"I have nothing to say and I'm saying it...": John Cage Defined in the 1950s
© 2004, Joe Dacey
John Cage is considered by many to be the defining voice of avant-garde music
throughout the 20th century. Fusing philosophy with composition, he reinvented
the face of modern music, leading composer Arnold Schoenberg to declare, "Of
course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor -- of genius" (Kostelanetz 6).
For Cage, the 1950s brought a series of critical events that both refined his
message as a composer and brought him great fame, or infamy to some. His
interest in Eastern Zen philosophy blossomed throughout the early part of the
decade, a subject that is actively pursued and reinforced in all of his
following musical works. The 1950s also brought the revelation for Cage that
sound is inherently present in all of us when he entered an anechoic chamber at
Harvard University. This manifested in his work as the famous "silent" piece 4'33".
Cage's involvement at Black Mountain College during this period contributed
remarkable development to his music and ideas that defined the rest of his
works. The 1950s were the defining decade for the career of philosopher and
composer, John Cage.
Cage was born into a Los Angeles middle class family in 1912. His father was a
less than successful inventor -- dabbling in the areas of submarines, medicine,
space travel, and electrical engineering -- who instilled in him the idea that
"if someone says 'can't', that shows you what to do." (Cage, An
Autobiographical Statement) Cage learned how to play the piano as a
child and took a liking to Grieg, and even briefly considered becoming a
concert pianist. However, when Cage went to college it was to become a writer.
He was deeply disillusioned by the conformity he saw in the students:
I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in
the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did,
I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name
began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that
the institution was not being run correctly. I left. (Cage, An
Cage departed for Europe where he spent a year traveling and attempting to
become a refined writer. It was here where he was first exposed to modern music
and painting and had the idea that he could do these things just as well. He
returned to California and began composing music with no formal training,
lecturing on modern music and painting to housewives to earn money. When he
needed a pianist to perform a Schoenberg piece that proved too technically
difficult to perform himself, Cage attempted to enlist the help of concert
pianist Richard Buhlig. Buhlig turned down the offer, yet offered to help the
struggling Cage with his compositions. Buhlig, realizing his own composition
skills were inadequate to assist Cage in any meaningful way, suggested to Cage
that he go and study with Henry Cowell. Cowell, living in New York City,
eventually led Cage back to California to study with world renowned composer,
At that time, "legitimate" classical music was divided between the great
composers Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom were residing in
California and whom Cage could have studied with. Stravinsky composed in much
the same classical tradition of the previous 200 years. Schoenberg was more of
a musical progressive, exploring aspects of tonality that were completely
different from the traditional classical music. Cage's early compositions were
stylistically heavily modeled after Schoenberg's work, placing him firmly in
the Schoenberg "camp." In 1933, Cage began the most influential studies of his
life with Arnold Schoenberg. Cage explains, "I worshipped Schoenberg -- I saw
in him an extraordinary musical mind, one that was greater and more perceptive
than others" (Kostelanetz 5). However, differences between Cage and Schoenberg
soon began to arise. Schoenberg focused on harmony, which he saw as the
defining structural element of music. He was also concerned with the
methodology of his twelve-tone row series, focusing more on where the notes
came from and where they are going than on the actual notes themselves. Cage
saw structure differently. Because the only trait inherent to both sound and
silence is duration, he surmised that rhythm was the defining structural
element of music. He remembers while studying with Schoenberg:
I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought
that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come
to a wall you won't be able to get through.' So I said, 'I'll beat my head
against that wall.' (Kostelanetz 5)
That statement contains a slight pun, for Cage did indeed "beat... against
that wall" switching his focus to composing and performing percussion music.
In 1938 Cage accepted a position as a percussion teacher at the Cornish School
in Seattle. While there, he formed a percussion ensemble that performed both
contemporary pieces and his own compositions. The ensemble was a huge success
and performed at colleges and universities all along the west coast, bringing
Cage prestige as a respected percussion teacher and composer. His interest in
percussion was sparked by his desire to produce new sounds. In his 1937 lecture
"The Future of Music: Credo", Cage discusses his vision for the direction of
I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and
increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical
instruments which will make available for musical purpose any and all sounds
that can be heard. (Cage Silence 3-4)
This belief also reinforced his idea of a rhythm-based structure, in
opposition Schoenberg's harmony-based structure. Reflecting on his time at the
Cornish School, Cage gives two specific reasons for the development of his idea
of a rhythm-based structure. Firstly, part of his job was to accompany student
dance performances. Much of the choreography was written without ever hearing
any accompaniment, so the dancers would give Cage the phrase lengths and meters
they required for him to construct a percussive accompaniment to. This
arrangement was problematic since the phrase lengths and meters the dancers
gave to Cage were arbitrary and disorganized, making it impossible for Cage to
compose on any harmonically based musical structure and forcing him to focus on
the rhythmic aspects of the piece. Secondly, because Cage was heavily immersed
in percussion, and the majority of percussion instruments are non-pitched, it
was impossible to construct harmonically based music (Pritchett 12). At the end
of his tenure at the Cornish School, Cage was firmly established as one of the
premier contemporary percussion composers of the time. His idea of a
rhythm-based musical structure was also securely in place.
After leaving the Cornish School, Cage's early years were highlighted by his
revolutionary development of the "prepared piano," which he conceived as the
answer to a logistical problem before a dance recital. A dancer had requested
Cage accompany her with "African" sounds to reflect the nature of her dance.
Cage soon realized there was a problem with the size of the performance area --
it was too small to bring in the required percussion equipment. The only
musical instrument the space had was a grand piano, which Cage transformed into
an improvised percussion instrument by "preparing" it with objects such as;
screw, nuts, bolts, pennies, and weather stripping placed between the strings.
He found this method had an interesting effect on the sound of the piano and
was very practical, for now he no longer had to carry around large percussion
instruments with him to every performance. He simply brought the necessary
objects and tools to "prepare" the piano at each performance space. Traveling
to New York in the early 1940s, Cage was forced out of necessity to find much
use for his new creation. Lacking both the means to transport his percussion
material from the west coast to New York and the money to buy new instruments,
the prepared piano became an invaluable tool for Cage. As a result, nearly all
of his compositions from 1943-1945 are written for various types of prepared
When in New York Cage became increasingly interested in Eastern philosophy,
more specifically the idea of Zen. He began reading The Gospel of Sri
Ramakrishna and Ananda Coomaraswamy's The Transformation of Nature in
Art. In reading these books, he found that his ideas about music and
sound fit well into the natural Zen philosophy. Coomaraswamy explains how in
Eastern culture, "Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation"
(Patterson 68), an idea that Cage embraced and which defines his work for the
next 20 years.
This Eastern view of the world is not dictated by the ideals and conventions
of European thought. Cage writes of:
a difference between oriental thinking and European thinking,
that in European thinking things are seen as causing one another and having
effects, whereas in Oriental thinking this seeing of cause and effect is not
emphasized but instead one makes and identification of what is here and now.
(Cage Silence 46)
The traditional western view of art is that attention is focused on one
specific "center" where the art is taking place, weather it be a painting in an
art gallery or an orchestra on a stage. Cage rejected this idea and introduced
the idea that art is everywhere, and the center is wherever an individual
decides to pay attention to. The mentality that "Everyone is in the best seat"
(Cage Silence 97) is in direct opposition to Western society's
constant value judgments. Western society dictated that things happening at the
"center" of an orchestra concert were inherently more important than things
happening in the audience. Cage saw this delineation as unnecessary and
constricting to the personal experience of music.
Like Coomaraswamy, Cage rejected the idea of a "museum culture" where art is
separated from life. Where other people would see an art gallery, Cage would
see, "refrigeration (which is a way of slowing down [art's] liveliness) (that
is to say museums and academies are ways of preserving)" (Cage Silence
44). He pictured life and art intertwined with each other in a union that
should not be untangled.
Cage's interest in nature and natural operations led to his extensive use of
the I Ching in his compositions. The I Ching is an ancient
Chinese book, considered to be one of the oldest known books in existence,
which provides the reader guidance in life based upon chance operations. The
book is held in much the same spirit as Tarot cards are in Western culture. The
book gives "answers" to questions through the use of six varying lines, or
"hexagrams," that indicate certain passages in the book. Cage used the tossing
of a coin to construct the hexagrams for his compositions. Prior to reading the
I Ching, Cage was experimenting with the "Magic square" in his
composition. This method was a semi-mystical technique Cage utilized for chance
operations. That changed one day as a result of his interactions with Christian
Wolfe, a student who could not afford to money for his lessons and brought
books his father was publishing as payment instead. One day, the I Ching
was among the books Wolfe brought. Cage describes, "on seeing the I Ching
on the table, I was immediately struck by its resemblance to the magic square.
It was even better! From that moment on, the I Ching never left my
side." He continues to describe that he used it "every time I had a problem...
I used it very often for practical matters, to write my articles and my
music... for everything." (Cage, For the Birds 43-45)
By the advance of the late forties and early fifties, Cage was engrossed in the
Eastern view of the world and was actively integrating it into his music and
lectures. His 1950 "Lecture on Nothing" exemplifies his new outlook on art and
music. In this lecture, he outright tells the listener that the lecture has no
point and will go nowhere, "I am here and there is nothing to say. If among you
are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment" (Cage Silence
109). He implores the audience to enjoy each and every moment of the lecture
even though he admits that it is pointless. This lecture helped make Cage's
point that Western thought had forced the public to see value only in things
seeming to have deep meaning or that have eventual goals or aims. He advocates
that, "Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing. Anything
therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its
loss" (Silence 110) and "It is not irritating to be where one is. It
is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else" (Silence
119). In other words, we create our own "likes" and "dislikes," and they are
not inherent in any object or situation. Cage believed this subjective process
of choosing preferences is ultimately harmful to our human experience, and
would much prefer we not judge anything based on our own personal tastes.
1951 brought a life-changing event for John Cage when he visited Cambridge,
Massachusetts. While at Harvard University, he took the opportunity to enter
into an anechoic chamber -- a room that is theoretically completely silent.
Cage wanted to experience complete silence and was surprised to find that once
in the room he "heard two sounds, one high and one low" (Cage Silence 8).
The engineer told him the high sound was his nervous system operating and the
low sound was his blood circulating. Cage experienced an epiphany in the
anechoic chamber that day, realizing that:
There is no such thing as empty space or empty time. There is
always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make
silence, we cannot... Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue
following my death. One need not fear about the future of music. (Cage Silence
For Cage, Music became a matter of awareness and of mind rather than of
physical vibrations or specific acoustics. He discovered that music can be all
around us, if we just let our minds become aware of its presence. This
revelation bonded perfectly with the Eastern philosophy that Cage had embraced
only a few years earlier, giving him the means to completely give up control
and accept the world around him as it was.
This period of intellectual development also coincided with Cage's involvement
with Black Mountain College, in North Carolina. Black Mountain College was
founded in 1933 as an experimental educational facility, whose goal was to
combine a liberal arts education with the fine arts. The school, which had no
formal classes or formal grading system, was a magnet for the avant-garde
thinkers of the mid-20th century. The good-intentioned community living
principles practiced in Black Mountain College had some trouble mixing in with
the staunch conservatism of the South at that time. The nearby town of
Asheville, "he noted the College's progressive quirks almost immediately,
scandalized by its informal dress code, which included jeans, shorts, and even
sandals" (Patterson 187). The College struggled for its entire existence the 23
years it remained open. The faculty and student body was made up of the most
cutting edge thinkers of their time; R. Buckminster Fuller who pushed the era
of engineering forward into the era of synthetic materials; Robert Rauschenberg
whose famous "White Paintings" shocked the art world; and Merce Cunningham and
his complete fascination with the human form and dancing.
It was Cunningham who came with Cage when he first visited the campus in 1948.
The two had stopped there in between performances on the East Coast and were
welcomed with great enthusiasm by the School. The six-day stop included a
concert put on by Cage and Cunningham, and several informal question and answer
sessions between them and the students. The College had no money to pay Cage
and Cunningham for their time; however they still agreed to visit and perform
for the school. In lieu of monetary payment, when they went to their car to
depart they "discovered this large pile of presents that all the students had
put under the car... It included, for instance, oh, paintings and food and
drawings, and so on." (Kostelanetz 14) The two had such a positive experience
at the College that they signed on to teach at Summer Sessions the school held
During his first summer session, Cage decided to give a series of concerts of
the music of Erik Satie. Satie's music consists of fairly short sections
repeated many, many times, giving emphasis to the slight oscillations that
occur with repetition. Due to the student's apparent lack of knowledge of
Satie's music, Cage decided to give a pre-concert lecture called "Defense of
Satie." Controversy erupted over the lecture, which compared Beethoven to Erik
Satie and asserted that Beethoven was wrong in the way he composed his music.
Some people were offended and put off by Cage's comments; others "practically
burned all Beethoven's recordings... sheet music and so forth. It was what he
described as his first exposure to the 'extreme party-line willingness' he
found typical of the counterculture" (Patterson 206). The lecture marked the
beginning of Cage's influential work at Black Mountain College.
During the summer of 1952, Cage collaborated with many of the faculty members
to put on what was considered to be the first "happening." The basic idea
behind a "happening" is that there is no center of attention for the
performance. During the Black Mountain Piece, as it has come to be
known, Cage was on a ladder at the side of the room reading various texts;
Rauschenberg's white paintings hung from the rafters; Nick Cernovich projected
movies onto a side wall; David Tudor played the piano and radio; and Merce
Cunningham danced around the room. The audience, seated in the center of the
room while various artists performed around them, could pay attention to
whatever they found interesting around them. The idea was that, like in life,
many things were happening that did not necessarily have any relation to each
other. The audience is then challenged to accept and appreciate the different
events that are just "happening" around them. This one piece alone sets the
tone for Cage's work in the 1950s.
Not long after the "happenings" at Black Mountain College, Cage wrote a
composition for a contemporary music festival held in Woodstock, New York that
would shatter the traditional notion of western art music. The piece was 4'33",
a piece composed completely as silence, written for any instrument or
combination of instruments that lasts four minutes and thirty three seconds.
The idea came from two sources, The "White Paintings" of Robert Rauschenberg,
and the experience in the anechoic chamber in 1951. After Rauschenberg made his
"White Paintings", Cage decided to apply the same principles to his music -- by
composing the equivalent of a "White piece." Cage felt he needed to compose the
piece, "Oh yes, I must: otherwise I'm lagging, otherwise music is lagging"
(Kostelanetz 71). Cage's experience at Harvard in 1951 convinced him that there
was justification for a "silent" piece, mainly because it really wouldn't be
silent. Cage wrote 4'33" by painstakingly taking the time to compose
each separate "note" of the piece by chance operation -- however he decided
that every "note" would be silent. What Cage ended up with was a piece divided
into three movements of varying length totaling four minutes and thirty three
seconds. This deliberate act of composing added legitimacy to a piece that he,
"knew would be taken as a joke and a renunciation of work" (Kostelanetz 69).
Cage says he "probably worked longer on my 'silent' piece than I worked on any
other. I worked four years" (Kostelanetz 71).
For the actual performance of the piece, Cage enlisted the help of pianist and
fellow composer David Tudor. There were no directions on the original
handwritten score, so Tudor had to find a way to signal the beginning of the
piece and the divisions between movements and the end of the piece. He decided
to close the lid of the piano to start the performance of the piece and to lift
the lid of the piano after each movement. Being the first performance of this
work, Tudor's actions became the "traditional" or accepted manner to perform
the piece, although Cage always stressed that it could be performed by any
number of players on any instruments.
The reaction for the crowd was of utter disgust and contempt as the piece
progressed. Cage relates how the crowd reacted:
People began whispering to one another, and some people began
to walk out. They didn't laugh -- they were irritated when they realized
nothing was going to happen, and they haven't forgotten it 30 years later:
they're still angry. (Kostelanetz 70)
The irony is that the piece was being performed at a festival celebrating
modern music. Cage believed the audience "missed the point" of the piece
because, "What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to
listen, was full of accidental sounds" (Kostelanetz 70). He remembers the
sounds of the first performance: that during the first movement, one could hear
the wind outside; during the second, the raindrops falling on the roof; and
during the third, the sound of people talking and walking out of the concert.
The effect of 4'33" on music can still be felt fifty years later. The
piece has undergone several interpretations since the premier performance, not
all of which Cage approved of. One performance had elaborate costumes and props
and was carefully choreographed and staged, while in another, the students
intentionally made noises to accent the silence of the piece. Both these
interpretations clearly violate the philosophy behind Cage's motivation for
writing the piece. Nevertheless, 4'33" is still performed today and
remains Cage's signature composition.
The rest of the fifties, and the rest of Cage's works composed until his
death, stand upon the legs of Cage's philosophy developed during these few
crucial years. Cage composed a "sequel" to 4'33" in 1962 called 0'00".
The piece is different in that it calls to be performed by anyone in anyway for
any duration. The only stipulation is the use of amplification for the
performance that takes any sound that is produced during the performance and
makes it audible. His point in composing 0'00" was to show how even the
simplest actions can produce sound, or in the piece's case, music.
The reaction to Cage's pieces was mostly of indifference and rejection. Due to
Cage's radical approach to music, many people were not very appreciative of his
compositions. Even in progressive New York City, concert goers "seemed to miss
the point of his music; if they were not openly hostile, they treated the whole
thing as some sort of joke" (Pritchett 34). The audience in Woodstock for the
performance of 4'33" felt that Cage was trying to "pull the wool over
their eyes" and therefore reacted with contempt. Classical musicians were
perhaps the most harsh and critical of Cage's works. Cage wished to premier a
work, Atlas Eclipticalis, with the New York Philharmonic under the
direction of Leonard Bernstein. For the performance, Cage
gathered all that equipment, electronic equipment, to electrify
the whole orchestra and to produce a situation that has never been heard
before. Eighty-six instruments amplified and transformed and filtered to the
public. An absolutely amazing situation. What did the musicians do? Tear their
microphones off the things and stamp on them in fury! (Kostelanetz 73)
Cage mostly ignored criticism he received believing that most people didn't
understand why he composed the music he composed. In fact, he saw society as
"one of the greatest impediments an artist can possibly have" to creating good
art. After receiving a review for a concert he gave in Seattle that stated the
performance was "ridiculous," Cage's responded that he had no interest in the
review because he "knew perfectly well it wasn't." He was always suspect of
composition if he found that most everyone liked what he was doing, because he
feared that if that was the case, then he must've changed something about the
piece to appeal society. He felt it important to "live as I did before society
became involved in what I am doing" (Kostelanetz 23).
The 1950s became the defining decade for John Cage when his ideas and
philosophy combined with his music. Along with colleagues Robert Rauschenberg,
Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and many others,
Cage expanded the concept of music, and on a larger scale, art. Cage's works
and writings illuminate the idea that, "Art's obscured the difference between
art and life. Now let life obscure the difference between life and art."
(Patterson 79) The events of the 1950s were critical in defining John Cage's
art for the remainder of his life.
Cage, John "An Autobiographical Statement" 1988
Cage, John. For the Birds: John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles.
Salem, NH: Marion Boyars. 1976.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan University Press. 1961.
Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York, NY: Routledge.
2004 (1987 orig.).
Patterson, David Wayne. Appraising the Catchwords, c. 1942-1959: John Cage's
Asian-Derived Rhetoric and the Historical Reference of Black Mountain College.
PhD thesis, Columbia University. 1996
Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. New York, NY: Cambridge
University Press. 1993.
Solomon, Larry J. PhD. "The Sounds of Silence: John Cage and 4'33"".
Pima College, 1998.