Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CAGE, John

(b 5 September 1912, Los Angeles; d 12 August 1992) Composer. He studied with Arnold Schönberg (b 13 September 1874, Vienna; d 13 July 1951, Los Angeles) and Adolph Weiss (b 12 September 1891, Baltimore, MD; d 20 February 1971, Van Nuys CA) '35-7 and was influenced by the 'organized sounds' of Edgard Varèse (b 22 December 1883, Paris; d 6 November 1965, NYC). In the late 1930s Cage evolved methods of 'preparing' the piano, influenced by Henry Cowell (b 11 March 1897, Menlo Park CA; d 10 December 1965, Shady, NY): foreign objects of metal or wood are placed inside the piano, attached to or placed between strings and soundboard to alter the relationship of the 'note' and the piano's response. Bacchanal '38 was intended 'to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra' (from For The Birds); the Sonatas And Interludes of '46-9 were more significant. (The Grateful Dead's Tom Constanten played prepared piano on Anthems Of The Sun '68, having earlier used it in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's Music Now series; Dead bassist Phil Lesh used it in '6-7/8 For Berdardo Moreno' in the early 1960s. The influence of prepared piano was pre-empted by the emergence of compact electronics, e.g. synthesizers, etc).

Cage taught at the School of Design in Chicago 1941-2, then returned to New York where he organized concerts of percussion music; also began a series of collaborations with Merce Cunningham on multi-media projects and ballets. He assimilated household sounds into compositions: banging doors, scraping furniture (Living Room '40) and radio static, pouring water and cards riffling (Water Music '52); exotica: roaring lion, conch shells, cricket caller (Third Construction '41). He became the object of some derision; Aaron Copland (b 14 November 1900, Brooklyn; d 12 February 1990) wrote as late as 1968 in The New Music 1900-60 that 'Cage has practically removed himself from the sphere of music, concentrating instead on public manifestations of noise-producing phenomena for which there is no exact precedent,' defining Cage's attraction as 'for those teetering on the edge of chaos'. But his achievement in pushing back the 'boundaries of music' had already been recognized by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1949 and the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship that year. He devised techniques for working with magnetic tape in the early 1950s (Williams Mix and Imaginary Landscape No. 5, both '52, Fontana Mix '58); the first piece ate up hours of intricate splicing and editing work, such applications becoming commonplace (and easier) by the late 1960s. He explored the relationship of sound and silence, taking it to a notorious extreme in 4'33" in 1952, where pianist(s) sit(s) before an unplayed keyboard for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The 'music' is the sound of the hall, the air conditioning, people breathing etc, perhaps the sound of the listeners' own thoughts. (György Ligeti proposed publishing a piece called 0'00" and claiming an infinite amount of royalties; Cage was not amused.)

He pioneered 'aleatory' or 'chance' music, in which the order of a piece is not predetermined: random factors (rolling dice) or chance (the order in which pages are picked up) introduced the variables. His interest in Eastern philosophies and religion had been a recurrent inspiration; Cage organized The Seasons '47 on Indian cosmological lines while the Sonatas And Interludes drew inspiration from the rasa, the concept of nine sentiments or juices which underpin Indian classical arts in general (whether music, dance or poetry); he used the Chinese oracle I Ching as an aleatory factor, Williams Mix and Landscape No. 4 '51, Atlas Eclipticalis '61 and Freeman Etudes '82 being examples of his use of chance. Variations I and II '58 allowed musicians to choose what to play or do next on the spur of the moment (or at 'the moment of preparation'): to create distorted sounds, write a letter etc. The later multi-media Variations V '65 also used visual effects, and HPSCHD '67-9 was used to accompany visual images. HPSCHD, co-written with Lejaren Hiller (Lejaren Arthur Hiller Jr, b 23 February 1924, NY), lasted four hours and was financed by a grant from the Thorne Music Fund.

In his Renga '76 (inspired by Thoreau) Cage gave the conductor a free hand to insert pauses and make changes; it could also be performed simultaneously as a single piece with, or separately from, Apartment House 1776, a second piece commissioned by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for the US bicentennial. For a composer who so wholeheartedly embraced the modern, his attitude to 'old-fashioned' ways is revealing in a koan-like way: 'The I Ching was delighted to be (computerized) (an increase of advantages) and advised modesty, recourse to ancient wisdom' (For The Birds, '81). He composed steadily, though not prolifically, with wit and invention, consistently challenging assumptions about music and ways to present it; for example in 'happenings' in the '50s, the germ of which came from reading Antonin Artaud's The Theatre And Its Double. He used star maps as overlays to arrive at musical notation for pieces (Etudes Australes '74-5), a new chance source. He occasionally fell prey to whimsy and the seeming inability not to use an idea, but his music remained stimulating throughout. A Chance Operation '93 on Koch featured interpretations of his compositions by artists such as Laurie Anderson (Cunningham Stories), John Cale (In Memoriam John Cage -- Call Waiting, a piece produced for the Flux Attitudes Exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art), Ken Nordine (A Cage Went In Search Of A Bird), Yoko Ono (Georgia Stone), Oregon (Chance/Chance) and Frank Zappa (4'33"). Cale also contributed to Caged/Uncaged, a tribute album available through the Institute of Contemporary Arts also featuring Jello Biafra, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, John Zorn and others. He tilled the musical soil on which others' musical ideas frequently grew and sometimes blossomed. Further reading: Richard Kostelanetz (ed.): John Cage '70; Calvin Tomkins: The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters Of The Avant-Garde '73; John Cage and Daniel Charles: For The Birds '81; Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn: John Cage '82; David Revill: The Roaring Silence '92.