John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer and artist. 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 American 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″, the three movements of which are performed without a single note being played. The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and the piece became one of the most controversial compositions of the 20th century. Another famous creation of Cage's is the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by placing various objects in the strings), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces, the best known of which is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).
His teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage's major influences lay in various Eastern cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage's standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as "a purposeless play" which is "an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living".
Early works, rhythmic structure, and new approaches to harmony
Cage's first completed pieces are currently lost. According to the composer, the earliest works were very short pieces for piano, composed using complex mathematical procedures and lacking in "sensual appeal and expressive power." Cage then started producing pieces by improvising and writing down the results, until Richard Buhlig stressed to him the importance of structure. Most works from the early 1930s, such as Sonata for Clarinet (1933) and Composition for 3 Voices (1934), are highly chromatic and betray Cage's interest in counterpoint. Around the same time, the composer also developed a type of a tone row technique with 25-note rows. After studies with Schoenberg, who never taught dodecaphony to his students, Cage developed another tone row technique, in which the row was split into short motives, which would then be repeated and transposed according to a set of rules. This approach was first used in Two Pieces for Piano (c. 1935), and then, with modifications, in larger works such as Metamorphosis and Five Songs (both 1938).
Soon after Cage started writing percussion music and music for modern dance, he started using a technique that placed the rhythmic structure of the piece into the foreground. In Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) there are four large sections of 16, 17, 18, and 19 bars, and each section is divided into four subsections, the first three of which were all 5 bars long. First Construction (in Metal) (1939) expands on the concept: there are five sections of 4, 3, 2, 3, and 4 units respectively. Each unit contains 16 bars, and is divided the same way: 4 bars, 3 bars, 2 bars, etc. Finally, the musical content of the piece is based on sixteen motives.Such "nested proportions", as Cage called them, became a regular feature of his music throughout the 1940s. The technique was elevated to great complexity in later pieces such as Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946–48), in which many proportions used non-integer numbers (1¼, ¾, 1¼, ¾, 1½, and 1½ for Sonata I, for example), or A Flower, a song for voice and closed piano, in which two sets of proportions are used simultaneously.
In late 1940s, Cage started developing further methods of breaking away with traditional harmony. For instance, in String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) Cage first composed a number of gamuts: chords with fixed instrumentation. The piece progresses from one gamut to another. In each instance the gamut was selected only based on whether it contains the note necessary for the melody, and so the rest of the notes do not form any directional harmony Concerto for prepared piano (1950–51) used a system of charts of durations, dynamics, melodies, etc., from which Cage would choose using simple geometric patterns. The last movement of the concerto, however, was a step towards using chance procedures, which Cage adopted soon afterwards.
Chart system was also used (along with nested proportions) for the large piano work Music of Changes (1951), only here material would be selected from the charts by using the I Ching. All of Cage's music since 1951 was composed using chance procedures, most commonly using the I Ching. For example, works from Music for Piano were based on paper imperfections: the imperfections themselves provided pitches, and the I Ching was used to determine the methods of sound production, or the rhythms, etc. A whole series of works was created by applying chance operations, i.e. the I Ching, to star charts: Atlas Eclipticalis (1961–62), and a series of etudes: Etudes Australes (1974–75), Freeman Etudes (1977–90), and Etudes Boreales (1978). Cage's etudes are all extremely difficult to perform, a characteristic dictated by Cage's social and political views: the difficulty would ensure that "a performance would show that the impossible is not impossible"—this being Cage's answer to the notion that solving the world's political and social problems is impossible. Cage described himself as an anarchist, and was influenced by Henry David Thoreau.
Another series of works applied chance procedures to pre-existing music by other composers: Cheap Imitation (1969; based on Erik Satie), Some of "The Harmony of Maine" (1978; based on Belcher), and Hymns and Variations (1979). In these works, Cage would borrow the rhythmic structure of the originals and fill it with pitches determined through chance procedures, or just replace some of the originals' pitches. Yet another series of works, the so-called Number Pieces, all completed during the last five years of the composer's life, make use of time brackets: the score consists of short fragments with indications of when to start and to end them (e.g. from anywhere between 1′15″ and 1′45″, and to anywhere from 2′00″ to 2′30″).
Cage's method of using the I Ching was far from simple randomization, however. The procedures varied from composition to composition, and were usually complex. For example, in the case of Cheap Imitation, the exact questions asked to the I Ching were these:
Which of the seven modes, if we take as modes the seven scales beginning on white notes and remaining on white notes, which of those am I using?
Which of the twelve possible chromatic transpositions am I using?
For this phrase for which this transposition of this mode will apply, which note am I using of the seven to imitate the note that Satie wrote?
In another example of late music by Cage, Etudes Australes, the compositional procedure involved placing a transparent strip on the star chart, identifying the pitches from the chart, transferring them to paper, then asking the I Ching which of these pitches were to remain single, and which should become parts of aggregates (chords), and the aggregates were selected from a table of some 550 possible aggregates, compiled beforehand
Finally, some of Cage's works, particularly those completed during the 1960s, feature instructions to the performer, rather than fully notated music. The score of Variations I (1958) presents the performer with six transparent squares, one with points of various sizes, five with five intersecting lines. The performer combines the squares and uses lines and points as a coordinate system, in which the lines are axes of various characteristics of the sounds, such as lowest frequency, simplest overtone structure, etc.Some of Cage's graphic scores (e.g. Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Fontana Mix (both 1958) present the performer with similar difficulties. Still other works from the same period consist just of text instructions. The score of 0'00" (1962; also known as 4'33" No. 2) consists of a single sentence: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action." The first performance had Cage write that sentence. Musicircus (1967) simply invites the performers to assemble and play together. The first Musicircus featured multiple performers and groups in a large space who were all to commence and stop playing at two particular time periods, with instructions on when to play individually or in groups within these two periods. The result was a mass superimposition of many different musics on top of one another as determined by chance distribution, producing an event with a specifically theatric feel. Many Musicircuses have subsequently been held, and continue to occur even after Cage's death. This concept of circus was to remain important to Cage throughout his life and featured strongly in such pieces as Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake (1979), a many-tiered rendering in sound of both his text Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake, and traditional musical and field recordings made around Ireland. The piece was based on James Joyce's famous novel, Finnegans Wake, which was one of Cage's favorite books, and one from which he derived texts for several more of his works.
Since chance procedures were used by Cage to eliminate the composer's and the performer's likes and dislikes from music, Cage disliked the concept of improvisation, which is inevitably linked to the performer's preferences. However, in a number of works beginning in the 1970s, he found ways to incorporate improvisation. In Child of Tree (1975) and Branches (1976) the performers are asked to use certain species of plants as instruments, for example the cactus. The structure of the pieces is determined through the chance of their choices, as is the musical output; the performers had no knowledge of the instruments. In Inlets (1977) the performers play large water-filled conch shells – by carefully tipping the shell several times, it is possible to achieve a bubble forming inside, which produced sound. Yet, as it is impossible to predict when this would happen, the performers had to continue tipping the shells – as a result the performance was dictated by pure chance