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John Cage

Artist in Profile (June ’15): John Cage

John Cage

John Cage

John Cage. Photo by Moody Man, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Born in Los Angeles, John Cage was son to Lucretia Harvey, a sometime journalist for the LA Times and amateur artist, John Milton Cage, Sr., an inventor. The range of inventions by his father which included an electro static field theory and a submarine fuelled by diesel, left a great impression on Cage younger, especially as these inventions were deemed revolutionary and yet eccentric.

John Cage worked during the Abstract Expressionism heyday honing his skills amongst the expanding American avant garde. Cage was not a sculptor or painter but known for his revolutionary work incorporating unconventional instrumentation that has revolutionised modern music within the idea of music environmentally created by chance.

Early Years

As a child Cage took piano lessons when he was ten years old. Despite enjoying music and having a rare talent for it, his greatest passion was writing. Following his graduation from Los Angeles High School where he was class valedictorian, he began at Pomona College. He felt he was not being challenged enough as a writer and dropped out after two years.

The year 1930 saw Cage travelling to Europe, where several months were spent in Paris followed by visits to Spain, Germany, Majorca and Capri. Whilst abroad he experimented with several mediums including architecture, painting and poetry, but he remained uninspired to innovate. Later in his travels, an encounter with the works of Igor Stravinsky and Johann Sebastian Bach inspired him to start creating his own music compositions.

He began to study music with Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell and Adolph Weiss. While teaching in Seattle, Cage arranged percussion ensembles to play his compositions. At the same time he produced some experimental works for dance in collaboration with dancer Merce Cunningham. This partnership was both romantic and creative.

Early compositions were written in the 12 tone method of Schoenberg, but Cage was also experimenting with unorthodox instruments such as a piano that was modified by placing objects between the strings to make different sound effects. He also experimented with radio, tape recorders, and record players, in order to break through conventional musical boundaries.

In 1943 he gave a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with his ensemble and this occasion marked his beginning as a leader of avant garde American music.


John Cage embraced Eastern philosophy particularly Zen Buddhism and made a conclusion that all activities that go to make music are part of a single process. Therefore he regarded all sound as having musical potential. He encouraged his audiences to pay attention to all sonic phenomena rather than just those sounds the composer wrote.


He utilised indeterminism as a principle in music and used many different devices to ensure a random nature, sequence of events and inexact notation. Later he extended this principle to encompass other media so that any given performance might include slide projections, light shows, costumes and so forth. One of Cage’s best-known works is “Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds” (above) in which performers remain silent for that amount of time. “Imaginary Landscape No. 4”, was a piece for randomly tuned radios, a conductor and 24 performers. Other works include “Sonatas and Interludes”, “Fontana Mix”, “Cheap Imitation” and “Roaratorio” – a composition of electronics that utilises thousands of words from the James Joyce novel “Finnegan’s Wake”.

He authored several books, and his influence spread to established composers such as Christian Wolff. His work was clearly recognised as a significant development in the progress of electronic, minimalist and performance art music.

Later Years

His final years saw Cage working on musical scores and operas. He also experimented with print making and watercolour. The last five years of his life saw him restricted severely by arthritis and a stroke. Despite this he created one of his most lauded works, the “Number Pieces” (below) proclaimed by many to be his finest piece.

In the summer of 1992 John Cage suffered another stroke and died a day later, just one month off his 80th birthday.

John Cage also created Artists Books, one of which we have been lucky enough to handle (from the Uni. of Glos. collection), through our own artistbookarts exhibitions.

There is currently a sampler exhibition of artistbookarts in The Foyer at The Wilson with the following events coming up:

Wednesday 17 June, 10am–12noon or 2pm–4pm: A rare opportunity to handle a variety of artists’ books, plus, a chance to explore the history of the Private Press Movement and to see a selection of these beautiful books from The Wilson’s collection.

Thursday 18 June, 10am – 4pm: Artists’ Books Workshop with Su Billington.

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