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Cage, John (Milton Jr.)

music piano

Cage, John (Milton Jr.), singularly inventive and much beloved American composer, writer, philosopher, and visual artist of ultramodern tendencies; b. Los Angeles, Sept. 5, 1912; d. N.Y., Aug. 12, 1992. His father, John Milton Cage Sr., was an inventor, and his mother, Lucretia Harvey, was active as a clubwoman and columnist in Southern Calif. He studied piano with his Aunt Phoebe and Fannie Charles Dillon in Los Angeles, showing particular interest in the music of Edvard Grieg. He had early aspirations to be either a minister or a writer, and, representing Los Angeles H.S. in 1927, won the Southern Calif. Oratorical Contest at the Hollywood Bowl with his essay “Other People Think,” a plea for Pan-American conscience by the (North) American people. After brief studies at Pomona Coll. in Claremont, Calif. (1928–30), he traveled to Europe, where he studied architecture with Ernö Goldfinger and piano with Lazare Lévy in Paris; also traveled throughout Biskra, Majorca, Madrid, and Berlin (1930–31), painting, writing poetry, and producing his first musical compositions, which he abandoned prior to his return to Calif. He continued writing, painting, and composing on his own, supporting himself as a gardener in an auto court in Santa Monica and also lecturing on modern art and music to housewives. He then studied composition with Richard Buhlig, developing a method of composition employing two twenty-five tone ranges, which appear in his early Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subjects of the Solo (1933–44; rev. 1963). At the suggestion of Henry Cowell, he pursued studies in harmony with Adolph Weiss; he also studied modern harmony, contemporary music, and Oriental and folk music with Cowell at the New School for Social Research in N.Y. Cage’s studies culminated with counterpoint lessons from Schoenberg (1934), both privately and at the Univ. of Southern Calif.; he also attended Schoenberg’s classes in counterpoint and analysis at the Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles. On June 7, 1935, Cage married Xenia An-dreyevna Kashevaroff. Through his brief association with the filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, Cage became interested in noise, subsequently developing methods of writing complex rhythmic structures for percussion music; he then joined a modern dance group at the Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles, as an accompanist and percussion composer. He and Xenia also studied bookbinding with Hazel Dreis, and formed a quartet of bookbinders for playing percussion music.

During the summer of 1937, Cage was on the faculty of Mills Coll. in Oakland, Calif., where he worked as a composer for Marian Van Tuyl. He then moved to Seattle as composer-accompanist for Bonnie Bird’s modern dance classes at the Cornish School, where he met Mercé Cunningham, who was a dance student there. He organized a percussion orchestra, collected musical instruments, and made tours throughout the Northwest; it was in Seattle that Cage also met Morris Graves, and arranged for an exhibition of his work; he also arranged exhibitions of the work of Alexej Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mark Tobey. In 1939 he gave concerts of percussion music with Lou Harrison in San Francisco; he also worked as a recreational leader for the Works Progress Administration there, and composed his First Construction (in Metal) for six Percussionists (Seattle, Dec. 9, 1939). He began developing Cowell’s piano technique of making use of tone clusters and playing directly on the body of the instrument or on the strings, which culminated in his invention of the “prepared piano;” by placing objects (screws, copper coins, rubber erasers, etc.) on and between the piano strings, he was able to significantly alter the tone color of individual keys and thus transform the piano into a percussion orchestra. His first prepared piano piece was music to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort, Bacchanale (1938; rev. version, Seattle, April 28, 1940). The instrument rapidly gained acceptance among avant-garde composers, and in 1949, after the N.Y premiere by Maro Ajemian of his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48), he received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and a $1, 000 award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for having “extended the boundaries of music.”

In 1941 Cage went to Chicago, where, at the invitation of László Moholy-Nagy, he taught a class in experimental music at the School of Design. He also accompanied dance classes of Katherine Manning there, and gave a concert of percussion music at the Arts Club. Commissioned by CBS (“Columbia Workshop”) to create a radio program, he composed The City Wears a Slouch Hat for four Percussion and Sound Effects, to a text by Kenneth Patchen (Chicago, May 31, 1942). He then moved to N.Y. (1942), where he began a lengthy association with Cunningham, who had since relocated to N.Y. to perform with Martha Graham; Cage and Cunningham would collaborate for nearly 50 years on works that introduced radical innovations in musical and choreographic composition. When the Merce; Cunningham Dance Co. was formed in 1953, Cage served as its first music director, a position he maintained for more than 30 years. It was also during this period that Cage met Marcel Duchamp through Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. He became interested in chess, and later played demonstration games with Duchamp on a chessboard designed by Lowell Cross to operate on aleatory principles with the aid of a computer (Reunion; Toronto, March 5, 1968). During this period Cage also gave a concert at the Museum of Modern Art, the first in a series of N.Y. recitals that established his reputation. After his divorce from Xenia in 1945, he moved to N.Y.’s Lower East Side; having a “crisis of faith” about composition, he began what became a life-long study of Eastern philosophies, first (Indian philosophy and music) with the visiting Indian musician and teacher Gira Sarabhai, and then (Zen Buddhism) with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, whose classes he attended at Columbia Univ. He also made numerous tours with Cunningham, and received an important commission from Lincoln Kirstein and the Ballet Soc, resulting in The Seasons (N.Y., May 18, 1947). In 1948 Cage taught at Black Mountain Coll. in N.C., where he met R. Buckminster Fuller, Richard and Louise Lippold, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and Joseph Albers, among others. In 1949 he spent three months in Europe, where he appeared in concerts and dance recitals with Cunningham; he also met Pierre Boulez; their subsequent correspondence was publ. as Pierre Boulez/John Cage: Correspondance et documents (J.-J. Nattiez and F. Davoine, eds., Winterthur, 1990). Returning to N.Y., Cage participated in the formation, with Robert Motherwell and others, of the Artists Club. Dating from this period are also his “Lecture on Nothing” and “Lecture on Something,” and his String Quartet in Four Parts (1949–50).

In 1950 Cage began developing means for composition with chance operations. He came under the influence of the I Ching, or “Book of Changes,” one of the most influential books in the Chinese canon, which became his sole director as a composer, poet, and visual artist for the remainder of his life. An extremely significant collaboration stemming from this period, and extending throughout the decade in the realization of the first of his I Ching chance-determined compositions, was with the pianist David Tudor, who was able to reify Cage’s exotic inspirations, works in which the performer shares the composer’s creative role. Tudor also became closely associated with the Mercé Cunningham Dance Co., and thus he and Cage had a close working relationship of some forty years’ duration. In 1950 Cage completed a score for Herbert Matter’s film, Works of Calder for Prepared Piano and Tape (1949–50), which received first prize from the Woodstock Art Film Festival. He also composed his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950–51; N.Y., Jan. 1952) as well as his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 24 Performers on 12 Radios, commissioned by the New Music Soc. and presented at Columbia Univ.‘s McMillin Theater on May 10, 1951. It was during this period as well that he began a life-long friendship with Robert Rauschenberg. In 1952, at Black Mountain Coll., Cage presented a theatrical event historically marked as the earliest Happening; participants in this prototypical adventure included Cunningham, Charles Olson, Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, and Tudor. Cage’s seminal Music of Changes was given its premiere performance by Tudor at the Cherry Lane Theater on Jan. 1, 1952. In this year, he also composed his first piece for tape as a score for a dance by Jean Erdman, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (N.Y., Jan. 18, 1952). Influenced at the Black Mountain Happening by Rauschenberg’s all-black and all-white paintings, Cage composed his notoriously tacet 4’33” (1952); the ultimate freedom in musical expression, Cage’s work is heard in three movements (indicated by the pianist’s closing and reopening of the piano key cover), during which no sounds are intentionally produced. It was first performed by Tudor in Woodstock, N.Y., on Aug. 29, 1952. A decade later Cage created a second “silent” piece, 0’00”, “to be played in any way by anyone,” presented for the first time in Tokyo on Oct. 24, 1962. Any sounds produced by the listeners are automatically regarded as integral to the piece, so that the wisecrack about the impossibility of arriving at a fair judgment of such a silent piece, since one cannot tell what music is not being played, is invalidated by the uniqueness of Cage’s art.

In 1954 Cage moved with Tudor, Richards, and Karen Weinrib to a cooperative community established by Paul and Vera Williams in Rockland County, N.Y. He also made a concert tour of Europe (Donaueschingen, Cologne, Paris, Brussels, Stockholm, Zürich, Milan, and London) with Tudor, and, upon his return, met Jasper Johns, who would remain a life-long friend and associate. He also began work on his Music for Piano series (ranging from Music for Piano 1, 1952, to Music for Piano 85 for Piano and Electronics, 1962), using the imperfections in manuscript paper to guide his composition. From 1956 to 1960 he taught occasional classes at the New School for Social Research, where his students included George Brecht, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Allan Kaprow, and Jackson Mac Low. In 1958 an historically significant 25-year retrospective concert of his music was given at N.Y.’s Town Hall. He then spent a summer in Europe teaching a class in experimental music at Darmstadt and giving concerts and lectures elsewhere, including “Indeterminacy, New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music” at the Brussels World Fair. In Italy he composed Fontana Mix for any Sound Sources or Actions (1958; Rome, Jan. 5, 1959); he also appeared on an Italian quiz show, “Lascia o Raddoppia,” as a mushroom expert, winning $6, 000; in his five performances he presented his Amores for Prepared Piano and three Percussionists (1936; rev. version, N.Y., Feb. 7, 1943), Sounds of Venice for Various Stage Properties and Tape (Milan, Jan. 1959), and Water Walk for Piano and Various Stage Properties (Milan, Jan. 1959).

Returning to N.Y. in 1959, Cage again taught at the New School for Social Research, this time three specific courses: (1) mushroom identification, (2) the music of Virgil Thomson, and (3) experimental composition. In 1960–61 he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan Univ. in Middletown, Conn., where he completed his first book, Silence (1961), which has since become a classic study in 20 th -century musical aesthetics. He also met Norman O. Brown. In 1961 he was commissioned by the Montreal Festivals Soc. to write the orch. piece Atlas Eclipticalis for One to 86 Specified Instruments (1961–62; Montreal, Aug. 3, 1961). In 1962 he founded, with Esther Dam, Ralph Ferrara, Lois Long, and Guy G. Nearing, the N.Y. Mycological Soc. He also made an extensive concert tour of Japan with Tudor. In 1963 he directed the first N.Y. performance of Vexations by Erik Satie, a composer to whom he expressed almost life-long devotion. He also made a world tour with the Mercé Cunningham Dance Co. Other activities in the late 1960s included the formation, with Johns, of the philanthropic Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in N.Y., he also was composer-in-residence at the Univ. of Cincinnati. In 1967 he publ. A Year From Monday . It was during this period also that he met the controversial Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas resonated strongly in Cage, as well as Wendell Berry, who introduced him to the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, which subsequently appeared, in various guises, in many of Cage’s works. He also was an assoc. at the Center for Advanced Study at the Univ. of 111., where he created HPSCHD for One to Seven Amplified Harpsichords and One to 51 Tapes (1967–69; Cham-paign-Urbana, 111., May 16, 1969; in collaboration with L. Hiller). In 1969 he was an artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Calif., Davis; he also publ. Notations (with A. Knowles), and executed his first visual work (with Calvin Sumsion), Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, at Hollander’s Workshop in N.Y. In 1970 he again, this time as an advanced fellow, at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan Univ.

Throughout the 1970s Cage traveled extensively and produced works in a variety of media. With Lois Long he publ. Mushroom Book, and also made a European tour with Tudor. In 1973 he publ. M: Writings ‘67- ’72 . In 1974–75 he composed his Etudes Australes (Witten, April 23 and 25, 1982), using star charts as his guide; in 1978 he created color etchings entitled Score without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku, incorporating drawings by Thoreau. Also from the 1970s were his Child of Tree (Detroit, Mich., March 8, 1975) and Branches (1976), both scored for Percussion and Amplified Plant Materials, as well as his Lecture on the Weather for 12 Amplified Voices, optionally with Instruments, Tape, and Film (1975; Toronto, Feb. 26, 1976), a lavish audio- visual work commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on the occasion of American’s Bicentennial, combining collages of spoken texts by Thoreau, a film by Luis Frangella, and weather recordings by Marianne Amacher. He also composed Renga for 78 Instruments or Voices or combinations thereof (1975–76; Boston, Sept. 29, 1976) and Apartment House 1776 for four Voices, optionally on Tape, and any number of Instruments (Boston, Sept. 29, 1976). He then began reading the works of James Joyce, being particularly influenced by Finnegans Wake . On the advice of Yoko Ono, he also began following the macrobiotic diet, which significantly improved his health. In 1977 he began work on his mammoth Freeman Etudes for Violin, composed for Paul Zukofsky and dedicated to Betty Freeman and completed with the assistance of James Pritchett only shortly before their premiere in Zürich on June 29, 1991; also from this period was his Inlets for three Performers using Water-filled Conch Shells, Blown Conch Shell, and the sound of fire (Seattle, Sept. 10, 1977). At the encouragement of Kathan Brown in 1978, Cage began making prints at Crown Point Press in Oakland (later San Francisco), Calif.; Cage returned there annually until his death in 1992, producing such works as Seven Day Diary (1978), Dereau (1982), Where There Is Where There—Urban Landscape (1987), Dramatic Fire (1989), and Smoke Weather Stone Weather (1991); Cage also produced a series of unique pencil rock tracings on handmade Indian paper, entitled Where R = Ryoanji (1983–92). Also in 1978 was the publication of his Writing Through Finnegans Wake (with A. Knowles) and the composition of his lively Alla Ricerca del Silenzio Perduto (a.k.a. Il Treno) for Prepared Train (1977; Bologna and vicinity, June 26–28, 1978).

In 1979 Cage worked at Parish IRCAM (with David Fullemann) to complete his Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, a quintessential realization of his__, __ Circus on __for Voice, Tape, and any number of Musicians, optionally on tape, a means of translating any book into music; the work was commissioned by Klaus Schôning at the WDR, Cologne, and premiered in Donaueschingen on Oct. 20 of that same year. In 1980 his Third and Fourth Writings Through Finnegans Wake appeared; in 1981–82 he composed his fanciful hòrspiel, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: Ein Alphabet (WDR, Cologne, July 6, 1982). In 1981 he wrote Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), and also composed Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras (Pont-à-Mousson, Nov. 22, 1981) and Dance/4 Orchestras (Mission San Juan Bautista, Calif., Aug. 22, 1982). He also gave a night-long reading of his Empty Words: Writings 73–78 (Middletown, Conn., 1979) over National Public Radio. In 1982 his scores and prints were exhibited for the first time at the Whitney Museum of American Art in N.Y. and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1984 he began extensive work with the computer, employing programs made for him by Andrew Culver and Jim Rosenberg, producing his first computer-assisted me-sostic poem, after Allen Ginsburg’s Howl .

In 1987 several large-scale works were completed and premiered, including Cage’s only installation, Voiceless Essay, based on texts from Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience and ambient sounds. He also completed Europeras 1 & 2 for any number of Voices, Chamber Orch., Tape, and Organ ad libitum (1984–87; Frankfurt am Main, Dec. 12, 1987), a chance-determined, musico-dramatic staged collage self-referentially comprised of excerpts from extant operas across historical time. The scheduled opening of Europeras 1 & 2 on Nov. 15, 1987 was delayed and its location changed due to a fire, reportedly set by a vagrant in search of food, which devastated the Frankfurt am Main Opera House. He also produced works for and attended numerous 75 th birthday celebrations worldwide, including a week-long event at the Los Angeles Festival. Also from this year was his Two for Flute and Piano, the first in a series of “number pieces/’ each utilizing a flexible notation system of his devising called “time-bracket notation/’ “time-bracket notation” would be his method of choice for virtually all compositions henceforth. In 1988 he extended his activities as a visual artist further with a series of watercolors with Ray Kass at the Mountain Lake Workship in Roanoke, Va. In 1988–89 he held the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Chair at Harvard Univ., for which he wrote and delivered six large-scale, quasi-autobiographical mesostic poems incorporating the writings of Fuller, Thoreau, McLuhan et al.; these poems (or lectures), with texts from intersperced seminars with students, were later publ, as I-VI (Boston, 1990). In 1989 a joint exhibition, “Dancers on a Plane: John Cage, Mercé Cunningham, Jasper Johns,” was presented in London and Liverpool. In 1990 Cage’s watercolors were exhibited as “New River Watercolors” at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Cage also saw the premiere of his Fourteen for Piano and Small Orch. (Zürich, May 12, 1990) and his Europeras 3&4for at least six Voices, two Pianos, at least six Performers with 12 Gramophones and one Phonograph, and Tape and Light Operators at London’s Almeida Music Festival (June 17, 1990). His Europera 5 followed in 1991, a somewhat diminutive version in the Europeras series for two Voices, Piano, Phonograph, and Sound and Light Operators (Buffalo, N.Y., April 18, 1991). The Scottish National Orch. produced a week of Cage music. Cage also began designing, in collaboration with curator Julie Lazar, his continually changing work for museum, Rolywholyover A Circus, which was seen successively, after his death, in Los Angeles, Houston, N.Y., Mito (Japan), and Philadelphia. In 1991 Cage attended the John Cage-James Joyce Zurich June Festival, where his Europeras 1&2 was performed at the Zürich Opera; also premiered there was Beach Birds, his final collaboration with Cunningham. During this period, Cage also made suites of handmade paper and edible drawings with Bernie Toale at Rugg Toad Papers in Boston, Mass.

In 1992, the last year of his life, Cage attended innumerable 80 th birthday celebrations around the world. He also composed a remarkable number of scores, including orch. works for the Hessischer Rund-funk (Frankfurt am Main), the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Cologne), and the American Composers Orch. (N.Y.)., as well as some 20 compositions, most of them “number pieces,” for )various smaller ensembles. He also completed his first and only film, the strikingly minimalist One 11 , with Henning Lohner. Shortly before his 80 th birthday and his scheduled departure for Frankfurt am Main to attend the extensive birthday celebrations planned in both Frankfurt and Cologne, on Aug. 11, 1992, Cage collapsed in the N.Y loft he shared with Cunningham; he died peacefully the following afternoon, on Aug. 12, 1992, without gaining consciousness, of a massive stroke.

Cage’s influence, while unquestionably profound, has likely yet to be fully felt. With the passing years, he departed from the pragmatism of precise musical notation and circumscribed ways of performance, electing instead to mark his creative intentions in graphic symbols, pictorial representations, generalized and often poetic instructions, and flexible time relationships. His principal contribution to the history of music was his establishment of the principle of indeterminacy in composition; by adapting Zen Buddhist meditative practices to composition, Cage succeeded in bringing both authentic spiritual ideas and a liberating attitude of play to the enterprise of Western art. His aesthetic of chance also, uniquely, produced a body of what might be called “once-only” works, any two performances of which can never be the same. In an effort to reduce the subjective element in composition, Cage developed methods of selecting the components of his pieces by chance, early on through the throwing of coins or dice and later through the use of various random number generators on the computer, and especially the program known as IC, designed by Cage’s assistant, Andrew Culver, to simulate the coin oracle of the I Ching; the result is a system of total serialism, in which all elements pertaining to acoustical pulses, pitch, noise, duration, relative loudness, tempi, combinatory superpositions, etc., are determined by referring to previously drawn correlating charts. Thus, Cage’s works did not originate in psychology, motive, drama, or literary purpose, but, rather, were just sounds, free of judgments about whether they are musical or not, free of fixed relations, and free of memory and taste.

Cage was also a brilliant writer, much influenced by the manner, grammar, syntax, and glorious illogic of Gertrude Stein. While his books did not appear until the early 1960s (with the exception of the co-authored Virgil Thomson: His Life in Music; with K. Hoover, N.Y., 1959), he was early on a frequent reviewer and contributor on music and dance to such periodicals as Perspectives of New Music and Modern Music, the latter under the guiding editorship of his close friend, Minna Daniel (née Lederman); he also was an assoc. ed. of the short-lived magazine Possibilities . Of singular importance to the field, however, was his development of a style of poetry he called “mesostic” (the name suggested by Norman O. Brown, to differentiate from the clearly related “acrostic”), which uses an anchoring, generating string of letters down the center of the page that spell a name, a word, or line of text relating (or not) to the subject matter of the poem. Cage’s mesostic poems, analogously indeterminate with respect to their composition to his musical works of the period, were eventually also composed via computer, the “source material” pulverized and later enhanced by Cage into semi-coherent, highly evocative poetic texts; the most extensive example is found in the six lectures comprising the aforementioned 7-VI, composed for Harvard Univ. He also collaborated on a number of other projects, including The First Meeting of the Satie Society, with illustrations by Johns, Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Meli Daniel, Thoreau, and Cage himself, coordinated by Benjamin Schifi and publ, in 1993 by the Limited Editions Club.

Cage was elected to the American Academy and Inst. of Arts and Letters in 1968 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978; he was inducted into the more exclusive branch of the Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in 1989. In 1981 he received the Mayor’s Award of Honor in N.Y.C. He was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture in 1982, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the Calif. Inst. of the Arts in 1986. In the summer of 1989 he was guest artist at International Festivals in Leningrad and Moscow, at which he presented works entitled Music for ____ (1984; rev. 1987), incorporating flexible time-bracket notation, which he conducted chironomically. In late 1989 he traveled to Japan to receive, in traditional and quite formal Japanese dress, the highly prestigious and lucrative Kyoto Prize.

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