A revelation, an epiphany, a coincidence, a surprise, a moment of truth, and a memory lapse: these are just some of the momentary occurrences we experience every day. When it comes to how we perceive or conceptualise sound, you might say that each day brings forth an endless stream of John Cage moments.

One can anticipate or even generate these moments, but not necessarily predict their outcome. Here’s one of my favorite scenarios for a John Cage moment. I walk in the city, any city, plugged into my personal radio. Distant sounds from the outside world suddenly blend in with the music emitting from my earphones: car horns, rushes of wind, bursts of conversation, or perhaps a busker with an accordion. The outside sounds often provide an apt counterpoint to my disc player, and thereby creating a new, unexpected musical experience. That’s a John Cage moment.

Want to expand this moment into a full-fledged John Cage composition? Walk through the same city blocks for ten minutes each day over a period of a week. Either tune into the same station, or choose different ones by flipping a coin. Five minutes into the walk, you’ll encounter the accordion busker at his usual post. But can you predict what song he’ll be playing? Will a daily change in weather affect your earphone reception? How many variables are you willing to take into account, and painstakingly systematize?

‘That’s not music,’ some musicians and listeners would understandably say. Cage, on the other hand, might have taken my scenario, and, through his customary care and concentration at the precomposition level, invented a piece infinitely more elegant, logical, structurally watertight, and beautiful at that. After all, Cage gained international recognition for walking a thin line between control and chance, forcing his audiences to rethink conventional assumptions about what music is and can be, as opposed to what music was and should be.

As a composer, philosopher, writer and visual artist, John Cage remains one of the 20th century’s most influential and controversial figures, admired in some circles, reviled in others. One notorious example of his radical oeuvre is the 1952 composition 4’33”, a piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. The premier took place on 29 August of that year in the rather ironically named Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Even within the parameters of an avant-garde music concert, Cage’s work managed to baffle and anger the audience, causing one attendee to declare out loud, ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.’

The notion of silence in music, of course, predates Haydn’s unexpected rests, Beethoven’s dramatic pauses, or the stillness that emerges from the agonizing hush from the final measures of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. And Robert Schumann’s Carnaval and Humoreske contain passages of notated music not meant to be performed. Cage’s notion of silence, however, specifically relates to the absence of intended sound. Are we hearing or are we listening? Cage divided 4’33” into three specifically timed movements for which the performer must demarcate with a stopwatch. The beginning and end of each movement provide contextual signposts between which unintended sounds transpire. Moreover, Cage derived each movement’s duration through painstaking means, partly not to appear foolish.

When was John Cage born?

No fool, in fact, could claim Cage’s keen, inquisitive mind and intellectual curiosity. Born 5 September 1912 in Los Angeles, Cage was the son of an inventor and engineer, and began studying music at an early age. A family friend, composer Fannie Dillon introduced the youngster to the art of transcribing birdsong (pianist Josef Hofmann, in fact, recorded her aviary-inspired piece Bird at Dawn for Columbia). He made his first radio appearance at age 12, and graduated from Los Angeles High School as class valedictorian. He dropped out after two years at Pomona College, then travelled in Europe, where he wrote poetry, and studied painting and music. After returning to the United States, he studied with Henry Cowell, and then with Adolf Weiss, the first native-born American pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Cage recalled that Weiss had written a large amount of music, and almost none of it was played. As a result, he became a bitter, ugly-tempered man. That influenced Cage’s resolve not to write any music unless it was going to be performed. Between 1934 and 1937 Cage worked with Schoenberg himself. Cage wrote about their relationship in 1990:

‘When I asked Schoenberg to teach me, he said, “You probably can’t afford my price.” I said, “Don’t mention it; I don’t have any money.” He said, “Will you devote your life to music?” This time I said, “Yes.” He said he would teach me free of charge. After two years it became clear to both of us that I had no feeling for harmony. For Schoenberg, harmony was not just coloristic: it was structural. It was the means one used to distinguish one part of a composition from another. Therefore, he said, I’d never be able to write music. “Why not?” “You’ll come to a wall and won’t be able to get through.” “Then I’ll spend my life knocking my head against that wall.” ‘

‘Knocking’ in a literal rather than figurative sense related to Cage’s percussion music of the late Thirties and early Forties. Composers like Edgard Varèse and Amadeo Roldan fuelled the emerging genre, while filmmaker Oskar Fischinger heightened Cage’s awareness of musical and expressive potential of percussion instruments and found objects. In his Quartet (1935), Trio (1936), and First Construction (1939) Cage deployed rhythmic motives with systematic care. ‘These compositions,’ said Cage, ‘were made up of short motives expressed either as sound or as silence of the same length, motives that were arranged on the perimeter of a circle on which one could proceed forward or backward.’ In a 1948 lecture, Cage explained how sound and silence have only one quality in common, that of duration. His role models in this regard were Anton Webern and, more significantly, Erik Satie, both of whom Cage claimed had been responsible for the ‘one new idea since Beethoven’ vis-à-vis musical structure.

Yet for all Cage’s methodical rigour, the imaginative array of percussive sounds in works like the Second Construction, Third Construction, and Imaginary Landscapes Nos 2 & 3 create a dazzling immediacy and vibrant momentum hard to resist. Small wonder that modern dancers and choreographers found Cage’s music attractive and useful, like Syvilla Fort, Jean Erdman, and later Merce Cunningham, with whom Cage would share a lifelong working and personal relationship. Cage also experimented with electronic and pre-recorded music, anticipating sampling by at least four decades. Scored completely to choreographed beats by Erdman and Cunningham, Credo in Us (1942), for instance, calls for two sets of tin cans, a record player with unspecified records, and prepared piano.

The prepared piano, like many good inventions, evolved from necessity. Asked to provide African-inspired music for a dance by Syvilla Fort, Cage noticed that the theatre performance pit didn’t have enough room for a percussion ensemble, but contained a small grand piano. Remembering Henry Cowell’s techniques for reaching inside the piano and manipulating the strings by hand, Cage carried the idea further. He placed rubber wedges, screws, bolts, clothes pins and other implements between the strings. The ensuing sonorities transformed the piano into a one-man combination of percussion ensemble and Balinese Gamelan. With this new instrument, Cage’s growing portfolio of keyboard music came into its own in the Forties, culminating in his 70-minute magnum opus, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-8). Even Cage’s detractors acknowledge the music’s infectious symmetry and playful, dance-like qualities. No other Cage work boasts as many recorded versions. Yet a definitive realisation is impossible. Though Cage worked out his table of preparations with the utmost care and exactitude, the fact is that no two pianos prepared the same way will ever sound alike. The Eastern flavour and modal elements of the Sonatas and Interludes characterise some of Cage’s non-prepared keyboard works, like the two versions of Experiences, the Suite for Toy Piano, Music for Marcel Duchamp, and the haunting, Satie-like In a Landscape. At the same time, Cage’s 1947 ballet score The Seasons reveals how well the composer could translate the prepared piano’s unique percussive and sustained sonorities in non-prepared terms. The Seasons sounds even better in its orchestral guise. Its commission from Lincoln Kirstein and the Ballet Society in New York City offered Cage his first opportunity to write for conventional orchestral forces. Gestures pass back and forth between sections and soloists with the breathtaking delicacy and timbral refinement of Stravinsky and Webern, yet sounding like neither.

Cage’s increased immersion in Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, fostered a change in his artistic outlook from the early Fifties on. He began to think of music as a means of changing the mind. ‘I saw art not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves.’ How, then, does one choose what sounds to make? The answer: you don’t. Cage turned to the ancient Taoist oracle, the I Ching, or Book of Changes, and developed a method of composing derived from chance operations. This, according to Cage, changed his responsibility from making choices to asking questions.

Cage first used chance as a compositional technique in the third movement of his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-1). With Music of Changes, completed in December 1951, chance governs every aspect of its four book, 45-minute duration, including tempos, pitches, textural densities, dynamics, intervals and more. Later in the decade, Cage brought the notion into play of indeterminate materials generated by chance procedures. This required performers to decipher Cage’s often-idiosyncratic notations and instructions in order to work out what to play. As a consequence, many musicians reared in the classical tradition and trained to reproduce what a composer writes on the page as accurately as possible could not take Cage seriously.

Those who did, however, reaped the benefits of being collaborators, rather than mere interpreters. Pianist David Tudor (1926-1996), one of the leading American post-war new music champions, lavished heaps of time, trouble and fierce commitment on Cage’s behalf. His example paved the way for a younger generation of notable Cage exponents, including pianists Joseph Kubera, Herbert Henck, Stephen Drury, Margaret Leng Tan, and Steffen Schleiermacher, plus violinists Paul Zukofsky and Irvine Arditti. The collaborative process certainly informs Cage’s ambitious theatrical, multi-media, multi-environment endeavours. With the help of computer genius Lejaren Hiller, Cage created HPSCHD, a mad collage involving seven harpsichordists playing computer-generated excerpts of traditional concert music alongside 51 tapes played through 51 amplifiers, replete with slides, films, lighting effects – everything but the kitchen sink. Cage’s series of Europeras cut up familiar opera repertoire selections into evocative sound collages where the considerable aural impact is further enhanced by visual components.

During the Seventies and Eighties, Cage became interested in instrumental etudes, and composed his largest cycle of piano works, the Etudes australes, by deriving notes and chords from star maps of the Australian sky. His Freeman Etudes for violin solo similarly push virtuoso technique towards the edge of playability, as do his Etudes boréales for solo cello. Towards the end of his life, Cage began to gently penetrate the harmonic wall he banged against for decades with his long series of ‘number’ pieces for various solo and ensemble instruments. Each title consists of a number written out as a word (One, Two, Five etc.) Much of the material consists of slow, sustained pitches and microtones that redefine minimalism in terms of Cage’s increasingly refined aesthetic.

Cage’s multi-faceted gifts encompassed an impressive array of visual works of art, a book on mushrooms (an expert on mushrooms and other edible plants, he co-founded the New York Mycological Society), plus a prolific number of essays, articles, and text pieces. Those who heard Cage perform his charming Indeterminacy stories out loud cannot forget his unassuming, charismatic speaking voice. Fortunately he recorded these 90 stories, each one-minute long and either read fast or slowly according to length. Yet it is important to know that Cage abhorred the idea of recordings as a guide to how his works should be performed. ‘My favourite music,’ he said ‘is the music I haven’t yet heard. I don’t hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.’

Jed Distler