John Cage
Biography of Avant-Garde Composer and Performance Artist.

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John Cage (1912-92)


Avant Garde Artist
Composition: 4 minutes 33 seconds (4'33")
Collaboration with Merce Cunningham
John Cage's "Event" of 1952: The First Happening


Avant Garde Artist

An iconic figure in avant-garde art in America during the 1950s, the composer and artist John Cage is noted in particular for his controversial 1952 'musical composition' 4 minutes 33 seconds (4'33") (which contained not a single note of music), along with his teachings at Black Mountain College on a variety of artistic topics: these include Indian Sand Painting, forms of Performance art such as Happenings (eg. the Cage "Event" of 1952), as well as more conventional printmaking (mostly etchings). He exerted a significant influence on American art during the 1950s, notably on the work of pioneer performer Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), pop artists Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-91) and the dancer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), and heralded such movements as Neo-Dada, European Fluxus and methods like junk art. A student of painting, architecture and, in later life, drawing, his circle of friends included a number of major European and American artists such as the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, the German Surrealist Max Ernst and the calligraphic painter Mark Tobey. Along with a few other highly creative individuals, Cage may be said to be a forerunner of postmodernist art in America.


Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied with the unconventional composer Arnold Schoenberg, who revolutionized modern music by breaking with harmony and the teleological implications of tonality. John Cage's invention in 1938 of the "prepared piano". together with his early role in the evolution of taped and electronic music, established his vanguard reputation in the mid-century modern art of New York. Yet he realized from reading the reviews of his performances that his compositions failed to communicate the emotions that he himself experienced in them. The turning point came after the performance of Perilous Night, written by Cage in 1945. The failure of the critics to understand the piece led Cage to change direction completely: he gave up the idea of communicating in art and instead focused his attention on the idea of opening up the listener's ears to what existed in the environment - an unpredetermined experience detached from artistic intention.

Cage's discovery of Zen Buddhism in the mid-1940s seems to have prompted the form of this radical change. Whereas the artists of the New York School turned to psychoanalysis and extracted art from personal introspection, Cage's study of Zen fostered a detachment from emotional crisis and the idea that art originates in the non-interpretive contemplation of nature. Inspired by Duchamp's readymades (everyday objects which Duchamp presented unaltered as works of art), Cage regarded the everyday world as the source of art. Like Duchamp, whom he befriended in 1941, he attacked the heroic myth of the New York School and opposed psychology as a foundation for art: "There is no room for emotion in a work of art," he later remarked.
Cage looked to the senses as Duchamp had looked to the intellect; both rejected expressionism. In 1950 Cage even began to use chance, which he saw as nature's central operating principle; in other words, he wanted to emulate the underlying process of nature without portraying its actual manifestations.

Rather than using chance to bypass surface consciousness, as in Dada and Surrealism, Cage hoped to avoid personal determination altogether. This attempt to annihilate the artistic ego as well as the distinction between art and everyday experience was unprecedented and in direct contrast to the posture of his contemporaries in the New York School. Yet Cage resembled them in his emphasis on spontaneity and process.

By 1950 Cage's tenement apartment on the Lower East Side had become a meeting place for a group of friends interested in new music and dance. Christian Wolff (then a high school student) dropped by one day with the I Ching or Book of Changes, which Pantheon had just published. The book came to Cage at just the right moment, and he used the I Ching coins and charts to compose his 1951 Music of Changes as a homage to the book. Cage tossed three coins six times, the results of which correlated to a chart, which in turn determined the pitch of each note. Then he went through a similar procedure for timbre and duration. He followed this elaborate process to avoid letting personal choice interfere with the chance procedures. Since the piece lasts for forty-five minutes, Cage had to make an extraordinary number of tosses.

Composition: 4 minutes 33 seconds (4'33")

In his theory of a "total soundspace" Cage asserted that music involves all sound, including non-musical sound and the absence of sound. Sound has four essential features: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration; by contrast, silence, Cage observed, has only duration. In his 1952 silent piece, entitled 4 minutes 33 seconds (4'33") the performer makes no sound for this exact period of time. Influenced by Rauschenberg's blank "White Paintings" of 1951, Cage eliminated everything from this piece but time (the shared feature of sound and silence) and the chance sounds of the environment.

The chance operations of the Music of Changes produced results which, once Cage set them down, remained fixed. But in the silent piece Cage's antipathy to willful patterns took him still further, into indeterminacy, which assumes continual flux. He embraced the true randomness of ambient sounds in the silent piece in order to get the listener to hear in a neutral way. His later 1962 work O'OO" took this idea one step further in specifying that it could be performed by anyone in any manner. Although Cage credited Morton Feldman with leading the way into indeterminacy, Cage's chance (or "aleatory") music and ideas of ambient ("concrete") sound certainly influenced Feldman's music as well as that of Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young.

Collaboration with Dancer Merce Cunningham

Cage had a particularly important exchange of ideas with the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage and Cunningham began working together in 1943, the year before Cunningham's first solo recital in New York (while he was still dancing with the Martha Graham Company). Their collaboration broke sharply with choreographic tradition in permitting the individual dancer any movement meaningful to him or her and relieving the performer of any obligation to tell a story, symbolize something, or find equivalents for the music. The music, sets, and the individual dancers functioned independenty but simultaneously. Cage and Cunningham created systems, overlaid them, and then watched what happened when they collided.

Merce Cunningham changed the language of dance. For him any movement, no matter how ordinary - walking, falling, jumping - could constitute dance. Furthermore no action in dance carried any significance beyond what it was in itself, he insisted; like Cage, Cunningham chiefly wanted to engaged the viewer's senses. He also wanted to lay bare the sheer physicality of dance. His choreographic ideas are complex and stress the discipline of technique, frequently demanding that the dancer work barefoot to achieve a more direct and controlled relation to the floor. With all six dancers in Cunningham's troupe cast as soloists, they would cover the whole stage at once; as in an "allover" painting by Jackson Pollock (1912-56) or Willem de Kooning (1904-97).

The high point of Merce Cunningham's tours with Cage in the 1940s was their visit to Black Mountain College in 1948. Cage had been intrigued by the college since the late 30s. But the 1948 Cage/Cunningham presentation of Erik Satie's Rose of the Medusa, directed by Arthur Penn, was an electrifying event. With this performance, Cage established a friendship with Josef Albers (1888-1976), the art master of the school. However, when Cage later began working with chance and indeterminacy, Albers asserted that Cage had "renounced his responsibility as an artist" and broke off relations.

John Cage's "Event" of 1952: The First Happening

Nevertheless, it was Cage's Theater Piece #1 (often called simply "the event") performed at Black Mountain College in 1952 that achieved legendary status as the first "Happening" and the beginning of aleatory music and dance. In the 1952 "event", the Black Mountain lecturer MC Richards and the poet Charles Olsen read poetry from ladders; Rauschenberg's "White Paintings" hung overhead while he played Edith Piaf records on an old phonograph; David Tudor played the piano; Merce Cunningham danced in and around the audience (chased by a barking dog); and Cage sat on a step-ladder for two hours - sometimes reading a lecture on the relation of music to Zen Buddhism, sometimes listening silently. Everyone did whatever they chose to do during certain assigned intervals of time, and the entire experience was so full of sensory input that no two accounts of it sound much alike. Indeed the individuality of each observer's experience was central to Cage's aspiration.

The above article includes material from Art Since 1940 (published by Laurence King Publishing, 2000): an invaluable work for all students of modern and contemporary visual art. We gratefully acknowledge the use of this material.


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