Obituary: John Cage

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The Independent Online
The quintessential Cage piece is the notorious 4'33' (premiered in August 1952). It has three movements: any number of players can perform it, but at no point are they intentionally to produce a sound, writes David Revill. At the time, Cage structured his music by adding up different phrase-lengths. 'In this case they were all silences,' Cage recalled, which happened to add up to four and a half minutes, 'though I may have made a mistake in addition.'

Cage was beguilingly playful in his accounts, but there was utter seriousness underneath: 4'33' was one of the first testaments of his engagement with Zen Buddhism, yet it remained the clearest. Living by Zen, Cage could build on an intuition he first had as a young man: that art could work as 'a kind of experimental station in which one tries out living', presenting through the silent piece and others over the years the sound of everyday life 'as beautiful as it is'. It was an attitude developed by Cage in all his subsequent compositions, right up to pieces we still have to hear, such as Twenty-Six and Twenty-Nine.

His work and thought have had a seminal influence on every aspect of modern art. Like anything influential, this has taken the form of creative (and occasionally uncreative) misunderstanding. While his influence is enormous, it has not been at the level of practice (there is no school of composers imitating his use of chance operations). Instead, Cage has disseminated a certain attitude, confirming that restless experimentation is both viable and valid.

The first time John Cage called me, I was happily singing in the bath. Someone else answered the phone and, not recognising the voice, offered to take a message. 'Oh, it's nothing important,' said the voice, in the characteristic tone one of his collaborators compared to ET. 'Just tell him John Cage rang.'

In the seven years between then and now I spent many hours with Cage - above all for the pleasure of his company, but also for interviews towards my biography, The Roaring Silence. Cage would have been 80 this September and the book was meant as a birthday gift. But even before we met, that telephone call told me what kind of man he was. Cage combined rare intellectual gifts, extraordinary creativity, incredible discipline and startling productivity - he backed out of psychoanalysis because the analyst threatened to help him write more music. He was immensely energetic, appearing last year in a different city every 10 days on average. Yet he was a man of great warmth and modesty. 'I have a longing to be nothing special,' he told an interviewer.

In public Cage was strikingly inconspicuous in his Levi's and dark denim shirt - always attentive, whether to a student wanting to photograph his ears or a society lady asking questions he had answered in print a dozen times.

Cage's potentially greatest legacy will stay largely unnoticed: the value and the power of seriousness, integrity and discipline. And the greatest loss will be the soonest forgotten - the fact, against which cultural polemics pall, that Cage was a good human being. 'I have no regrets,' he was able to say. 'I've enjoyed the whole thing, every bit of it.' The last time I saw John Cage was at the Pocket Theater in New York. I asked him in the interval if he had enjoyed the piece by Kurt Schwitters. With a conspirational grin he replied, 'I enjoy everything.'

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