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Music / John Cage

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"I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it.
John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing" (1949)

John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American Avant-Garde Music composer from Los Angeles who pioneered the use of non-standard approaches to musical instruments, electronic music, chance music, and, most famously, no composed sounds at all, with his 1952 piece 4'33", which called for the performer to play no music (the work's aural experience for the audience consists solely of environmental sounds).

He also composed with the I Ching as a reference and inspiration, leading him to introduce chance techniques. Put in Layman's Terms, instead of a composition having a standard beginning, middle and ending, what got played at a given time was determined by what came up on a coin/die/other means of deciding. Music of Changes, his first I Ching based piece, is basically an algorithm for creating a composition based on consulting the I Ching, with the actual "sheet music" being a set of charts to instruct on different aspects of the music based on the results.

The 1992 documentary The Revenge of the Dead Indians talks about the importance and influence of Cage's contributions to music and has interviews with various celebrities (Noam Chomsky, Matt Groening, Iannis Xenakis, Frank Zappa, Pierre Boulez, Rutger Hauer, Dennis Hopper, Yehudi Menuhin, Benoit Mandelbrot, Yoko Ono, and John Zorn).

Not to be confused with the TV character with the same name or the Mortal Kombat character Johnny Cage.

"And these are tropes, as I need them:"

  • Avant-Garde Music: He changed the way people think about what music could be. Doesn't get much more avant-garde than that.
  • Electronic Music: One of the genres he worked in over his career.
  • Everything Is an Instrument:
    • Along with 4'33", this also applies to his five part series Imaginary Landscape:
      • Imaginary Landscape No. 1: Turntables and frequency recordings with a cymbal and muted piano.
      • Imaginary Landscape No. 2: Tin cans, conch shell, metal wastebasket, buzzers, and amplified coil of wire.
      • Imaginary Landscape No. 3: Most of what was in the first two.
      • Imaginary Landscape No. 4: 12 radios operated by 24 performers.
      • Imaginary Landscape No. 5: Magnetic tape recording of any 42 vinyl records.
      • The Arditti Quartet's CD, Complete String Quartets Vol. 1, features on the back of the jewel box the note: "Tracks 2 and 4 contain applause." Not applause along with the music, just applause.
    • He also pioneered "prepared piano," which involved placing objects on the strings of a piano for the different sounds that would result.
    • He would talk about standing on a street corner listening to the different sounds.
    • One avant-garde musician was at a Cage concert with a friend who was a non-musician, and Cage was engaged in rubbing the stylus of a record player with various different types of sandpaper.note  The non-musician friend in the audience whispered to the musician if he thought Cage would mind if she just screamed, and before he had a chance to say anything, she threw back her head and released all her frustration in a loud "AAAAAAAHHHH!" Cage just looked up with a pleased expression on his face.
  • Genre-Busting: A particularly extreme example; he was an early pioneer of electronic music, especially with his Imaginary Landscape series, but he also wrote piano sonatas that, on their own, weren't particularly romantic or impressionistic. He also went completely against established musical tradition, making very liberal use of Everything Is an Instrument. In short, his music is a very unusual catalog of noises that had never been put together before or since.
  • Harmony: Had a lot of problems with this when he was studying under Schoenberg. As a result of this, many of his pieces don't have any particular chord progressions and are often a haphazard mix of consonance and dissonance, though it more than makes up for it with exploration of unknown sounds.
  • Heads or Tails?: The method of his I Ching based pieces, which used randomized elements (including coin flips, dice, or other methods of drawing lots) to determine what sounds would be played.
  • Insult Backfire: Averted. Cage studied for a time under Arnold Schoenberg. In an interview some time later, Schoenberg described Cage as "not a composer but an inventor — of genius." Schoenberg didn't exactly mean this as an insult: he regarded a thorough understanding of harmony as being a fundamental skill of a composer, and what he meant was that Cage, although very inventive, was rubbish at harmony. Cage, for his part, recognised that he lacked an understanding of harmony but just decided not to bother with it.note 
  • Leave the Camera Running: Organ / ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), which, while originally designed to run from 20 to 70 minutes, is being performed at St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany since 2001 with the intention of lasting 639 YEARS, taking it to the year 2640!
  • Lonely Piano Piece: A good number of the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano are these, and despite all their avant-garde trappings (which can include screws placed between strings, etc.) they are extremely pretty.
  • Mind Screw: Oh yes. One of the libretti for one of the Europeras reads:
    "Dressed as an Irish princess, he gives birth; they plot to overthrow the French. He arranges to be kidnapped by her; rejuvenated, they desert: To him she had borne two children. He prays for help. Since they have decided she shall marry no-one outside, he has himself crowned emperor. She, told he is dead, begs him to look at her. First, before the young couple come to a climax, he agrees. Accidentally she drowns them."
  • Opera: "Europeras"
  • Running Time in the Title: 4'33". Some performances last longer, though they're not supposed to.
  • Sequel Song: Believe it or not, 4'33" has a few sequels that built on the same deconstruction of silence as a musical concept by making the conditions more specific:
    • In 1962, Cage wrote 0'00" (also known as 4'33" No. 2). Rather than carrying the stipulations listed in its predecessor, the score's sole direction is "In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action." The second time Cage would perform 0'00", he added four more directions: "the performer should allow any interruptions of the action, the action should fulfill an obligation to others, the same action should not be used in more than one performance, and should not be the performance of a musical composition." These pieces were Cage's response to the interpretation that 4'33" was about the discipline and mastery of the performer's craft — critics evidently missed the markinvoked, so he made a separate work that could better express the point had it been his actual intent.
    • In 1989, Cage wrote One3 (full title being One3 = 4′33″ (0′00″) + 𝄞), whose score instructs the performer to construct a sound system of the concert venue of choice, so that "the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without actually feeding back". This directly implies that the sounds of the concert hall and the audience within it is part of the performance.
  • Silence Is Golden: Deconstructed. Cage came up with the idea that plain background noise can be music and that we listen to it all the time, unknowingly, without regarding it as noise. He arrived at this idea because he realised he'd never heard total silence, so he booked himself into a session in a soundproofed anechoic chamber where, in theory, he'd be able to hear what perfect silence sounded like. He told the technicians that it was faulty, because he could hear a thumping noise and a whining noise. They told him that these were the sounds of, respectively, his heartbeat and his nervous system. Whereupon Cage understood that silence is not golden: it just doesn't exist. This is most explicitly showcased in 4'33", which is ostensibly just four and a half minutes of silence but actually uses any and all environmental sounds as impromptu instruments.
  • Shout-Out: "Two Minutes Of Silence" on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions is a homage to Cage.
  • Title by Number: 4'33".
  • The Voiceless: Any musician while playing 4'33".