Who is John Cage?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2019
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Composer John Cage was originally from Los Angeles, California in 1912. After attending Pomona College for a brief time, he toured Europe for a time, and returned to the U.S. to study music in 1931. His teachers were Richard Buhlig, Adolph Weiss, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schoenberg, and his first compositions followed Schoenberg’s 12-tone approach. He found work as a teacher himself in Seattle, and in the years 1936–1938, he founded percussion ensembles in order to have performers for his works. At the same time, he and Merce Cunningham—choreographer, dancer, and Cage’s long-term partner in both music and life—tried out collaborative works.

By 1939, Cage was experimenting with new compositional approaches, including one called “prepared piano,” which involves inserting objects into the piano or otherwise modifying it to produce sounds that are not characteristic of the instrument. Cage also added tape recorders, radios, and record players to performances, in addition to traditional acoustic instruments. His first noted performance was a percussion ensemble concert at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1943.


Cage’s interest in Eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism, which emerged in the years that followed, came to influence his music. He continued to blur the divide between music and other types of sound, and created schemes to introduce random and chance elements into musical performance. This had the effect both of changing the role of the performer, as well as making performances utterly unique. Some elements of the performance were left up to the performers to decide on the spot, such as pitches, techniques, and note duration, while others might be determined by an external source, such as the I Ching. In time, Cage added other media to the musical performance, but these media, too had random or chance elements, as in his work HPSCHD from 1969.

The work by John Cage that may be best known is his 1952 work 4′ 33″, pronounced as “Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds,” in which he has three movements of silence. He also wrote pieces that owed inspiration to other artists, such as Cheap Imitation, a 1969 piece that aims to convey an impression of the work of composer Erik Satie, and Roaratorio, the name of an electronic composition that incorporates words from the 1939 novel Finnegan’s Wake by Irish novelist James Joyce. Cage died in 1992 in New York City.


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Post 3

@grumpyguppy: In the late 1940’s, John Cage began studying Zen Buddhism. It is said that 4’33” was also meant as a reflection of the influence of Buddhism. Cage also said that 4’33” was the epitome of his idea that “any sounds constitute, or may constitute, music”.

This is a direct quote from John Cage regarding the premiere of 4’33”: “They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering on the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out”.

Post 2

@grumpyguppy: Your instructor assigned you a remarkable piece to write on. 4’33” was composed by John Cage in 1952 for any instrument or any combination of instruments. The score tells the performer not to play during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements.

The first movement of silence is 30 seconds, the second is 2 minutes and 23 seconds, and the third is 1 minute and 40 seconds. Cage wanted the silence to be perceived as sounds of the environment and not just a period of silence. 4’33” became one of Cage’s most famous and controversial compositions.

Post 1

I am taking an Intro to Music course and we were all assigned one piece of music to do a paper on. I was assigned 4'33". Does anyone have any specific information on this piece?

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