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     Cage, John (5th September 1912-12th August 1992)

    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 individual. 


    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 life-long partners.


    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 well received.


    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 Table Music.


    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.




    1. http://www.myspace.com/johnmiltoncage
    2. http://www.johncage.info/
    3. http://www.johncage.org/
    4. http://www.xs4all.nl/~cagecomp/
    5. http://ronsen.org/cagelinks.html
    6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage
    7. http://www.john-cage.halberstadt.de/new/index.php?seite=dasprojekt&l=e
    8. http://d-sites.net/english/cage.htm
    9. http://www.lafolia.com/archive/covell/covell200604cage1951.html









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