American music theorist, writer and philosophist
John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California, on the 5th of September 1912. Son to an inventor, his knack for creating the future clearly ran in the family.
In 1935, he married Xenia Kashevaroff, a surrealist artist he met whilst working at his mother’s craft shop, though they separated in 1945 due to Cage’s ongoing romance with Merce Cunningham.
During the late summer in the early 90s, Cage was relaxing at home with Cunningham when he suffered a severe stroke. He died the following day on the 12th of August 1992, weeks from his 80th birthday.
John Cage was a musical maverick. Hugely influencing the 20th-century sonic landscape, his experimental approach and radical compositions cement his place as a true visionary of the arts.
The young Cage studied at Claremont’s Pomona College and travelled to Europe before returning home in 1931 to fully pursue music. Learning with the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell, it was only seven years later that he began teaching.
By 1938 he was already putting together percussion ensembles to test his music and explored compositions for dance. This led him to the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, with whom Cage would share a long-time professional and personal relationship.
Though he initially stuck to his mentor Schoenberg’s ’12-tone’ method of composing, Cage was quick to forge his own path. By 1939 he had invented the ‘prepared piano’: a modification of the instrument involving the placement of various objects between its strings, resulting in strange and percussive sounds.
Many more experiments were undertaken by Cage in his quest to smash western musical conventions, with radios, tape recorders and record players all playing a part. In 1943, however, Cage was ready to make his mark truly. The performance with his percussion ensemble at the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced to the world that John Cage was a shining light in the avant-garde realm of music.
After this point, he pushed the boundaries even further. Following an immersion into Zen Buddhism, Cage began to regard the creation of music as a single natural process and became fascinated with the use of indeterminism within his compositions. His idea was that any sound could be potentially musical and that any ambient noise within a listener’s space was just as vital as anything in the composition itself.
During the decades since, Cage gave us countless daring works, but here are some highlights. 1951’s Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 saw the collision of a conductor, 24 performers and 12 randomly tuned radios. Fontana Mix in 1958 involved a selection of programmed transparent cards which fit together to create a graph for randomly selecting electronic sounds. Cage even integrated a James Joyce novel into 1979’s Roaratorio.
With such fearless dedication to progression, it’s no wonder John Cage is considered an invaluable figure in not just music but minimalism and performance art as well.
Did You Know?
John Cage’s most infamous work would surely be 1952’s “4’53’’”: a piece consisting of nothing more than about five minutes of total silence!
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