5 September 1912 - 12 August 1992 (age 79)

John Cage - composer, teacher, performer, writer, printmaker.
A major figure in avant garde music, he is best known for his controversial piece 4'33






Portrait of John Cage


Born: 5 September 1912, Los Angeles, California
Father: John Milton Cage, inventor and electrical engineer
Mother: Lucretia "Crete" Harvey 1885-1969, journalist for Los Angeles Times
Siblings: none
Wife: Xenia Kashevaroff. Divorced in 1945.
Partner: Merce Cunningham, choreographer
Children: none
Died: 12 August 1992 age 79
Cause of death: stroke
Grave: ashes scattered at the Gate Hill Coop, Stony Point, New York


Style: American avant garde
Output: considerable
His compositions can be grouped as:
Prepared piano
You can see detailed catalogues of his music here
Writings and poetry
Prints and Watercolours


John Cage talking about Silence

Nice to see and hear him talk.
If you have an hour to spare sit back and watch this fascinating 1990 documentary by Vivien Perlis: American Masters: John Cage


4'33 This is the controversial work for which he is best known.



"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

"I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.' So I said, 'I'll beat my head against that wall.' "

"I have nothing to say - and I am saying it - and that is poetry - as I needed it"

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."

"Ideas are one thing and what happens is another."

"When we separate music from life we get art."

The Cage Font

There is an interesting type font based on the composer's handwriting and sketches. It was produced by the P22 Type Foundry in collaboration with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Click on the image for more information.

Life and career

Age 16: graduated from Los Angeles High School with highest marks and enrolled in Pomona College, Claremont intending to become a writer.
Age 18: Disillusioned with college he decided to go to Europe. He went to Paris and dabbled in various arts - Gothic and Greek architecture, poetry, painting and music. He got to know the music of contemporary composers Stravinsky and Hindemith.
after several months in Paris He travelled to France, Italy, Germany, Spain and in particular Majorca where he began composing.
Age 19: returned to USA. Lectured on contemporary art.
Age 21: Decided to study music rather than painting. Went to New York to study with Schoenberg who offered to teach him free of charge if he promised to dedicate his life to music.
Age 23: married Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, an artist and bookbinder.
Moved to Hollywood, various teaching jobs including dance accompanist and a course "Musical Accompaniments for Rhythmic Expression"at UCLA.
Age 26: moved to Seattle. Worked at Cornish College of Arts as composer and accompanist. He developed his interest in percussion and created his 'prepared piano'. Here he also met the dancer Merce Cunningham who was later to become his lifelong partner.
Age 29: Moved to Chicago to teach at the Chicago School of Design and the University of Chicago.
Age 30: Moved to New York. Stayed with Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst. Met various moder artists - Pollock, Duchamp, Mondrian, Breton.
Age 33: Divorced Xenia. Became interested in Eastern philosophies and in particular Zen Buddhism. Indian music was also a new interest.
Age 38: Another trip to Europe. In Paris he was given a copy of the chinese book 'I Ching' which became an important tool in his utilising chance in his compositions.
Age 40: Wrote his best known and most controversial work: 4'33".
Then follows a period of composing for dance, especially for his partner Merce Cunningham
He also taught at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut until he died.
Age 48: Exclusive contract with Edition Peters to publish his works
Many commissions, appearance requests and touring now took up most of his time. Finally financial stability.
Age 66: Began printmaking at Crown Point Press, an interest he pursued until he died.
Age 75: Wrote his first operas - Europera I - V
Age 76-78: Produced a series of watercolours.
Age 79: Suffered a stroke and died just before his 80th birthday.
More interesting is to read his autobiographical statement

The 'Prepared Piano' 

Faced with the problem of performing a percussion work with enough space for only a grand piano, he modified the piano by inserting bolts and various objects among the strings of the piano. Cage said that he realized it was possible “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra ... With just one musician, you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard” (Wikipedia)

John Cage and mushrooms

 - John Cage was a keen, almost obsessive, mushroom lover, collector and expert.
- In 1962 with three friends he founded the New York Mycological Society.
- In Italy in 1959 he won 5 million lire ($8000, a huge amount of money then) in a TV quiz contest (Double or Nothing) with mushrooms as his specialist subject read more here .
- His collection of funghi is kept at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Cage the visual artist

Although in the 1930s he gave up visual arts in favour of music he later turned to it again and produced a large body of work in watercolours and printmaking. Much of it was produced using the product of chance as with his music,

Click on the image to see a lot more of his art.

If you are interested in his visual art, here is a good book:
John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day

"Water Walk "

John Cage performing "Water Walk" in January, 1960 on the popular TV show I've Got A Secret. Interesting how he handled the mocking and laughter of the audience and presenter.

"Third Construction" performed by So Percussion 

Links, sources and where to go for more information

johncage.org the John Cage Official Website

Answers a collection of reference sites including Wikipedia

John Cage Online a fantastic collection of links

A John Cage Compendium a chronology, bibliography, catalogue of works, lists of sources, recordings and films

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