The Original Creators: John Cage
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator” — an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: John Cage.
“Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” — John Cage
John Cage’s experimental approaches to musical composition and theory have had a profound and lasting effect on music, art, and performance—redefining our modern notions of “music” much in the same way his contemporary, Marcel Duchamp, redefined our definition of “art.” A consummate contrarian, Cage was always moving against the grain, challenging the status quo and subverting accepted norms in respect to musical structure, instrumentation, and composition—a predilection that led him to employ chance methods of composition and develop the “happenings” model of performance. In his controversial compositions Cage used household items as percussive instruments, relied on the mystical Chinese divination system I Ching as the chance mechanism informing many of his later pieces, and perhaps most importantly of all, cultivated a starkly minimalist style that forced us to confront the uncomfortable beauty of silence.
Cage’s former teacher, acclaimed expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg, once remarked that Cage was “not a composer, but an inventor—of genius,” a statement that encapsulates the ingenuity Cage brought to his composition and interpretation of sound. It’s this legacy—a legacy that looms larger than any of the techniques or ideas pioneered by Cage—that lingers with us to this day and has permeated Cage’s influence throughout the fields of music, sound art, visual art, dance, and even computer generated art.
Below we take a look at some of the milestones in this visionary composer’s oeuvre.
In 1940 Cage started composing works for what he termed the “prepared piano”—a piano in which the sound is altered by placing objects on the strings in order to produce percussive sounds. Bacchanale was the first of these pieces, composed for a dance piece by Syvilla Fort, and like many great inventions, came about as a happy byproduct of necessity: the room where the dance was to be performed was not large enough to allow for a percussion ensemble, but had enough space for a grand piano. Cage would compose many other “prepared piano” pieces in the years to follow.
Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951)
Constantly striving to counteract preferences and conventions, not least of which, his own, Cage composed this piece for 24 performers and 12 radios (2 performers per radio, one for dialing the stations, the other for controlling amplitude and timbre). Believed to be one of the first concerts of electronic music, the piece, being composed entirely of sounds chanced upon via the radio waves, is one that can not be predicted nor faithfully replicated. It is one of Cage’s early attempts at erasing his own influences out of his compositions, negating his preferences and dislikes by relinquishing control over the end product.
No doubt Cage’s most well-known and controversial creation, 4′33″ is Cage’s equivalent to Duchamp’s urinal sculpture—a work that is as conceptually profound as it is frustratingly confounding. The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece—four minutes, thirty-three seconds—and one never quite gets over the impression that Cage is playing a practical joke on his audience. Yet for Cage, music consisted of everyday, environmental sounds as much as it did of notes, rhythm and tempo, and this piece was meant to make the audience aware that what they interpreted as “silence” was really anything but.
Cage often wrote about his avant-garde ideas about sound, most notably in his book Silence, which is notably influenced by Zen principles and ideals. Above is an excerpt from a late interview with Cage where he outlines his particular relationship to sound.
As the undisputed father of American experimental music, Cage’s influence has informed the music of rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Stereolab, composer and rock and jazz guitarist Frank Zappa, and various noise music artists and bands. Cage’s “prepared piano” technique is featured heavily on Aphex Twin’s 2001 album Drukqs. His ideas also found their way into sound design: for example, Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom cited Cage’s work as a major influence. But Cage’s impact on avant-garde culture extends beyond the realm of music, his “Experimental Composition” classes at The New School have become legendary as an American source of Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers, and designers, and his friendship with Abstract expressionist artists such as Robert Rauschenberg helped introduce his ideas into visual art. An extraordinary man of astounding intellect, Cage forged ahead to create new ideas and experiences, the effects of which are still defining much creative work today.
Next week: Pierre Schaeffer