John Cage

(1912—1992) American composer, pianist, and writer

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference


US composer and writer. His experimental and aleatoric compositions have aroused considerable interest and some amusement.

The son of an inventor, Cage was born in Los Angeles but travelled extensively in Europe (1930–31), studying music, art, architecture, and poetry. On his return to America he took courses in composition, counterpoint (with Arnold Schoenberg), and folk, contemporary, and non-Western music (with Henry Cowell (1897–1965). In 1938 he began composing for percussion groups; a concert of percussion music sponsored by the League of Composers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1943) included three of his compositions and focused public attention on him. He was then engaged by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a composer and later as an accompanist. His next experiments were with the ‘prepared piano’, in which a number of objects are inserted into the instrument, making a wholly percussive source of various noises. His Metamorphosis for Prepared Piano (1938) celebrated this phase of his life. Work with audio-frequency oscillations, variable-speed turntables, and sound-effects of various kinds led to such pieces as Imaginary Landscape no 3 (1942).

In the 1950s Cage was studying Zen Buddhism and experimenting with aleatoric composition, using the diagrams of the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes) and tossing three coins to determine the pitch, duration, and timbre of each note, as in Music of Changes (1951). Increasingly the element of chance came into Cage's music: Music for Piano 1 (1952) is notated entirely in semibreves and performance is determined by imperfections in the paper on which it is written. Such random concepts led to 4′33″ (1952), in which performer(s) come on to the platform, sit at their instruments for the required length of time, bow, and retire, the ‘music’ being whatever sounds emerge during the four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Water Music (1952) requires the pianist to pour water, blow whistles under water, and perform various other actions. Cage's Musicircus (1967) is simply a gathering of artists in different media and from different backgrounds, combining in a totally unstructured event. More recent works are Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras (1981) and Europeras 3 and 4 (1990).

With an enormous number of compositions and writings behind him, Cage explained his attitude somewhat gnomically as a determination to break distinctions between art and life: ‘Everything we do is music’.

Subjects: Music.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.