano. We have an excerpt from a much longer composition titled "Dance for Two Amplified Prepared Pianos", which was composed in 1945 and performed here in 1950. In this composition, two pianos are amplified with microphones. Cage "prepared" the piano by inserting screws, bolts and other plastic, metal and wooden objects between the strings.
In 1941, Cage and Cunningham moved to Chicago and then to New York, in 1942, where they remained until Cage's death. Cage had become interested in Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, from which he derived the idea of removing the artist's creative choice from the artistic or musical composition.
In the 1950's, Cage enjoyed his first critical success, with performances at Carnegie Hall, as well as an award for his work from the Guggenheim Foundation and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Random procedures and indeterminacy became important in his compositions of this decade, which include the well-known and very controversial, "4'33," composed and first performed in 1952. Let's listen to to see what it is all about. Please click on the title and listen carefully, this is very subtle.
If you listened to the entire song, it probably seems that you heard 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. That's what came out of your computer and that's what we sent to you. But that's not what you heard. For 4 minutes and 33 seconds you heard the sounds in your room, the sounds outside of your room, the mechanical sounds of the building you are in (heating, air conditioning, buzz of lights, elevators, etc.), the mechanical sounds of your computer, and the sounds that you made. That, in fact, was the concert.
This is how John Cage described its first performance by classical pianist David Tudor, who came out onto the stage in formal evening wear and sat down at the piano and remained there for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds:
"In 1952, it was performed first at Woodstock, N.Y. and many in the audience were indignant. It was in a hall called the Maverick Hall, which is out in the woods near Woodstock, and one could hear the wind in the trees during the first movement - there are three movements altogether. In the second, you could hear some raindrops - it began to rain - and in the third movement, you heard only people who were indignant, and many of whom were walking out. So it made a three movement sonata."
You see, the 'concert' turns out to be the 'music' of the audience. The title designates the time that is allowed for the audience to perform the composition.
During the 1950's, he also created compositions involving coin tossing to determine the structure, sets of instructions for producing music from fragments of recordings from any 42 records; compositions in which the "I Ching" determined the number, structure and arrangement of sounds, and collaborations with the pianist, David Tudor, in which Tudor would not play the piano, but might sit silently at the piano or engage in activities away from the piano such as pouring water from pots, or playing with a radio.
In the late 1950's and 1960's, multimedia and theatrical events became more important to Cage. These often involved random processes and indeterminacy. An example of this work is Variations IV, composed and first performed in 1959. In this four hour long composition, twelve musicians play radios and TV's at random from 7 to 11 pm in a Los Angeles art gallery. The composition is a loosely programmed event that "happens" within the structure Cage provides. The performers are free to decide what sounds will occur, when, and for how long. By doing this, Cage believes that he bypasses his own ego, taste and expression. For this course, we will hear a short excerpt from the hour from 7 to 8 pm.
In the 1970's Cage became interested in the work of Thoreau and other writers and created compositions that attempted to transform literature into music. In "Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake," composed in 1979 and based on the work by James Joyce, the score provides a method for translating any book into music. The actual composition is an electronic piece of music based on sounds mentioned in the book.
Cage held only a few academic positions, usually for very short periods of time. he taught at Wesleyan University in 1960-61, the University of Cincinnati in 1967, the University of Illinois in 1967-69, the University of California at Davis in 1969, and gave the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1988-89. Despite this lack of an academic base, his influence on younger contemporary composers was great and was achieved by the brilliance of numerous compositions and his writings about music.
Despite his lack of commercial success, Cage received a great deal of critical attention during his career and received honors and commissions from major organizations. In 1968, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1978 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and received important commissions from a number of groups, the Boston Symphony and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Cage also received the highest cultural awards of France, the "Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" in 1982, and Japan "The Kyoto Prize," in 1989.