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 aleatoric music (music where some elements are left to chance), used instruments in non-standard ways and was an electronic music pioneer.
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 a 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 did say later that he had 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 eighteen months. It was there that he wrote his first pieces of music, but upon hearing them he found he didn’t like them, and he left them behind on his return to America.
He 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, Adolf 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 when it became clear to him that he had “no feeling for harmony.”
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.
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 from Gira Sarabhai 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, who he worked with closely many other times.
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.
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.
Cage went on to write such pieces as Aria (1958), HPSCHD (1967-69), Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979) and the various so called “numbers pieces” (from the 1980s). He also wrote several books, including Silence (1961), A Year From Monday (1968), M (1973), Empty Words (1979) and X (1983). During his later years, Cage remained experimental, combining many of his musical and free-form concepts in public workshops.
Organ² / ASLSP
Another of Cage’s works, Organ² / ASLSP, is currently being performed near the German township of Halberstadt; in accordance with 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 September 5, 2001.
John Cage died in New York City on August 12, 1992.