John Milton Cage, Jr. was an American avant-garde composer whose inventive compositions and unorthodox ideas have had a lasting influence on modern music and contemporary art.
Lauded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century John Cage was also a leading writer, music theorist, philosopher and artist.
Cage is probably most famous for 4’33” a silent composition performed by musicians doing nothing aside from being present for the length of the composition. It highlights the fact that true silence cannot exist and encourages the listener to experience the sounds of the environment during the performance.
In 1949 Cage won an award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for the invention of the prepared piano, and a Guggenheim grant.
Along with his partner Merce Cunningham he was instrumental in the development of modern dance.
John Cage regarded all kinds of sounds as potentially musical, and encouraged audiences to take note of all sounds, rather than just those written by a composer.
He pioneered the use of indeterminacy or chance operations in music and non-standard use of musical instruments, such as the prepared piano – a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or on its strings or hammers. He also experimented with tape recorders, record players, and radios in his effort to step outside the bounds of conventional Western music and its concepts of meaningful sound.
The influences for his philosophical methods of composition, such as chance-controlled music, come from his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddism in the late 1940’s. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese text on changing events became his standard compositional tool for most of his life. He used a number of other devices to ensure randomness including unspecified instruments and numbers of performers, freedom of duration of sounds and inexact notation.
Cage described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”.
John Cage was an avid mycologist (an expert on mushrooms and fungi). In 1959, Cage won five million lire on an Italian TV quiz show with mushrooms as his specialty subject.
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