Born in Los Angeles (United States), 1912
Decease on 1992 in New York
Very active in: 70s, 80s

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by Olga Quintela

The American composer John Cage, to whom every kind of sound was considered to be music music, is probably best known for breaking the boundaries between music, performance, noise and sound.

During a career that began in the 1930's, Cage composed several works, from early pieces that were organized according to the conventional rules of harmony and thematic development, to late pieces that defied those rules and were composed using what he called "chance" processes. He composed for every imaginable kind of instrument, from standard orchestral strings to prepared pianos, altered by putting nails, paper, wood, rubber bands or other objects between their strings.

John Cage was the son of an inventor, inheriting a sense of constant innovation, improvisation and exploration. Arnold Schoenberg once described him as "not a composer but an inventor of genius". Cage never regarded himself as a virtuoso pianist, and throughout his life he frankly spoke and wrote of his lack of traditional musical skills, going as far as proclaiming, in his book "A Year From Monday": "I can't keep a tune. In fact I have no talent for music."

Although performances of his music are now peacefully accepted and applauded, there were times in the 1960's when his works provoked angry responses. At a New York Philharmonic performance of "Eclipticalis With Winter Music," in 1964, for example, a third of the audience walked out and members of the orchestra hissed the composer.

Cage had a generally unmusical childhood, although he took piano lessons as a child. He attended two years of college, then left to travel in Europe. When he returned to the United States, he began serious study, first with Henry Cowell and then with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he "devoted his life to music". Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years. Cage later wrote in his lecture Indeterminacy: "After I had been studying with him for two years, 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'."

In 1937 he moved to Seattle and took a job accompanying a dance company, an important experience that led him to view music as segments of time to be filled with sounds.

In the 1940s he moved to New York and joined a group of avant-garde artists, including painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he kept a lifelong collaboration.

Cage soon began experimenting with percussion instruments, as well as non-traditional instruments and sound-producing devices, and gradually came to use rhythm as the basis for his music instead of harmony. In 1938, Cage composed the first prepared piano piece, 'Bacchanale', for a dance by Syvilla Fort, and in 1951, he organized a group of musicians and engineers to make the first music on magnetic tape. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he presented a theatrical event considered by many to have been the first happening: 4'33''

John Cage is widely famous for his piece 4'33'', whose three movements are performed without a single note being played. The idea for the composition seems to have appeared in 1951, when he visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, "I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." 4'33''

Another cited influence for this piece is said to have come from Robert Rauschenberg, who in that same year had produced a series of white paintings that changed according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were being shown.

4'33'' Being a piece of total silence on the part of the performer, into which the random sounds of the world enter, 4'33'' proved Cage's beliefs that the goal of music was a "purposelessness," and that the role of the composer was to create situations in which sounds could "simply be." To this end, he continued to devise strategies for creating activities in which sounds could happen.