John Cage
John Cage

John Cage Biography (BBC)

Famously described by his teacher Schoenberg as ‘an inventor of genius’, possibly no other composer in the history of music has provoked such extremes of veneration and contempt as John Cage. Yet today he is widely regarded as the most influential American composer of the last century, and pop art, concrete poetry, performance art, conceptual art and minimalism all owe something to his oeuvre.

First Construction (in Metal) (1939), his first mature work, ushered in a remarkable sequence of compositions in the 1940s similarly written for the idiosyncratic medium of percussion ensemble or ‘prepared piano’, an instrument Cage invented by inserting objects between the piano strings to give each note its own unique timbre.

Throughout the 1940s a burgeoning interest in Eastern philosophy saw him initially immersing himself in South Asian writings, followed by an even more revelatory encounter with East Asian philosophy, Zen in particular. Cage’s studies helped to nurture his belief in the principle of non-involvement, in which a renunciation of control is made possible by the use of indeterminacy and chance. His ideal was to discover a compositional process that would destroy any conventional sense of musical continuity: ‘giving up control so that sounds can be sounds’, as he put it.

In his works of the 1950s Cage, together with three younger American composers with whom he formed an especially close association – Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff – explored the seemingly endless possibilities that chance procedures offered. To this end, he chose from a wealth of randomising means, notably the I Ching in both the epic four-volume Music of Changes (1951) for solo piano and Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 radios; the imperfections on manuscript paper in Music for Piano (1952–6); maps of the heavens in Atlas eclipticalis (1961–2) for orchestra; and the computer in HPSCHD (1967–9) for seven harpsichords and tape.

The ne plus ultra of Cage’s new aesthetic, the notorious 4’33” (1952) for any instrument or group of instruments, is a work in three movements, each of which is marked ‘tacet’: any sounds that might be heard during the course of this ‘silent’ piece – noises made by the audience, environmental sounds and so on – are left entirely to chance.

But to infer that every Cage score post-4’33’’ is some kind of free-for-all would be entirely mistaken. Cage, the indubitable magister ludi of 20th-century music, still established the rules for each piece – rules that might represent no more than a loose framework, as in the extraordinary multimedia work Roaratorio (1979), or on the other hand might result in a fully-notated work such as the dazzlingly virtuosic Freeman Études (1977–80) for solo violin.

Closely related to Cage’s music is a significant body of collected writings, including the seminal Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967), M (1973) and Empty Words (1979).

Profile © Peter Quinn, 2003

John Cage Biography (Wikipedia)

John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, artist, and philosopher. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage's romantic partner for most of their lives.

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not "four minutes and 33 seconds of silence," as is often assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance. The work's challenge to assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience made it a popular and controversial topic both in musicology and the broader aesthetics of art and performance. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or 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 (1946–48).

This entry is from Wikipedia, the user-contributed encyclopedia. It may not have been reviewed by professional editors and is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons License. If you find the biography content factually incorrect or highly offensive you can edit this article at Wikipedia. Find out more about our use of this data.

John Cage Tracks

Sort by

Past BBC Events

Proms 1987: Prom 03
Royal Albert Hall

Proms 1987: Prom 03

Royal Albert Hall
Proms 1972: Prom 23
Round House, The

Proms 1972: Prom 23

Round House, The

Latest John Cage News

    BBC News - Coronavirus: Olivia Dean boards ‘sunshine van’ to play live music
    Musician Olivia Dean, from east London, has turned to a bright yellow van to play live music again.
    BBC News - John Cage: Germans hear first chord change in seven years
    Music fans gather in a church to hear a chord change in a music meant to last 639 years.
    BBC News - John Cage musical work changes chord for first time in seven years
    The John Cage piece, As Slow As Possible, began 19 years ago and is to last 639 years.
Back to artist