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John Cage

American Composer, Theoretician, and Writer

Born: September 5, 1912 - Los Angeles, California
Died: August 12, 1992 - Stony Point, New York
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art
"The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations."
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John Cage Signature
"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."
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"As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency."
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John Cage Signature
"Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?"
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John Cage Signature
"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."
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John Cage Signature

Summary of John Cage

Working during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, John Cage honed his skills in the midst of the growing American avant-garde. Neither a painter or a sculptor, Cage is best known for revolutionizing modern music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of environmental music dictated by chance. His approach to composition was deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, focusing on the harmony that exists in nature, as well as elements of chance. Cage is famous not only for his radical works, like 4'33" (1952), in which the ambient noise of the recital hall created the music, but also for his innovative collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. These partnerships helped break down the divisions between the various realms of art production, such as music, performance, painting, and dance, allowing for new interdisciplinary work to be produced. Cage's influence ushered in groundbreaking stylistic developments key to contemporary art and paved the way for the postmodern artistic inquiries, which began in the late 1960s and further challenged the established definition of fine art.


  • Cage discovered that chance was as important of a force governing a musical composition as the artist's will, and allowed it to play a central role in all of his compositions. Although each piece has a basic, composed structure, the overall effect varied with each performance as different variables like the location and audience directly affected the sounds that were produced.
  • By breaking with the historically determined preconception that music was made by musicians using traditional instruments to perform structured and prearranged compositions, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art. His revolutionary performances ushered in an era of experimentation in all media and shifted the focus away from the artist's inner psyche to the artist's contemporary environment.
  • Cage focused his compositional career on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal sheets, various common objects, and even silence into his works to change the way modern audiences listened to music and appreciated their surroundings.

Important Art by John Cage

Progression of Art

Sonatas and Interludes

Heavily influenced by Cage's studies of Indian music and philosophy in the early 1950s, this cycle of 16 sonatas and four interludes was composed to express the eight "permanent emotions" of the rasa Indian tradition. These emotions are divided into two groups: the white (humor, wonder, erotic, and heroic) and the black (anger, fear, disgust and sorrow). Sonatas and Interludes was dedicated to Armenian-American pianist Maro Ajemian, who performed in the recording of the piece and during its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Her performance of the work resulted in Cage's receipt of a generous grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Considered by many to be the composer's first masterpiece and highly characteristic of his oeuvre, the work was crafted to include improvisation while following a highly melodic structure based on a simple mathematical formula.

Prepared piano


Theater Piece No. 1

Theater Piece No. 1 was one of Cage's first large scale collaborative, multimedia performances, created and performed while Cage was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Referred to by many as simply "The Event," the piece involved several simultaneous performance components - all orchestrated by Cage, where chance played a determining role in the course of the performance. Some of the components included in "The Event" were: poetry readings, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and the four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. Cage sat on a step ladder and lectured about Buddhism, or said nothing, and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read different poems from ladders, while Rauschenberg played Edith Piaf records, Merce Cunningham danced amidst the audience (chased by a barking dog), coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and David Tudor played improvised notes on a prepared piano, fitted with pieces of felt and wood between the strings. Cage composed the piece such that each participant did whatever they chose during assigned intervals of time and within certain parameters, but the overarching principle of chance guided the course of events. The highly involved multimedia characteristics of No. 1 are a wonderful example of the Neo-Dada movement and its incorporation of the everyday into modern art. This early proto-happening prefigured later developments in modern art, particularly the increasing focus on the outside world, as evidenced in later movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, as well as performance art in general.

Multi-media performance and sound art



Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.

This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.

Performance art, with musician, instrument and audience


Variations I

Cage's Variations, of which there were eight altogether, composed between 1958 and 1967, are a series of happenings and intermediate musical scores. The first of these, Variations I, was composed as a tribute to Cage's friend and collaborator David Tudor. Cage made no stipulation in this work as to the number of performers or instruments required. The key element was the instructions, comprised of a complicated grid that consisted of six transparent squares, containing various points and lines of varying size, which act as sheet music. The performers combine the squares and corresponding points and lines so that the musical structure follows a linear or non-linear path depending on the arrangement of the squares. Melody and notation were of little importance to Cage; instead, he was communicating the importance of a performer's choices and how those choices are experienced in the final piece. By allowing the performer to determine the composition, Cage relinquished direct control over the artwork, in a way similar to how Andy Warhol allowed his paintings to be created by anyone at the Factory.

Performers and instruments


Cheap Imitation

Cage's Cheap Imitation is an exercise in postmodern appropriation that relies on musical, rather than visual, quotation. Cage composed the work for dual pianists, and based it upon composer Erik Satie's Socrate (1919), the first act of which Cage transcribed for piano for Merce Cunningham's dance troupe in 1947. In 1968, he and Cunningham wanted to expand the work by two movements, but Cage was unable to obtain the rights from Satie's publisher. Instead, he quoted the rhythms of the theatrical, multi-instrument score in a piano solo, in which the pitches were determined by operations of chance based on the I Ching - the ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" emphasizing the role of chance in our lives. In this sense, Cheap Imitation prefigures the appropriation art of the 1980s, as Cage quoted from an extant musical composition and re-presented it within a wholly new context. Cheap Imitation was also the last piece Cage performed live, before he was forced to rely upon commissioned artists for his performances due to aggravated arthritis and other health complications. Through his use of appropriation, Cage made a smooth transition into the pastiche typical of postmodernism, a cultural shift that began in the late 1960s.

Piano and performer


Number Pieces

Composed in the final six years of Cage's life, the extensive series of works that make up the Number Pieces are each named for the number of performers, which range from a soloist to an orchestra of 108 musicians (e.g. Seven for seven performers, One9 for the ninth work in the series for a single performer). The pieces relied upon Cage's time bracket technique, which is based on short compositional fragments that often contained a single note and an indication in minutes or seconds for how long it should be sustained. The majority of the works in this suite incorporate aspects of aleatory music, relying upon instrumental silence or the whims of the performers to complete the composition. Given Cage's ailing health in his late years, the quantity of the Number Pieces (52) indicates just how highly prolific and dedicated he was to the art of composition which he first perfected under Schoenberg's tutelage in the early 1930s. Most of the Number Pieces were composed to be performed using traditional instruments, with the exception of several compositions for the Japanese sho and conch shells, as well as an electrified, elongated version of 4'33" (1952), entitled One3. This updated version does not use time bracketing, is played by using an amplification system set instead of a piano, and continues until the performer decides the work is finished. This final series by Cage prefigured many postmodern artistic pursuits, especially later explorations of duration and ambient sound and the use of new technology to create art. His application of chance elements and new media in the Number Pieces further cemented his position as an innovator throughout his entire career.


Biography of John Cage


John Cage was born in Los Angeles to John Milton Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia ('Crete') Harvey, an amateur artist and occasional journalist for The Los Angeles Times. The range of his father's inventions (including a diesel-fueled submarine and electrostatic field theory), could be characterized as both revolutionary and eccentric, and certainly left an impression on the young Cage.

Cage took piano lessons as a child, beginning around age ten, and, although he enjoyed music and showed great academic standing, his first real passion was writing. Following his graduation from Los Angeles High School as valedictorian of his class, he enrolled at Pomona College, but dropped out less than two years into his studies, feeling he wasn't challenged enough as an aspiring writer.

In 1930, Cage traveled to Europe, spending several months in Paris followed by visits to cities in Germany, Spain, Capri, and Majorca. He experimented with a number of mediums while abroad, including painting, architecture, and poetry, but nothing moved him to create innovative works. However, during the latter portion of his grand tour, Cage first encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky, and was inspired to create his own compositions.

Early Training

By 1931, Cage had returned to the United States, initially settling in Santa Monica, not far from his childhood home. He continued to experiment with composition (often attempting things far beyond his training and skills) and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Cage desired a more refined understanding of music composition, but was not yet fully committed to a singular artistic vocation. During this interim, he traveled to New York and began taking classes at The New School, where his instructor and friend Henry Cowell recommended Cage seek out the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, whom Cowell believed could provide the kind of instruction that Cage needed. After months of a grueling schedule honing his composition skills, Cage was secure enough in his ability to approach Schoenberg, who agreed to take him as a pupil - free of charge - on the condition that he would dedicate his life to music.

Cage spent two years training under Schoenberg at USC and UCLA, and, although Schoenberg's tutelage proved fruitful and he remained a lifelong influence on the young composer, he needed to part ways with his mentor in order to develop a completely new and innovative style of music. An oft recounted exchange between Cage and Schoenberg describes the impetus for their parting: "After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, 'In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.' I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, 'In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'

While studying at UCLA and working at his mother's craft shop, Cage met Xenia Kashevaroff, an American-Russian artist whom he married in 1935. Following the whirlwind romance and marriage, Cage found work composing music for various choreographies at UCLA, and began the practice of incorporating non-musical elements into his work such as kitchen utensils, metal sheets, and household items. Despite several teaching engagements throughout the 1940s, including posts at Mills College in Oakland and the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, the young couple still endured regular financial hardship. However, it was at Cornish College of the Arts where Cage first met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham - who would eventually become his life-long collaborator and partner. While at the college, Cage gained notoriety for his prepared piano - a traditional piano with objects placed amidst, under, and above the strings to alter its sound - which he invented in 1940.

The Cages moved to Chicago in 1941. A year later, after receiving a commission from CBS, Cage sought more commissions and moved to New York with Xenia. Upon arriving in New York, the Cages stayed with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim generously offered to support the couple as long as they needed and offered Cage a concert at her gallery. However, he had already been offered a performance at the Museum of Modern Art, and, when Guggenheim learned of this performance, she felt betrayed and withdrew her support, leaving the couple homeless and without any immediate income. The Cages' marriage was on the rocks and ended in divorce in 1945, after Cage became romantically involved with Merce Cunningham, who had also moved to New York.

Mature Period

In 1946, Cage began studying Indian music and philosophy from Gita Sarabhai - an Indian musician whom he was tutoring in Western music. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage attended several lectures given by the famous Zen Buddhist, D.T. Suzuki, who would also have a large influence on his work. In 1951, he received a newly translated copy of the I-Ching - the ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" - from his pupil, and became fascinated with the text's symbol system used to identify order in chance events. This was a major breakthrough for Cage and inspired him to compose music incorporating the elements of chance and randomness as guided by the ancient Chinese text. For example, he would take a tape recording of a music performance, cut it up at random, and then consult the I-Ching for how to re-assemble the tape for a new, final composition.

By the 1950s, Cage had spent two summers as an instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and was in residence there in 1952, along with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. This radical institution provided the environment for the development of the young Neo-Dada movement as well as some of Cage's most experimental and avant-garde works, including Theater Piece No. 1(1952), and 4' 33"(1952). Both works used standard musical instruments in unorthodox manners and relied heavily on aspects of chance to create the music. Cage began incorporating more non-musical elements like radios, seashells, and recordings of random events into his work. Some performances lacked any specifically created sound whatsoever.

Cage's close relationship with Cunningham - by 1954 the two were living together in Stony Point, NY - allowed the two to collaborate often, combining Cage's musical scores with Cunningham's choreography, often calling upon Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns for theater set design. Cage began teaching experimental composition at The New School in New York, where one of his students was Allan Kaprow. Kaprow applied Cage's instruction in the importance of chance to a new form of performance art that he called "happenings".

Late Years and Death

Cage was affiliated with Wesleyan University from the late 1950s through his death. In addition to his artistic and musical pursuits, Cage was also an avid mycologist throughout his life, co-founding the New York Mycological Society - a group dedicated to the scientific study and appreciation of fungi - in 1962. Until the early 1990s Cage continued composing, but due to increasing arthritis in his hands, he conducted fewer and fewer live performances. However, Cage's creative output did not slow down, even though he was obliged to rely on other performers to carry out his work. In his final years, his work had returned, in a sense, to the diverse multimedia practice that had consumed him as a young man in Europe; in addition to working on a number of operas and other musical scores, Cage practiced printmaking and watercolors. In the last five years of his life, nearly paralyzed by arthritis, a recent stroke, and other ailments, he created his lauded works, the Number Pieces, which many consider the final masterpieces from one of the 20th century's greatest avant-gardists. In the late summer of 1992, while enjoying a quiet day at his Stony Point home with Cunningham, John Cage suffered a second stroke and succumbed the following day, less than one month shy of his 80th birthday.

The Legacy of John Cage

Cage's innovations with sound, instrumentation, performance, and composition all helped redefine music in the 20th century. More specifically, his use of chance and the creative ways in which he utilized performers in his works helped inform and shape avant-garde movements like Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Conceptual art. His innovations also had a profound influence on late-20th-century developments in sound art and performance art, which focused increasingly on context and variability. Through his collaborations at Black Mountain College, Cage also encouraged artists such as Rauschenberg to explore visual art that incorporated chance, an element that would have a major impact on the course of modern art during the second half of the century.

Cage's radical oeuvre has encouraged many composers after him to utilize chance in their work as well, including artists like Witold Lutoslawski and Mauricio Kagel, among others. Through his unique developments in rhythm and sound elements, Cage influenced musicians like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich, who were inspired to pursue similar non-traditional instrumentation in their compositions. His style also deeply affected late-20th-century rock bands like Stereolab, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth, while Aphex Twin even featured the prepared piano on one of their albums in 2001.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
John Cage
Influenced by Artist
  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Arnold Schoenberg
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"John Cage Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Nov 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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