JOHN CAGE, like no other composer of his generation, was a figure so radical and successful in his approach to the aesthetic criteria of the day, that he forced audiences to accept a new view of the artist in our times. His output greatly influenced the direction that art took in general, more so than any of his contemporaries.
Born in 1912 in Los Angeles, he originally wanted to become a writer and in 1930 left for Europe, where he studied architecture and piano, and attempted to live as a poet, painter and composer. Back in America in 1932 he became a composition pupil of Henry Cowell and Arnold Schönberg, and was well versed in the musical language of the time. From 1942 onwards he was based in New York and became a living legend as a figure capable of renewing artistic ways and means within the context of aesthetic-philosophical concepts, ones which up to that time had not occupied a place within the field of music. From 1948 onwards, along with the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg, he formed a trio that was to break all conventions of the avant-garde. Erik Satie’s essay in sound Ameublements, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau and James Joyce, served as points of departure for a journey into the unknown.
Without the input of John Cage, the history of a musical “happening” and the concomitant movement would have been unthinkable. It was he, urged on by Cowell, who brought the prepared piano into the concert hall; and with 4’33”, he introduced the idea that stillness can also be a “composition”. As for the principles of aleatory music, randomness and chance, along with the fall of a die, these led to aural results that were increasingly non-subjective and which could be understood as compositional material.
In the last five years of his life – up to his death in 1992 – he produced only works whose titles were consecutively numbered, these combined with the number of players required. This was an expression of the principles of Zen philosophy to which he adhered; it allowed the ideal of art without any aim, his own contributions remaining as open-ended and free from conventional practice as possible.