- Background information about the sound artist.
John Cage (1912-92) was an influential American composer of the 20th century, a pioneer of chance and a primary influence of minimalism within modern western music. His work inadvertently, but fundamentally, dismantled the precepts of western music; he ultimately redefined the titles of composer and sound artist since his work so frequently required both.
Cage was introduced to music when he began taking piano lessons as a child. He initially developed an interest for sight-reading, and opposed studies in the compositional elements of his music. Initially, he intended to become a writer but after dropping out of college, he traveled to Europe where he studied contemporary art. His time there also introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which spurred a new interest for composing . After a year and a half of roaming Europe, he returned to America and continued his composition studies under Arnold Schoenberg, notable 20th century composer.
Cage talking about Schoenberg:
"Schoenberg said, 'In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.' I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, 'In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'"
Cage ended his studies with Schoenberg after two years. He then established himself in Seattle where he began experimenting in composition and electronics.
His personal discovery of Taoism and Zen Buddhism led him to begin using chance in composition, and this method became the cornerstone of his work thereafter.
Cage considered chance as a means to remove expression and identity from his music. Some of his compositional decisions employed the tossing of coins.
This lack of control agitated many of his fellow colleagues and composers and the performers he worked with.
One of Cage’s scores that employs indeterminacy:
- Discuss what attracted you to the work of this artist.
I was introduced to John Cage after reading an article about one of his later works: “As Slow As Possible”
A musical piece written for organ with no set time limits which began posthumously in 2001 and is set to last 639 years. It is currently the longest and slowest performance in musical history to be undertaken.
- Highlight two examples of this artist's work and use these to describe the artist's relationship to ideas.
Most of Cage’s work dealt with his ideas of chance or indeterminacy:
In 1951 He composed and arranged a piece entitled Imaginary Landscape No. 4 which utilized twelve performers with twelve radio receivers. Although he provided specifics instructions of time and space for the performers, he had no control of what signals would the radios would receive.
Cage also constructed works from his notions of sound, music, and silence:
4’33 (1953) is a composition of three movements written without a single note. The performers are to remain inactive for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
-Describe how these works relate to the artist's larger body of work.
Cage called his music “purposeless play,” and so, appropriately, he focused his creative process in removing meaning from sound.
In this sense, his larger body of work deals more in appreciation of sound rather than music.
4’33 assumes any music from the performers is an interruption to the ambient sounds of the environment and audience in which it is set.
Similarly, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 removes control from the composer, allowing chance to guide the work; there is no predetermined theme, idea, feeling, or destination as there would be in music.
- Relate this artist, via content, process, technology, perspective, etc. to that of another contemporary artist or artists from another time period.
Steve Reich, a contemporary composer--shares a similar rejection of the confines of early western music--a pioneer of minimal music, who became known for tape looping audio tracks of sounds he would catalog, and composing works of repetition often for only one voice, as well as experimentation in electronic sound.
- Discuss how this artist's work informs your own thinking.
I found an affinity in his attitude towards sounds.
Cage perceives music as talking; talking about feelings or ideas connected to relationships. In contrast, when he hears the sound of traffic, he hears sound that is acting not talking.
Cage concerns himself with the activity of sound not its meaning:
“I love sound just the way it is. . . I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or president, or in love with another sound.”