He is a composer born John Milton Cage in Los
Angeles, California, to a
family where his father was an inventor and his mother was a journalist.
He began learning the piano with various relatives in Los
Angeles and began lessons when he was in the
fourth grade. He gravitated
towards reading rather than playing the piano with a technical ability and
had no interest in composition at the time.
In 1928 he entered Pomona College, Claremont, after
graduating as a valedictorian from high school but left in 1930 with the
thought that “college was of no use to a writer” after seeing
his co-students all reading the same book rather than picking something
He decided that he would be better served by taking a
trip to Europe and, after convincing his parents, he
hitch-hiked to Galveston, Texas,
and got on a boat to Le Havre, France. He spent the next 18 months in Europe
where he first studied architecture but changed to poetry and painting. He also found a new interest in
music and discovered the music of several contemporary composers as well as
J.S. Bach for the first time.
He travelled extensively through the continent until a visit to Majorca
spurred him into composition.
He left the works behind him as his use of a “dense mathematical
formula” and hadn’t given him the results he wanted.
In 1931 he went home to America
and started giving lectures on contemporary art in Santa
Monica, California. He also became acquainted with
various musicians and artists and in 1933 took the decision to focus on his
music rather than art.
He decided to send a few of his works to Henry Cowell who wrote back and pointed him in the direction
of using Arnold Schoenberg as his teacher after he had studied with Adolph
Weiss, who had been one of his students. He followed this avenue and in 1933 went
to New York City where he
studied with Henry Cowell at The New School and
also with Alfred Weiss. Within
a few months he returned to California
and began lessons with Arnold Schoenberg who agreed to tutor him with no
fees after he had said he would dedicate his life to music. He studied with him for two years
before getting married to Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff in 1935.
In 1936 he began working various jobs including one at
UCLA where he was a dance accompanist.
This started his long association with modern dance and he went on
to teach a course on Musical Accompaniments for Rhythmic Expression at UCLA
as well as work on the music for various choreographies. Around the same period he began using
various different non-musical items and materials as instruments.
He became a member of the faculty of Mills
College in 1938 where he
continued the program he had worked on at UCLA. After just a few months he moved to Seattle,
Washington and began working as a
composer and choreographer’s accompanist at the Cornish
College of the Arts. He also
formed a percussion ensemble and the resultant tours began to get his name
known. His recognition grew in
1940 after he brought the “prepared piano” to light which was
basically a piano with various items resting on the strings. On the move
again in 1941, he went to Chicago
to become a teacher at the School
of Design and also worked at
the University of Chicago
as a composer and accompanist.
While in Chicago
he was commissioned to write the soundtrack for The City Wears a Slouch Hat written for radio broadcast and,
hoping to find further commissions in New York
he took the decision to move there in 1942 and he and his wife first stayed
with the art collector Peggy Guggenhaim and the painter
Max Ernst. This led to him becoming
acquainted with many of the important artists of the day and Peggy
Guggenheim arranged to transport all his instruments and set up a concert
at her art gallery. This didn’t
come to fruition though as he decided to go his own way and arrange his own
concert which resulted in Guggenheim withdrawing all her support and
leaving him penniless and with nowhere to live. He and his wife went to live with
the dancer Jean Erdman and he returned to the piano and writing for
choreographers. He began an
affair with the choreographer Merce Cunningham
and in 1945 his marriage ended in divorce. He and Merce.remained
In 1942 he wrote his The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen
Springs which gained in popularity but he found artistic problems in the
mid-1940s alongside his personal difficulties. He realised that his music wasn’t
either accepted or appreciated so began tutoring an Indian musician in 1946
in return for him being taught about Indian philosophies and music. He went on to attend lectures on Zen
Buddhism and this influence, coupled with the Indian teachings, resulted in
String Quartet in Four Parts and Sonatas and Interludes, which was
In 1949 he performed at Carnegie Hall and was awarded
a Guggenheim Foundation grant which allowed him to return to Europe
and become acquainted with Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen. On his return to the United
States he met up with Morton Feldman at
a concert in 1950 and the two became fast friends. The following year Chrisian Wolff, who was one of Feldman’s pupils,
gave him a copy of the Chinese text I-Ching. This text was used by him as a tool to aid
his compositions for most of his following works as he felt it presented
him with different possibilities.
One of the pieces that came from his new found way of writing was Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12
radio receivers. Another was Music for Changes which he wrote for
David Tudor who became another lifelong friend and premiered a high
percentage of his works for the next 10 years or so.
Although still living in relative poverty he continued
to give lectures and perform and in 1952 he presented his tape music Williams Mix where he was assisted by
Earle Brown and his 4’33”
which concentrated on his use of chance and “environmental sounds”
caused a lot of controversy as the musicians were not allowed to play their
instruments during the length of the piece, which is also the title. The bad reception of this piece was
a huge setback for him and he even lost friends and the backing of
co-composers because of it.
He went back to composing for dance in 1953 and wrote
The Ten Thousand Things which was a development of his use of chance. The following year he went to live
in Stony Point, New York
and toured Europe with David Tudor. Two years later in 1956 he went to
work as a typography art director and as a teacher of experimental
composition at The New School.
He started up an affiliation with the Wesleyan
University and in 1960 he
became a teacher of experimental music and a Fellow at its Center for Advance Studies in the Liberal Arts and
Sciences. The University
published various lectures he had given under the title Silence which included his Lecture on Nothing. This was the first of six
publications of his work.
He became associated with C.F. Peters Corporatio and was offered an exclusive contract by its
president and had a catalogue of his works published in 1962. This was followed by another
publication of Silence and many
of his scores. He was also
given a grant for living expenses which was to be paid every year for the
rest of his life. His now busy
schedule at home and on tour was proving a little too much though because
he couldn’t undertake all the appearances and commissions that were
asked of him, let alone his own compositions. He did, however, manage Atlas Eclipticalis for orchestra and 0’00 which
consisted of a sentence. The
premiere of 0’00” was
Cage standing and writing that sentence. He also published Variations III in 1962 which had instructions
for performers but no mention of any sounds or music. These compositions were termed as “happenings”
and several of his students in Experimental Composition at The New School later
wrote their own happenings such as Alice Denham’s 48 Seconds and George Brecht’s Time
The rest of the 1960s saw him writing many of his
larger pieces with one of the largest being 1969’s HPSCHD and the work which included
seven harpsichords, 6,400 slides from NASA, 40 motion pictured and 53 tapes
of sounds that were computer generated was premiered at the University of
Illinois in a performance which last 5 hours. 1969 also saw his Cheap Imitation, his take on Socrate by
Erik Satie, which became the last performance he
made in public and a rare recording was made.
From the 1970s he was plagued by arthritis which
prevented him from performing and his aides helped him with writing manuscripts. He wrote poetry and prose and several
commissions for other artists and in 1978 he was asked to produce a print
series each year for the rest of his life.
During the 1980s, battling with increasingly ill
health, he still managed to composer a further 40 pieces with a piece for
film and a piece for opera. His
five operas, all written between 1987 and 1991, were all named Europera.
He suffered one stroke in the 1980s and then a further
one in August 1992 which proved to be fatal. His ashes were scattered on the Ramapo Mountains,
where he had previously scattered the ashes of his parents.
His work continues on though and in 2000 the slowest
piece of music ever written called Organ2/ASLSP
As Slow As Possible began to be performed at the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt
in Germany. It plays a single note in a
prolonged period and is set to last for 639 years.