Composer John Cage: Bio, Music & Facts

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will introduce you to John Cage, the American experimental composer and philosopher. You'll learn about his life, his music, and the questions he asked of musicians and audiences alike.

What Is Music?

In 1952, concert pianist David Tudor walked onto a stage in upstate New York and sat down at a piano before a hushed crowd. He opened the piano's lid, and the audience prepared for the premiere of John Cage's latest composition. But Tudor didn't lift his hands to the keyboard. He remained seated quietly, and after a few minutes lowered the lid and raised it again. He did this twice more, and the piece was over, without the pianist having played a note.

This 'silent' work, 4'33'', is perhaps the best known composition by the American composer and philosopher John Cage. It was controversial at its premiere and, like much of Cage's work, remains so today. But many would say that's what Cage wanted: for us to hear his work and ask questions in response. Can a silent piece be music? Is silence itself actually music? If music doesn't need sound to be music, then what is music? Let's take a look at Cage's life and see how he asked (and answered) these questions.

John Cage
John Cage. Photo by Peter Sayers.

Early Life

John Cage was born Sept. 12, 1912, in Los Angeles, California, and started playing the piano at a very young age. Although young John was a talented pianist, he never considered composition as a career - in fact, after graduating from high school, he aspired to be a writer. This dream led him first to a few years at Pomona College before dropping out to travel to Europe. Over the course of his European travels, Cage visited Germany, France and Spain, and he began composing during this trip.

Creative Beginnings

Upon returning to the United States a few years later, Cage decided to devote himself to composing. He eventually began studying with Arnold Schoenberg, an important German composer who was then teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles. Cage supported himself during these years with a series of jobs, including art lecturer, wall washer, and dance accompanist.

By the 1940s, Cage was becoming burned out and dissatisfied with the ability of traditional music to communicate. By chance, during this period, he encountered Indian and Buddhist philosophy for the first time, and he began studying Zen, a school of Buddhist thought with emphasis on meditation and contemplation.

Encountering these new ideas inspired Cage anew, and he began integrating these Eastern philosophies into his musical work. One major work from this period is Sonatas and Interludes, completed in 1948. In addition to integrating Eastern rhythms and philosophy, Sonatas and Interludes is one of Cage's best-known pieces for prepared piano. Cage called for the pianist to, prior to the performance, affix various objects (such as nails and rubber bands) to the strings inside the piano. When the keys for these strings were struck, the objects would vibrate, changing the sound of that key for the entire duration of the piece.

Inside a prepared piano
The inside of a prepared piano. Photo by Misty Granade.

The 1950s and Indeterminacy

Cage continued to study Eastern philosophy, and by the early 1950s, his study had led him to the ancient Chinese I Ching, a text used to study randomness and find naturally occurring patterns. His study of the I Ching led Cage to begin composing chance music, or music generated using random (chance) methods that aren't controlled by the composer. The best-known example of this is 4'33'' (1952), the 'silent' piece (so named because it lasts 4 minutes and 33 seconds). 'Silent' is a misnomer; Cage didn't intend for the piece to be silent. Rather, he wanted the musical content of the composition to be sounds from the audience: creaking seats, hums from heaters or air conditioners, and so forth. Cage believed that these sounds, generally unnoticed and completely unpredictable, could also be music.

This period yielded many other chance pieces. Some examples include Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), which calls for the performers to tune individual radios to random frequencies; and Variations I (1958), a series of slides with points and lines on them meant to be arranged randomly and played as notated music.

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