John Cage

In his teens and twenties, John Cage (b. 1912–d. 1992) was interested in music, visual art, and literature. Once he began focusing all his attention on music, he composed in a manner that demonstrated an interest in Arnold Schoenberg. A brief period of study under Schoenberg himself convinced Cage to move decisively away from pitch-based media to percussion, then an emerging medium offering new sonic possibilities. Writing for percussion, he began to think of compositional materials as gamuts—unordered sets of sounds—that would be realized as music through the application of various types of durational structures. Such structures might be articulated by the sounding materials themselves, or they might remain unheard as abstract schemas of compositional design. Around 1950, Cage embraced what he called “chance composition,” a method by which nearly all aspects of the planning and realization of a composition consisted of the identification of separate groups of possibilities for each aspect, with the actual choices for each made by recourse to a utility outside of his intention (usually the employment of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as a random number generator). In addition to music, Cage also made various kinds of texts and (mostly from the late 1970s) nearly 1,000 works of visual art. His ideas about art resonated powerfully with the countercultural turn during the 1960s, and they continue to inspire individuals from many backgrounds. Critical and scholarly writings concerning his work began to appear in the mid-1960s and began to intensify around 1987; in general, much of this work emphasizes the music made before 1980, with less attention paid to texts and visual art and very little detail on any work after 1980. This article emphasizes this later period of scholarship and the development, in recent years, of new approaches to his work, including the analysis of the sounds in completed works, performance practice, and reception.

By Rob Haskins


1. Where R=Ryoanji: R3, 1983. Drypoint. Courtesy Henning Lohner. 

2. Mushroom Book, Plate X, lithograph in handwriting, 1972, 22.5 x 15 inches, Edition 51/75.

3. A page of the part for Cello II from Cage's Atlas Elipticalis.

4. Where R = Ryoanji 14 R/2 - 6/87.

5. note to the score of 4' 33" states "The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance" so the title of our realisation is 2' 52".

6. Dereau, No.11, 1982. Colour photoetching with engraving, drypoint and aquatint.

7. Score Without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku, 1978. Hard-ground etching, soft-ground etching, photoetching, drypoint, sugar aquatint, and engraving.

8. 75 Stones, 1989. Aquatint on smoked paper.

9. Haiku, 1952.