John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) was an experimental music composer and writer, possibly best known (some might say notorious) for his piece 4'33', often described (somewhat erroneously) as 'four and a half minutes of silence.' He was an early writer of what he called chance music (and what others have decided to label aleatoric music)—music where some elements are left to chance; he is also well known for his non-standard use of instruments and his pioneering exploration of electronic music.
Cage was also an amateur mycologist and mushroom collector.
Early life and work
Cage was born in Los Angeles. His father was a somewhat eccentric inventor of largely useless devices who told him 'that if someone says 'can't' that shows you what to do'. Cage described his mother as a woman with 'a sense of society' who was 'never happy.' It was not obvious from his early life that he would become a composer; he was born into an Episcopalian family, and his paternal grandfather regarded the violin as the 'instrument of the devil'. Cage himself planned to become a minister at an early age and later a writer.
Although music was not clearly to be his chosen path, he said later that he had an unfocused desire to create, and his subsequent anti-establishment stance may be seen to have its roots in an incident while he was attending Pomona College. Shocked to find a large number of students in the library reading the same set text, he rebelled and 'went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly.' He dropped out in his second year and sailed to Europe, where he stayed for 18 months. It was there that he wrote his first pieces of music, but upon hearing them he found he didn't like them; he left them behind on his return to America.
John Cage returned to California in 1931, his enthusiasm for America revived, he said, by reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. There he took lessons in composition from Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell at the New School for Social Research, Adolph Weiss, and, famously, Arnold Schoenberg whom he 'literally worshipped'. Schoenberg told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he 'devoted his life to music'. Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years. Cage later wrote in his 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 began to experiment with percussion instruments and non-instruments and gradually came to replace harmony as the basis of his music with rhythm. More generally, he structured pieces according to the duration of sections. He saw a precedent in this in the music of Anton Webern to some extent, but especially in the music of Erik Satie, one of his favourite composers.
The Cornish School years
In the late 1930s, he went to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. There he found work as an accompanist for dancers. He was asked to write some music to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort called Bacchanale. He wanted to write a percussion piece, but there was no pit at the performance venue for a percussion ensemble and he had to write for a piano. While working on the piece, Cage experimented by placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the instrument. He liked the sound this produced, and this eventually led to his inventing the prepared piano, in which screws, bolts, strips of rubber and other objects are placed between the strings of the piano to change the character of the instrument. It is likely that he was influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell who also treated the piano in a non-standard way, asking performers to strum the strings with their fingers, for example. The Sonatas and Interludes of 1946–48 are widely seen as his greatest work for prepared piano. Pierre Boulez was amongst its admirers, and organised the European premiere of the work. The two composers struck up a correspondence, but this stopped when they came to a disagreement over Cage's use of chance in his music.
It was also at Cornish that Cage founded a percussion orchestra for which he wrote his First Construction (In Metal) in 1939, a piece which uses metal percussion instruments to make a loud and rhythmic music. He also wrote the Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in that year, which uses record players as instruments, one of the first, if not the first, examples of this. Cage wrote a number of other Imaginary Landscape pieces in later years.
While at the Cornish School, Cage became interested in many things which informed much of his later work. He learnt of the seventeenth century music commentator Thomas Mace who said that 'The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.' This got him writing music again after a period of uncertainty about the value of trying to 'express' anything through music. He became interested in Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, and met the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who became his life partner and creative collaborator.
After leaving the Cornish School, Cage joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Design. While there he was asked to write a sound effects-based musical accompaniment for Kenneth Patchen's radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat. Cage then moved to New York City, but found it very hard to get work there. However, he continued to write music, and establish new musical contacts. He toured America with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company several times, and also toured Europe with the experimental pianist (and later composer) David Tudor, whom he worked with closely many other times.
Introduced to it by Christian Wolff, Cage began to use the I Ching in the composition of his music in order to introduce an element of chance over which he would have no control. He used it, for example, in the Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951, to determine which notes should be used and when they should sound. He used chance in other ways as well; Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) is written for twelve radio receivers. Each radio has two players, one to control the frequency the radio is tuned to, the other to control the volume level. Cage wrote very precise instructions in the score about how the performers should set their radios and change them over time, but he could not control the actual sound coming out of them, which was dependent on whatever radio shows were playing at that particular place and time of performance.
In 1948, Cage joined the faculty of the Black Mountain College, where he regularly worked on collaborations with Merce Cunningham. Around this time, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he 'heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.' Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet there was some. 'Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.' The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most notorious piece, 4′ 33″.
Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and Black Mountain colleague Robert Rauschenberg had, while working at the college, produced a series of white paintings. These were apparently blank canvases that, in fact, changed according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were hung, the shadows of people in the room and so on. These paintings inspired Cage to use a similar idea, using the 'silence' of the piece as an 'aural blank canvas' to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance.
The premiere of the three-movement 4′ 33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano, and lift the lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And after a period of time, he closed the lid once more and rose from the piano. The piece had passed without a note being played, in fact without Tudor or anyone else on stage having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. Richard Kostelanetz suggests that the very fact that Tudor, a man known for championing experimental music, was the performer, and that Cage, a man known for introducing unexpected non-musical noise into his work, was the composer, would have led the audience to expect unexpected sounds. Anybody listening intently would have heard them: while nobody produces sound deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as challenging the very definition of music.
One theory for the time length of the piece 4'33' is that the 4'33' expressed in seconds is 273 seconds. -273 degrees celcius, the lowest temperature that can be obtained in any macroscopic system is referred to as Absolute zero. Since the piece involved absolutely no playing for 4'33', this is a plausible theory.
While it may challenge the definition of music, it does not challenge any definition of composition — the earlier score was written in conventional grand staff notation except there were no notes. It has a three part score, all of the parts saying Tacet. In music notation this is commonly used and means 'make no sound'. The score provides no time limits for any of the parts neither the whole piece, and as would be very cagean the duration of the first performance was decided using chance operations. The piece can have any duration and thus any title, but is stuck with the famous first performance duration and title (ie. movement I: 30″- movement II: 2′23″- movement III: 1′40″). Cage himself refers to it as his silent piece and writes; 'I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece... for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have published. At one performance... the second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium.' (in John Cage: Silence, lectures and writings).
It is one problem though if one wish to regard the unpredictable sounds to constitute the music in this piece. This comes clearly forward in the recording of the piece by Amadinda Percussion Group, in which the group places themselves in a park. One hears birdsongs, of course, only interrupted twice due to the pauses following each part. If the sounds during the parts are the music, then the sounds between the parts are not, and then the Amadinda recording is true to its source. However, in a performance the listener would not be able to distinguish the parts in sounds, but only in the acts of the performer(s). In this respect Cage's Silent Piece does not constitute any music or sounds, but theater.
4′ 33″ has been recorded on several occasions, one version being 'performed' by Frank Zappa (part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute, on the Koch label, 1993). An 'orchestral' version of 4′ 33″ given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January 2004. The Magnetic Fields double album Distant Plastic Trees/The Wayward Bus (Merge Records, 1991) is divided with 4'33' seconds of silence.
In 2002, British songwriter Mike Batt released an album containing a track called A one minute silence, credited to himself and John Cage. The estate of Cage launched a lawsuit against Batt, claiming it infringed the copyright of the earlier Cage work. The case was settled out of court for a large undisclosed sum.
However, Cage's friends, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, released a piece entitled 'Two Minutes Silence' on the album 'Life with the Lions - Unfinished Music Part 2' to no apparent lawsuits.
Method and works
The detailed nature of Cage's compositional use of chance remains poorly understood. Generally, Cage proceeded from the broadest aspects of a new composition to extremely specific ones. For all these decisions, he determined the number of possibilities for each aspect and then used chance to select a particular possibility: the number of possibilities would be related to one or a series of numbers corresponding to the sixty-four hexagrams of the Chinese classic text, I Ching. For instance, Cage might choose a musical pitch from three possibilities. Possibility A could be related to I Ching numbers 1–24, possibility B to 25–48, and possibility C to 49–64. The actual choice of an I Ching number, as described in the book itself when it is used as an oracle, was accomplished by tossing coins or (later) by running a computer program designed by Cage's assistant, the composer Andrew Culver. Cage called the generation of an I Ching number a chance operation. A finished composition generally entailed numerous chance operations.
Cage used chance to compose a variety of different works, including such pieces as Aria (1958), HPSCHD (1967–69), and Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979). He also wrote several books, including Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1968), M (1973), Empty Words (1979) and X (1983). Interviews with Cage and the critic Daniel Charles are collected in the book For the Birds (1981), whose title is a reference to one of Cage's favorite sayings, which is typical of his often subtle, self-referential humor: 'I am for the birds, not for the cages people put them in.' Richard Kostelanetz assembled a collage of various interviews in Conversing with Cage (second ed., 2003), and a volume of conversations with Joan Retallack from the 1990s, Musicage, appeared in 1996.
During his later years, Cage's work remained experimental, combining many of his musical and free-form concepts in public workshops. Yet other works, such as Cheap Imitation (1969), Hymns and Variations (1979), and Litany for the Whale (1980) resemble the less radical works of his early career. In two groups of compositions from his last years — Music for _____ and the Number Piece series — Cage attempted to reconcile the experimental, process-oriented character of his mature compositions with the idea of a musical work or object. In the Number Piece series in particular, Cage believed that he had finally discovered a way to write music that had harmony, which he now defined as sounds noticed at the same time.
Another of Cage's works, Organ² / ASLSP, is currently being performed near the German township of Halberstadt; in an imaginative and controversial interpretation of Cage's directions for the piece to be played 'As SLow aS Possible', the performance, being done on a specially-constructed autonomous organ built into the old church of St. Burchardi, is scheduled to take a total of 639 years after having been started at midnight on September 5, 2001.
John Cage died in New York City, only weeks before a celebration of his 80th birthday organised in Berlin by his close friend David Tudor and others was due to take place. The event went ahead as a celebration of John Cage's great contribution to music.
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