Every now and then, you will come to understand that there is a handfull of people, at most, that have shaped your life. Most often, such people are your parents, or certainly one of the two. Sometimes it is a benefactor, or a friend, or a lover. Sometimes it is someone that you have never ever met, but whose ideas have impressed you and shaped you and whose ideas you might have adopted, such as an artist, a writer, a philosopher, a thinker, whatever.
I like to think that my life would have turned out differently without John Cage. He was an American avant-garde composer whose inventive compositions and unorthodox ideas profoundly influenced mid-20th-century music, and art, and myself.
John Milton Cage Jr. was born on 5th September, 1912, in Los Angeles, California. That’s 95 years ago, today. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cage.
John Cage briefly attended Pomona College, in Claremont, California, and then travelled in Europe for some time. During his studies in Paris, he encountered the works and writings of the Dadaists, in particular those of Marcel Duchamp, with whom he would become considerably more familiar. A performance by American pianist John Kirkpatrick inspired him to compose his first piano pieces. He returned to the United States in 1931, after a brief stay in Spain.
Returning to the USA, he studied music with Richard Buhlig, Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and Henry Cowell. While teaching in Seattle (1936–38), he began organizing percussion ensembles to perform his compositions, and he began experimenting with works for dance in collaboration with his longtime friend, the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham.
The Black Mountain College, founded in 1933 near Asheville, North Carolina, was known as one of the leading progressive schools in the United States. In 1948, Cage joined their faculty to teach, working again on collaborations with Merce Cunningham. It was at Black Mountain where he staged his first happening.
Cage’s early compositions were written in the 12-tone method of his teacher Schoenberg, but by 1939 he had begun to experiment with increasingly unorthodox instruments such as the prepared piano (a piano modified by objects placed between its strings in order to produce percussive and unorthodox sound effects). Cage also experimented with tape recorders, record players, and radios in his effort to step outside the bounds of conventional Western music and its concepts of meaningful sound. The concert he gave in 1943 with his percussion ensemble at the MoMA in New York City marked the first step in his emergence as a leader of the American musical avant-garde.
Among Cage’s best-known works are 4’33” (Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds, 1952), a piece in which the performer or performers remain utterly silent onstage for that amount of time (although the amount of time is left to the determination of the performer); Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), for 12 randomly tuned radios, 24 performers, and conductor; the Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) for prepared piano; Fontana Mix (1958), a piece based on a series of programmed transparent cards that, when superimposed, give a graph for the random selection of electronic sounds; Cheap Imitation (1969), an impression of the music of Erik Satie, and Roaratorio (1979), an electronic composition utilizing thousands of words found in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake.
To celebrate John Cage’s 95th birthday (and the 15th anniversary of his death), the musicdepartment of the University of New Hampshire is hosting a one-day symposium and concert on 8th September, 2007, in the Paul Creative Arts Center. The conference is co-sponsored by UNH’s College of Liberal Arts and the Center for the Humanities. I wish I could be there.
John Cage died on 12th August, 1992, in New York, just about 15 years ago.
For those of you who might like to know more about the man and his ideas, I would recommend some of his writing, such as Silence, or perhaps his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). A 8 CD Box Set is available, recorded with Mr. Cage’s own voice.
If you like some of John Cage’s music, the Diary will only confirm a suspicion that you probably have entertained already: It takes a great mind to create some great work, be that music, art, writing or indeed, anything.
Cage stated “until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music”.