John Cage, inventor of visual music

Tomorrow it is thirty years ago that John Cage died. Joyful existentialist, professional enfant terrible, innocent boy scout – Cage was everything. And if that had not been enough, he would have invented it.

John Cage (1912 – 1992) was a composer, artist, painter, poet, Zen Buddhist, inventor and mushroom connoisseur (mycologist). A cultural and intellectual omnivore, who lived from day to day. He did not regard music as a distraction or entertainment, but as a voyage of discovery to sounds from the immediate surroundings, free from interpretation and manipulation. He wanted to do justice to sounds.  A large part of his curiosity was derived from Zen Buddhism, which focuses on simplicity, ordinariness, unboundedness and peace of mind. He was born with a sense of wonder; his father was an inventor of submarines, his mother a journalist.

World of everyday life

After his musical training with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schönberg, Cage began his career in the mid-1930s at the University of California as a composer in the dance department. Here he developed a keen eye for the breadth of the artistic landscape. Dance gave Cage the first impulses for combinations of rhythm, structure and collaboration.  At the end of the 1930s, he was appointed to the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. There he was strongly influenced by the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who would later become his life partner.  Cage called Cunningham’s work “certainly not an example of the specialised and fragmented art world but, on the contrary, of the open and unpredictable world of everyday”. Both saw the world as multiple, indeterminate and changing. The two relied heavily on the use of chance methods to avoid imposing their artistic interpretations on the public.

Random operations

In the 1940s, Cage settled in New York. There he had a lot of contact with visual artists like Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, André Breton, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp and Mark Tobey. Cage was impressed by the way Tobey used coincidence in his painting and drawing. But the composer Christian Wolff showed how Cage could use the element of chance in a concrete way. According to the Chinese classical work I Ching, the questioner must toss three coins six times and formulate an answer according to the order produced by the last toss. “I use chance procedures to prevent the outcome from being influenced by my personal preference,” Cage said, “this allows me to take new paths that I would never have thought possible.”  The relevance of this approach stands or falls with the quality of the questioning. In his great piano work Music of Changes (1951), for example, the question was which key to use, assuming that only white keys could be used. But in Etudes Australes (1974-75), coincidence operations were applied to the question of in which case individual stars or groups should be linked to certain keys. From 1951, Cage would use the methods described in I Ching for most of both his music and visual art.

Silence to make the audience listen

That the use of coincidence does not always require a method is proven by the composition 4’33” (1952), a three-part piece of indeed over four and a half minutes for piano (or any number of instruments). During this piece, the the pianist does not play any music. “Absolutely ridiculous”, “stupid”, “cheap trick”, “emperor’s new clothes”. These were the first reactions, which are still regularly heard today. They are comments on a piece that pushes the element of silence to the limit but aims to make the audience listen. Cage on the premiere: “Silence in itself does not exist. During the first movement, you could hear the wind playing outside. In the second movement, the rain began to beat on the roof. And in the third movement, the listeners made all kinds of interesting noises when they talked to each other or walked outside”. With this composition, Cage unintentionally introduced the concept of framing by grouping unpredictable environmental sounds into a well-defined time period. And actually, he wanted to show that all sounds have the potential to be music in themselves.

As an inventor, he became particularly famous with the concept of the prepared piano. Here, the inside of the instrument is drastically rebuilt. Hammers are fitted with nails, rubbers, pins and strings are interconnected with elastic, respectively interrupted with matchsticks. Cage thus transformed the piano into a percussion instrument – his old love. His Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) is a classic of the genre.

More intonation, less melody

Recently, his Number Pieces, about 40 pieces written between 1987 and 1992, have experienced a revival. The numbering of these meditative explorations refers to the number of musicians needed for each piece. What is new is that the musicians themselves can decide how long they want to play, albeit within certain limits. The melody lines in this series are deliberately restrained, tending more towards intonation.  Cage did not want to impose himself. There is space, which musicians and spectators may fill in.

Cage went to great lengths to push the boundaries of sound art. Cacti, radios, rusty pan lids – he used everything to pull music as an art form out of its technical, traditional and distant comfort zone.  Cage has paved the way for a more inclusive performance practice that has stretched and enriched the listening experience.

Listening tips:

Music of Changes – David Tudor, piano. Label: hat[now]ART 133

Etudes Australes – Sabine Liebner, piano. Label: WERGO (4 CD box)

Sonatas and interludes – Kate Boyd, piano. Label: Navona records

Number Pieces – Apartment House. Label: Another Timbre (4 CD box).

In a landscape – Kate Boyd, piano. Label: Navona records: Navona records


Watching tips:


Water Music

John Cage about silence


The app John Cage Prepared Piano for iPhone, iPad and Android. Compose your own pieces on prepared piano and share them on social media.

There is also an app 4’33” (iPhone only), on which the user can play the piece, record ambient sounds and share it.

Leave a Reply