It is hard to identify another multidisciplinary creative genius that influenced the course of music in the mid-to-late twentieth century more than John Cage (1912-1992). His influence is still felt today, twenty years after his death.
Cage, however, was not without his own influences, and the inspiration of two notable teachers is evident in his earlier works. Henry Cowell instructed Cage on non-Western, folk, and contemporary music. Soon after, he studied serial composition techniques with Arnold Schoenberg. While a student of Schoenberg, Cage attempted to expand on serialism through his work.
Prior to World War II, Cage produced works that challenged standard notions of what constituted music. He composed for percussion ensemble, and instead of settling for the conventional orchestral battery he incorporated simple blocks of wood or abandoned automobile parts. He composed for piano, but in a search for different sounds Cage – much like Cowell – sent the performer into the body of the instrument to modify (i.e. “prepare”) the hammers and wire, or had pianists play directly on the inner construct itself. He sought out new sounds from electronics, radios, turntables, toys, or any other objects that produced a sound, or could be made to do so.
In the postwar years Cage began to explore Hindu and Zen teachings. These contemplations led Cage to silence, which he applied as a new aesthetic device that would further challenge audiences. During the 1950s, Cage also began to utilize chance and indeterminacy techniques. Combining chance with silence – and his proclivity for sonic innovations – Cage now entered into a highly prolific period, accompanied by awards, fellowships, and grants. Already a compelling figure, Cage now became notorious.
His radical thinking was also expressed in prose whose syntax, content, and form were just as challenging as his music. Although he penned lectures, essays, and poems, he brought to these written forms the same pursuit of new and individual thinking. Also informing Cage’s music and text works was his experience in the visual arts, a life-long interest that he never abandoned.
Cage is not a man who is easy to present in one exhibition. In CAGE: 100, you can begin to explore his life and some of the major areas to which he devoted his creative efforts. With materials selected from the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library collections, you can learn about his innovative artistry, inspirational career, and enduring influence. It is not likely we will see another pioneer of such magnitude as John Cage.
Biographies, Profiles, and Criticism
These books can by found at the University of Maryland, College Park.
From Zero, "19 Questions," dir. Frank Sheffer and Andrew Culver
Cage Performs "Water Walk"
January, 1960: On the American game show I've Got a Secret.