To celebrate the American Mavericks series, the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall is featuring works from five American composers—Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch, and John Cage—who were mavericks in their time. Beginning with John Cage, over the next 10 days we will post images and information on each composer from the exhibit and from the Carnegie Hall Archives.
John Cage (1912-1992) was born in Los Angeles. His father was an inventor and electrical engineer, and his mother was a journalist with the Los Angeles Times. Cage credits this foundation as the basis of a curiosity he pursued his entire life. At 18, he traveled to Europe, where he studied piano, architecture, poetry, painting, and wrote his first compositions. He later studied with Henry Cowell in New York and Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles.
Cage's compositions expanded the range of conventional harmonies and notation far beyond what other composers had been using, eliminating the notation process entirely. He explored every type of sound possible, from naturally existing to artificially created, using combinations as diverse as radio, a deck of cards, and the act of washing vegetables. His studies with Cowell inspired him to experiment with inserting objects into conventional instruments, referred to as "preparing." His encounter with the Chinese I Ching, or Book of Chance, allowed him to invent another form of composition; not only did he experiment with eliminating notation, but the act of composing was left completely (and literally) to chance.
His most famous work, 4' 33," instructs the musician to sit silently with his instrument, allowing the audience to focus on the ambient sounds around them, in turn creating a new performance experience. Cage's compositions were often hissed at, and he was often proclaimed to be a charlatan or prankster. Schoenberg called him "an inventor of genius."
Original Set of Piano Preparations for Sonatas and Interludes by John Cage, 1946. Courtesy John Cage Trust.
John Cage "Preparing" a Piano, circa 1945
Flyer for world premiere of Cage's Music For Carillon No. 4, Carnegie Hall, April 26, 1966. | Courtesy Carnegie Hall Archives.
Playbill note for the April 6, 1985 world premiere of Cage's Solo With Obbligato, fully a half century after the piece was composed. | Courtesy Carnegie Hall Archives.
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