John Cage born in 1912 at Los Angeles, is regarded as a seminal figure in 20th century music, known as avant-grade composer, artist, inventor and mystic of sorts. In his early years, he pursued both formal and informal musical studies and was mentored by different musical personalities like Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell, whose influences are evident in Cage’s music.
His talent manifested in a unique amalgamation of creative work—be it the use of percussion instruments and the prepared piano, or the organization of pitch, rhythmic structures influenced by the world of dance.
At the age of 25, Cage prophesized that electronic instruments would play a significant role in the music of the future. Interestingly, a year later he invented the ‘prepared piano’: a piano modified by screws and other objects placed between its strings in order to produce percussive and otherworldly sound effects; akin to a percussion ensemble playable from the keyboard. Ever since, this has been a favourite device of composers.
Sonata V (from Sonatas and Interludes)
Simultaneously, Cage innovated with tape recorders, record players, and radios to go beyond conventional western music and its framework of meaningful sound. Cage’s concert with his percussion ensemble in New York City in 1943 marked the first step in his emergence as a leader of the American musical avant-garde.
Among Cage’s ‘notoriously’ famous work is 4′33″ (Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds) of 1952, a piece in which the performer(s) remains absolutely silent on stage for 4.33 minutes (although the amount of time is left to the performer’s discretion). David Tudor, Cage’s colleague, performed the premiere by sitting silently at the piano—while a curious audience made sounds; for Cage, these random noises were in essence, music.
The origins of his novel experimentations could be traced to his interest in Zen and Hindu philosophy as he developed a liking for matters sublime: all sounds and phenomena, egolessness, non-meaning, non-emotion. As Cage said, ’My purpose is to eliminate purpose.’ Other innovative works included Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 randomly tuned radios, 24 performers, and conductor; the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano; Fontana Mix , a piece based on a series of programmed transparent cards that, when superimposed, give a graph for the random selection of electronic sounds; and Cheap Imitation, an ‘impression’ of the music of Erik Satie.
‘For an introduction to Cage, one should probably start with the sixteen Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-48), fully notated pieces of surprising attractiveness, an astonishing range of timbres, and considerable rhythmic excitement’, states The Vintage Guide to Classical Music.
Over the decades, as Cage started perceiving all kinds of sounds as potentially musical, he nudged listeners to take note of all sonic phenomena, rather than only those elements selected by a composer. It is in this context that he enunciated the principle of indeterminism in his music, so as to eliminate any element of performer’s personal taste, by using unspecified instruments and performers, with freedom of duration of sounds and entire pieces, inexact notation, and sequences of events determined by random means –such as by consultation with the Chinese Yijing (I Ching).
Subsequently, he extended these freedoms over other media, so that a performance of HPSCHD might include a light show, slide projections, and costumed performers, as well as the 7 harpsichord soloists and 51 tape machines for which it was scored.
During his lifetime, Cage published several books, including Silence: Lectures and Writings and M: Writings ’67–’72. And his work was recognized as significant in the development of traditions ranging from minimalist and electronic music to performance art.
Though his career was not straight-jacketed within rigid confines of the musical establishment in America, Cage became something of a beloved elder statesman of music in his later years.
Even after Cage’s death in 1992, he remains a much misunderstood composer. Having the guts to challenge the very notion of what music is, he epitomized a balance of both playful and profound experimentalism for the greater part of his career, collaborating with and influencing generations of composers, writers, dancers, and visual artists.
Living Room Music
A remarkable event commemorating the genius of John Cage is related to his composition, “ORGAN/ASLSP” or “As Slow As Possible.” It began playing in a church at the German town of Halberstadt on September 5, 2001, what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. When the piece officially started in 2001, it began without any sound. It was only on 5 February 2003, the day of the first chord change, that the first organ pipe chords could actually be heard inside the church. On July 5, 2012 two more organ pipes were taken out, and two were in the organ.
The note changed on September 5, 2020. While this event usually draws several thousand visitors to Halberstadt, the number of guests allowed in the church was limited in 2020 due to Covid protocols.