John Cage studied composition with Richard Buhling, Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Cage received numerous commissions and awards from musical organizations around the world and was elected to the National Institute of Arts & Letters. His invention of the prepared piano in 1940, and his work with percussion instruments at that time, established Cage as the leading American avant-garde composer. His most lasting contributions, however, are the introduction of his musical ideas and compositional concepts.
In searching for the purpose of composing, Cage, in the late 1940s discovered an ancient definition of music, known in the Orient as well as medieval Europe: “To quiet one’s own mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” To make music which would lead to such a state of mind, it became clear that the romantic idea of self-expression had to be overcome, and that music must align itself with the environment in which it exists. This consequently led Cage to the introduction of chance into composition and performance practice.
Cage abandoned the hierarchy of contrasting parts and dramatic climaxes in composition. Instead of expressing “oneself,” he introduced an open musical environment in which the listener, instead of being bombarded by composer’s intentions, can find his or her own center. Sounds became themselves, and ceased to illustrate extra-musical phenomena. Silences became equally important to sounds, and tones produced on instruments became equally important to noises. In fact, the concept of “noises” was abandoned altogether and all sounds became an asset to music-making.
The mechanics of keeping time in music changed. Instead of measures and beats, Cage introduced a real-time device, the stopwatch, or a conductor, whose function became that of a time-keeping clock. Along with the new way of time-keeping came a new sensibility toward duration and musical form. Formerly unexplored possibilities opened, and enabled the creation of compositions with undetermined beginnings and endings. It became possible, for the first time in Western music, to conceive music with undetermined length.
The new concept of time and sound, and the radical departure from the musical thinking of the past, made new demands on performers. The new freedoms required a disciplined approach, one which turns one’s attention to “the spirit of the work,” and away from the idea of “expressing oneself.” In the mid 1970s, in a discussion about performance issues, Cage defined discipline in music as a process in which: “one does not do what one wants, but nevertheless anything goes.” This concept is central to understand Cage’s music, not just for the performer, but for the listener as well.
- Petr Kotik, 1992