Cage, John

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Cage, John

John Cage, 1912–92, American composer, b. Los Angeles. A leading figure in the musical avant-garde from the late 1930s, he attended Pomona College and later studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and Henry Cowell. In 1943 he moved to New York City, where his concerts featuring percussion instruments attracted attention. For these performances he invented the "prepared piano," in which objects made of metal, wood, and rubber were attached to a piano's strings, thus altering pitch and tone and producing sounds resembling those of a minuscule percussion group. Cage's Bacchanale (1938) and Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) were composed for prepared piano. Cage sought to break down the barrier between "art" and "nonart," maintaining that all sounds are of interest. Many of his works seek to liberate "nonmusical sounds." For example, 4′33″ (1952), probably his most famous piece, consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, providing a frame to be filled by random environmental sounds.

Cage also conceived the idea of a "composition indeterminate of its performance," in which the composer gives the performer instructions that do not directly condition the resultant sounds. For example, his famous Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) is scored for 12 radios tuned at random. In addition, he adopted procedures whereby the composer does not directly condition the sounds of the resultant composition, using such methods as the roll of dice or a consultation of the I Ching (see aleatory music). Cage, who for many years was associated with choreographer Merce Cunningham, also wrote music for the dance, to be played independently of the choreography. A kind of musical provocateur, Cage is noted for his inventiveness, his humor, and his strong influence on minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and on the development of performance art. His influence also extended to such media as poetry, video art, painting, and printmaking. Cage wrote several books, among them Silence (1961) and A Year from Monday (1967).

See D. Charles, For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation (1981); C. Brown, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (2007); biographies by D. Revill (1992), D. Nicholls (2007), and K. Silverman (2010); studies by P. Griffiths (1981), J. Pritchett (1993), W. Fetterman (1996), R. Kostelanetz (1970, 1991, 1993, and 1997), C. Shultis (1998), D. W. Patterson (2001), D. W. Bernstein and C. Hatch (2001), P. Dickinson, ed. (2006), K. Gann (2011), J. Robinson, ed. (2011), and K. Larson (2012); D. Nicholls, ed., Cambridge Companion to John Cage (2002); E. Caplan and D. Vaughan, Cage/Cunningham (video, 1991).

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