Cage was a revolutionary in the terms of music, inventing the
compositional technique of indeterminism. His music was so
wild, exotic and different that often the audience would be so
outraged that they would leave the concert hall in the middle of
the performance. His pieces incorporated the Zen philosophy that he
had learned from Daisetz Suzuki. One of his pieces was four minutes
and thirty-three seconds of pure silence! The music was supposed to
be whatever outside sounds you heard such as a car driving past or
a window opening. His music was awkward yet meaningful.
John Cage was born in 1912 in Los Angeles. He grew up in the heart of Los Angeles before he went on tour through Europe in 1930. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he was given the opportunity to study with Arnold Schoenberg, which he readily accepted.
His first job was that of an accompanist and composer for a dance school in Seattle. With this job began the infatuation with dance. In his later years he would become the director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1942, he decided to move to New York where he would remain for the rest of his life. He became a prominent figure in the world of music with his breath-taking Percussion Concert and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Cage began composing in the twelve-tone technique in the early part of his career but later he changed over to pieces based on rhythmic percussion. In 1946 he began a piece called Sonatas and Interludes, which was based on Eastern Indian philosophy. At this point Cage became enthralled with Zen and Hinduism. He studied Zen Buddhism in the late 1940's and used their influence in his piece Music of Changes, which was composed in 1951. In this piece, he began to use chance and luck in his composition. This form of composition is known as indeterminism. The duration of notes was determined by the flipping of a coin. This philosophy was based on the fact that he wanted his music to be more traditional rather than reflect his own personal tastes.
In 1952 came his most regarded piece. Entitled 4' 33", it was a duration where the performers would simply sit on stage with their instruments and not play a single note. The span of silence was to emphasize the sounds of ones natural environment and make the listener become more aware of his or her surroundings. His next piece, called Life, was a novel idea as well. He stood on stage with a group of vegetables, chopped them up, blended them and then proceeded to drink the juice all while he amplified the sounds from this 'natural occurrence' in life. May of these types of performances were scoffed at and even ridiculed, but he continued to churn out these Zen inspired pieces. Once even the orchestra that played one of his pieces sabotaged the entire piece as rebellion.
Cage went on to become a great teacher, and in this endeavor he
was appreciated. He gained several university posts and became
known throughout many of the large campuses across the US. He also
taught the identification of mushrooms in his spare time and went
on to win a game show dealing with this art. His musical works
during this time were more electronically controlled such as
electronic harpsichords mixing various pieces of music. But when he
died in 1992, he was known more for the eccentric piece of the
1950's than any other music he ever composed.
His Famous Compositions
His notable pieces include 4' 33", Life, The Dances for Prepared
Piano, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Concert for Piano
and Orchestra, and his only chamber piece, String Quartet in Four Parts.
Other links of interest: