Obituary: John Cage

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Art is done mostly by one person in a room and artists do not tend to look for their heroes among the school-spawning tyrants of new orthodoxies: they seek the individual who offers fresh disciplines of liberty, writes Tom Phillips. What Erik Satie was to a past generation so John Cage became for mine. His message was simple. He loved how life sounded. Less selection, more embracing. And since he himself was lovable this sensuality made sense.

Cage was a large, athletically shambling, courteous anarch, for whom the minutiae of life mattered and for whom there was nothing that would not yield material for art. In the Sixties, like other American composers (notably Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff) marginalised by the party line of the official avant-garde, he would as often be seen, and heard in performance, at art schools as in the concert hall. With him students learnt how hard it was to be free, how liberating it was to find work in everything, and how humour was the best tool of the examined life: he was a man of activity rather than classes. They learnt as much when they joined in dawn patrols which Cage led like a pied piper to find the hidden haunts of mushrooms, as in any seminar.

John Cage exemplified artistic courage and demonstrated how creativity is a thing in itself that, worked on, could find many outlets in a single person. There was a point when his scores were so visually excited that they became paintings. This gave me the licence to talk of sound in my own work. He wrote with rare elegance and his book Silence is one of the bibles of modern aesthetics, as fine to read for its wit as for its polemic. The anecdotes it contains as a running footnote make up the funniest commentary on post-war artistic attitudes. Even without his own drily fey delivery they remain the true hilarious chronicles of the contemporary vie de Boheme.

Cage left a door open in his music for the non-specialist performer and it was while playing in his larger ensemble pieces that I learnt how, when strict rules are absent, probity is under pressure: this, in turn (for me and for other artists who worked with him), opened a door to painting.

I don't think I ever saw a man in whom the life of the artist was so apparent and integrated, whether he was at a keyboard, in an airport, at a dinner-table or making jokes. By not acknowledging any point at which we stop being artists (and become taxpayers, cyclists, television-watchers or breakfast-eaters) he spread a net of charm over the whole enterprise of being.

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