John Milton Cage, Jr. was both a significant musical and cultural influence in New York City in the post-World War II era. As a composer, he played an important role in shaping the music of the time. John Cage was born in Los Angeles, California on September 5, 1912 to John Milton Cage, Sr. and Lucretia Harvey. An educated man bent on becoming a writer, Cage attended Pomona College in 1928, only to drop out two years later. Instead, he convinced his parents that a trip through Europe would be more beneficial to his studies rather than college courses. When he returned in 1931, John Cage worked as a private lecturer on contemporary art and in 1933, he decided to turn to music. Throughout his early career, Cage focused on composing music while utilizing the twelve-tone technique; which was originally implemented by his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg during the 1930s. In fact, Schonenberg acted much like a mentor for John Cage during his earlier career. In 1935, he married fellow artist Xenia Andreyevna.
It wasn’t until 1942 when John Cage moved to New York City. While there, he composed The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, which quickly became one of his most popular pieces at the time. Despite the fame he earned, Cage was poverty-stricken throughout the beginning of the 1950s. It wasn’t until his creation of 4’33” that John Cage gained the notoriety he is associated with today. It was quite an unconventional and controversial piece. 4’33” consisted of three sections; throughout these sections, the performer is instructed not to play his instrument at all. The reason behind his work was not to invite the listener to pay attention to the performance but rather to the ambience of the hall in which the piece is being performed. He quickly became recognized by his minimalist and experimental music. In the sixties, Cage published novels, such as Silence, which only bolstered his prominence in the culture at the time. However, Cage returned and stuck with his drive for experimental music towards the end of his career as well. One of John Cage’s more unorthodox pieces is HPSCHD, which is an implementation of the works of Mozart and Beethoven with computer technology. It wasn’t until August 11, 1992 that the musician finally passed away in Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan.
Influences on his Work
During his time studying with Schoenberg, Cage realized that the music he was interested in was radically different from the music of his time. He believed that music should reflect nature to make his music more organic. Rather than just showing the beauty of a piece, Cage wanted to incorporate ugliness, chaos, and spontaneity along with beauty, order, and predictability. He was inspired by others like him, who wanted to break away from tradition and the norm. Marcel Duchamp, for example, revolutionized 20th century art by presenting unaltered, commonplace objects in museums as finished works of art. Along the same lines as Duchamp, Cage sought to show that music was already in nature and all we had to do was listen. This was known as “found sound” because it basically derived music from one’s surroundings.
Cage’s first experiments involved altering standard instruments to try to meet his needs. He realized that traditional instruments would not work for him and that he needed to create entirely new instruments. A few years after moving to New York, Cage developed an interest in Eastern philosophy that eventually influenced his work. In particular, he studied Zen Buddhism which emphasized separating music from life. This meant that music shouldn’t be a routine in everyday life, but rather a separate entity to make it true art. He began to experiment with “chance procedures.” For example, during the 20th century, technology was advancing pretty rapidly. This was around the time radios and tape recorders were improving with every passing decade. By utilizing the radio, what ever happened to be broadcasting became the music. Cage was notable for doing this because he left it up to chance to decide the course of the piece. As a result, much of Cage’s works were different from the one before. The drawback was the wavering opinions of Cage’s audience, since not every single one of Cage’s pieces were taken favorably. Over time, his work continued to evolve as he kept experimenting with his music. He tried using other electronics and was even further impacted by the advent of computers. He was an unorthodox musician who really devoted his life to music.
John Cage and his work relates a lot to the seminar themes we have learned about in class. For instance, he sought to answer the question “What is art and what is its purpose?” to begin, it would be reasonable to say that Cage’s more experimental pieces cannot be identified as music, but they can, however, be classified as art. Art is a sort of experience rather than an explicit thing that can be commented on and critiqued. Cage sought to redefine what may be considered music and art and was a pioneer in the experimental and electronic music genres. At the time, this was very unorthodox and thus created plenty of controversy. But through the stigmas surrounding his work, Cage managed to redefine an entire musical art successfully and moreover answered what art is and can be.
John Cage’s work also shows the seminar theme of “What makes New York City unique?” From the start, he knew that he wanted his work to be different from all the other musicians and artists. He wanted to break away from the “classics” of his time and really reinvent the way people listen to music. He transformed the music industry and the foundations of music composition through his work. By showing reality through music, he opened up the senses of the people to what is real. He even had to create new instruments to express his music. Although he wasn’t always praised for his music, his music allowed for music to grow from the long- established ways. His contributions helped music evolve in New York City and beyond.
By Herrick Lam and Justin Bischof
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