John Cage is one of the most controversial and important figures in the history of music. He made his mission to redefine how we think about musical composition and performance, creativity, and ultimately life. The important conclusion he reached about music in particular was that it could be anything. Any sound we hear in the course of our daily life could be enjoyed and appreciated in and of itself in the same way as we appreciate a Mozart sonata. We just needed to turn up our ears and our brains, to train and stretch them in order to experience the world around us in a different, more active way.
His musical compositions often combined atonal and melodic musical tones, either instrumental or vocal, percussion elements, random noises made by various natural and human-made objects (whistles, water, plant materials, conch shells, nails places between piano strings, kitchen and home appliances, field recordings, and radios turned to random stations to name just a few), and electronic tape loops and synthesizers. He also revolutionized musical notation by developing the visual score. He created visual art, wrote books, and gave hundreds of lectures and interviews on his music and philosophy of life.
A performance of one of Cage’s works, Credo In US, that combines piano, percussion, and radio:
Cage wanted to remove the ego of the composer from the act of composition, to allow art to imitate nature in the manner of its operation. He wanted to give up choice, intention, and likes and dislikes in favor of a system that would allow for a much broader field of experience to find its way into the finished musical composition. He accomplished this through chance operation.
Many people who have heard Cage’s seemingly anarchic or chaotic pieces are critical of them because they misunderstand how they were created. They think that Cage had an anything-goes approach to composition that he didn’t believe in structure or discipline. They assume, quite wrongly, that they are devised at random without any kind of compositional framework. The opposite is in fact the case. Much like Jazz (which has had many of the same misunderstandings in terms of understanding how the music is constructed through improvisation) Cage works from a basic structure that is then built upon using chance operation and later some structured forms of improvisation by the performer. He stated that he was not interested in making a musical “object” (ie: a self-contained piece of music constructed by a composer and performed verbatim) but instead in demonstrating a process. He devised very rigorous systems for composing his music derived from the ancient Chinese divination book, the I Ching, which he used as a kind of random number generator, and other methods of chance operation including flipping coins or basing elements of composition on the frequency of imperfections in a piece of paper.
Cage also developed visual scores. Instead of using standard musical notation, he instead drew diagrams and abstract lines or shapes in order to delineate sounds, rhythm, and other musical elements. These would often then be interpreted by the musicians. Thus no Cage piece is every performed exactly the same way twice. His emphasis in how a piece would be performed also meant that Cage didn’t like musical recordings. This is because he believed all the life and energy of performance had been sucked out and encapsulated into a kind of rigid repetitive relic. He disliked extreme musical order and repetition and loved surprise, spontaneity, and variety.
Some examples of Cage’s visual scores:
Along with his visual scores, Cage also created visual art. He had been a friend and an aesthetic disciple of Avant-Garde artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had helped develop the Modernist concept of bringing everyday life into the space of art. He demonstrated that anything, even a bicycle wheel or a urinal could be considered art if it were injected into the right context, i.e.: put in a museum with a signature and date. Duchamp called these objects “Readymades.” The whole idea of the originality of the work of art and the artist as creative genius, as independent ego even, was questioned or eliminated altogether by Duhamp as an uninteresting antiquated idea. Cage was also good friends with artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he collaborated. These creative people were all invested in closing the gap between art and life, the mission first seen in most critically in the work of Duchamp, and with bringing the outside world into their art. They were all also interested in redefining what could be done with mediums, creating hybrids between dance, music, film, painting, and sculpture.
Robert Rauschenberg on Automobile Tire Print, one of his collaborations with Cage:
This interest in experiencing all of the world of sound and in emulating nature through chance operations came out of an interest Cage developed in Eastern spirituality and Zen Buddhism in particular. He had attended the Columbia University lectures of D.T. Suzuki, an important scholar and popularizer of Zen in the West. What made Cage so interested in Zen was its emphasis on the spirituality of everyday experience and meditation on the present moment, putting primacy on direct experience over the mirages of thought, reason, and metaphor so valued by the Western thinkers. Zen’s emphasis on waking up to every moment and to the here and now really attracted him. For Cage, this translated into a form of Zen meditation in his music. He wanted to open up the very limited traditional idea of music as an organization of tones to include all sounds, even “silence,” that we would then experience directly and without mediation like practitioners do in Zen.
I put “silence” here in quotes because Cage always liked to say that there was no such thing as silence. He had discovered this after visiting the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. This space eliminates all environmental sound. But Cage discovered that he could still hear two internal sounds: his blood circulating and his nervous system operating.
This led to his most famous work, 4’33”. This piece consists of a musician sitting down at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and not playing a single note, but simply turning the pages of the score and opening and closing the piano key lid in order to designate the different movements. Many people have thought Cage was just laughing at them or having them on. They were insulted by the piece. But as was so often the problem with audience and critical reception of Cage, they missed its point. The “silence” that we experience in listening to the piece is actually an auditory space that Cage is giving the audience to listen to the sounds around them wherever the piece is performed. It is another opportunity for us to meditate on the present moment, to experience it directly and intensely without any distractions. It was, in a way, a gift from Cage, an opportunity to truly experience an essential ‘presentness’ that we all so often ignore.
John Cage’s importance comes down to that of an expansion of our understanding of what can be considered music and a tearing down of the man-made walls that separate us as human beings from the natural world, of which he is quick to remind us that we are still a part. He also changed much of the way we think about creativity itself by illuminating chance and other natural processes that are usually kept out of the creative process for the sake of other self-centered concerns. He showed us a path for creative people to remove their egos from their creations and break us away from a very narrow traditionally Western concept of making, to, in a sense, free us from ourselves and allow nature to work through us directly.
4’33” performed by David Tudor: