Andrew Byrne's series about the American maverick composers concludes with an introduction to John Cage, whom Arnold Schoenberg described as
"not a composer, but
an inventor … of genius.”
John Cage is the most influential and controversial American experimental composer in the 20th century. An audacious original, Cage was guided by a simple belief that was to have revolutionary implications—that music was everywhere and could be made from anything. Beginning in the 1940s, Cage unleashed some of most extraordinary musical events and ideas on an unsuspecting public. And in the process, he changed music forever.
As with other American mavericks, the Californian-born Cage looked to the East as well as the West for inspiration. Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied with leading composers of the time (including Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg), but it was his discovery of various East and South Asian cultures in the late 1940s that was to have a lasting influence. Through his readings of Indian philosophy and particularly Zen Buddhism, Cage started introducing chance operations into his music. The Book of Changes or I Ching, an ancient text of Chinese divination, became a standard composition tool for the rest of his life.
Over a creative life that spanned almost 60 years, Cage was to produce a large and diverse body of work: His earliest pieces in the 1940s explored noise and duration and were written for junkyard percussion as well as for his most famous invention, the "prepared piano"; then, in the 1950s, his music veered towards indeterminacy as he incorporated I Ching and chance procedures into his work; in the 1960s, Cage dispensed with musical notation altogether, creating "happenings," loosely structured multimedia events that involved musicians, dancers, poets, among others; and in 1970s, Cage began writing musical scores again with the expansive Song Books, and later the delicate and haunting "number pieces" from the 1980s.
Despite this bewildering diversity of musical styles, Cage's guiding principle over the years remained essentially unchanged. As he himself wrote in his seminal book Silence, "Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and ones desire's out of its way and lets it act of its own accord."
Cage talks about his ideas of music, sound, and silence in this 1991 interview.
Cage was a pioneer of the "prepared piano"—a piano with its sound altered by objects placed on its strings or hammers—for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces. The best known of these is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–1948).
Cage appeared on the CBS game show I've Got a Secret in 1960.
For a more detailed exploration of John Cage's life and work, including extensive interviews with the composer and many of his collaborators, watch American Masters: John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It at ubu.com.
Infographic: From John Cage to Kanye West >
Navigate through the maze of connections that link John Cage with the wider artistic world
John Cage: American Mavericks at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall >
Notes and archival images from the American Mavericks exhibit at the Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall
Prepare Yourself for John Cage's Song Books at Carnegie Hall >
Michael Tilson Thomas, Jessye Norman, and Joan La Barbara discuss Cage's evocative and playful Song Books, which they will perform at Carnegie Hall on March 27.
Related:American MavericksMarch 27, San Francisco Symphony