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John Cage (1912 - 1992)

Related: avant-garde music - chance - experimental music - American music

"I'm devoted to the principle of originality. Not originality in the agnostic sense, but originality in the sense of doing something which it is necessary to do. Now obviously, the things which it is necessary to do are not the things that have been done, but the ones that have not yet been done...; that is to say if I have done something, then I consider it my business not to do that but to find what must be done next " [italics added by Leo Treitler.] --John Cage quoted in 'The Present as History,' Perspectives of New Music VII (1969), p. 4. Leo Treitler


John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American experimental music composer, writer and visual artist. He is most commonly known for his 1952 composition 4'33", whose three movements are performed without playing a single note.

Cage was an early composer of what he called "chance music" (and what others have decided to label aleatoric music)—music where some elements in the music are left to be decided by chance; he is also well known for his non-standard use of musical instruments and his pioneering exploration of electronic music. His works were sometimes controversial, but he is generally regarded as one of the most important composers of his era, especially in his raising questions about the definition of music.

John Cage put Zen Buddhist beliefs into practice through music. He described his music as "purposeless play", but "this play is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord."

Cage was also an avid amateur mycologist and mushroom collector: he co-founded the New York Mycological Society with three friends.

Cage is also known as the inventor of the mesostic, a type of poem. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage [Feb 2006]

Using Record Players as Instruments

Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939)

Instrumentation: For 2 variable-speed phono turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal; To be performed as a recording or broadcast by 4 performers.

Premiere and performer(s): March 24, 1939 at the "Hilarious Dance Concert" at the Cornish School in Seattle, performed by John and Xenia Cage, Doris Dennison and Margaret Jansen.

This might be the first electro-acoustic worked ever composed. Cage uses a muted piano, large Chinese cymbal and 2 variable-speed turntables. On the first of the turntables a Victor frequency record (84522B) and a constant note record (nr.24) are played, on the second is another Victor frequency record (84522A). It was premiered in a program together with his Marriage at the Eiffel Tower. --http://www.johncage.info/workscage/landscape1.html

4' 33'' (1952) - John Cage

[John Cage] is one of the biggest experimenters of modern music, who - along with other composers - applied many of new philosophical ideas to his music and to the meaning of its performance. The characteristic (and exaggerated) work is 4' 33'', where the piece is constituted exclusively of the accidental sounds that will take place in the concert room for the predefined time interval ; the pianist who is supposed to perform on the piano is seating inactive at his place ! Generally, the composer belonged in the artistic stream that gave big freedom to the composer through the choice of various accidental facts (aleatorism = music of the accidental). --JOHN TZINIERIS via http://www.artissimo.gr/english/cm_composers/John_Cage.htm

4' 33'' is a musical work by avant garde composer John Cage, often described (somewhat erroneously) as "four and a half minutes of silence." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Minutes_Thirty_Three_Seconds [Dec 2004]

Virginia Anderson

Historical Assumptions of the Avant-Garde and Experimental Movements: The Participants and Their Historians - Virginia Anderson

New York Minimalist School [...]

(La Monte Young, John Cage, Steve Reich etc)

Music of Changes (1951) - John Cage

The modern music would, in turn, give rise to postmodernism. Daniel Albright (2004) cites John Cage's 1951 composition of Music of Changes as the beginning of post-modern music. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernism_%28music%29 [Dec 2004]


  1. Extended Play : Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein - John Corbett [Amazon.com]
    The reasons for Corbett's increasing prominence among music writers become crystal-clear in his debut collection of articles. Although he writes authoritatively, he never loses a fan's sense of awe. He describes the impact of a wide variety of players, including P-Funk architect George Clinton, dub reggae maestro Lee ("Scratch") Perry, Dutch free-improv drummer Han Bennink, and Siberian overtone singer Sainkho Namtchylak. His profiles of such legendary musicians as Sun Ra (especially) are insightful, and several of his interview transcriptions--including one derived from a game Corbett invented for John Cage to randomly choose his own questions--are historically valuable. And in the theoretical chapters of the book's first part, Corbett often uses seemingly innocuous pop archetypes--such as the backup singer--to comment on the political and social forces that shape modern culture. For all listeners. Aaron Cohen [...]

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