John Cage – Sept. 5

Born Sept. 5, 1912 in Los Angeles, California
Died Aug. 11, 1992 in Manhattan, New York

“There are two things that don’t have to mean anything;
one is music, and the other is laughter.”

– John Cage, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant. (Cage agreed with Kant that music and laughter don’t have to mean anything in order to give us deep pleasure.)

Avant garde composer, writer, artist, and philosopher, John Cage was a unique figure whose influence on 20th century music, art, and dance was perhaps even more important than his own artistic output. In fact, his most famous work was 4’33”, a piece composed for piano (or any other instruments!) that consisted of
4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, divided into 3 movements. So obviously this minimalist loved a good laugh, and the joke doesn’t stop there: 4’33”  has even been included on several CD collections! Cage shared a lifelong partnership, both personally and professionally, with choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the two of them made a lasting impact on contemporary dance. As an artist and printmaker himself, Cage also influenced fellow artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and others in the art world.

Cage studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, radical composers in their own right.  He taught experimental music at Wesleyan University, where he was affiliated until his death in 1992.  He also taught at Mills College, UCLA, the Cornish College of the Arts, and The New School. Cage was influenced by Indian philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and I Ching, the Chinese classical text on changing events, which he used as a tool for composing chance or aleatory music. As a minimalist composer, he also experimented with found sounds, electronic music, and “prepared” piano (which consisted of sticking nuts, bolts, rubber, plates, etc. between the strings of the piano to create the effect of an entire percussion orchestra). Prepared piano often produced exotic effects resembling mbiras, marimbas, bells, gamelan, wood blocks and other percussion. Listen to Cage’s Sonata for Prepared Piano:

John Cage’s Sonata X for Prepared Piano


Now meet the humorous, iconic John Cage near the end of his life, as he expresses his thoughts about listening, music, sounds. . . and silences:

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