Obituary: John Cage

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The Independent Online
John Cage, composer, writer and artist, born Los Angeles 5 September 1912, Musical Director Merce Cunningham Dance Company 1944-68, Teacher of Composition New School for Social Research New York 1955-60, Fellow Center for Advanced Studies Wesleyan University 1960-61, Composer in Residence University of Cincinnati 1967, Visiting Research Professor School of Music University of Illinois 1967-69, Artist in Residence University of California (Davis) 1969, Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry Harvard University 1989-90, books include The Life and Works of Virgil Thomson (with Kathleen O'Donnell Hoover) 1958, Silence 1961, A Year from Monday 1967, Notations (with Alison Knowles) 1969, Mushroom Book (with Lois Long and Alexander H. Smith) 1972, Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel, M 1973, Empty Words 1978, Writing Through 'Finnegans Wake' 1978, X 1983, married 1935 Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff (marriage dissolved 1945), died New York City 12 August 1992.

One of the most influential composers of the post-war period, John Cage seemingly disdained composition itself, at least as an intrinsically musical activity. He was not a composer, Arnold Schoenberg famously remarked, but an inventor of genius.

Cage studied for a time with Schoenberg, in Los Angeles, and electing to follow the Viennese composer's path as opposed to the Stravinskyan alternative available in the 1930s, but finding he had none of the harmonic sense which Schoenberg deemed fundamental to musical structure, he set himself up as primarily a percussion composer interested in the pure unfolding of time and, subsequently, in the pure operation of chance. 'Chance operations', the tossing of dice or coins, utilisation of flaws in the manuscript paper, he rationalised according to principles from the I Ching, and this approach exerted large influence on the Darmstadt composers in the 1950s, both Boulez and Stockhausen finding it a possible means of escape from over-rigorous 'total serial' composition. Not only did Cage grant anarchic freedoms to the composer and necessarily also to the performer, he even extended them to listeners, who, in the notorious silent piece 4'33' (1952), are invited to discover music wherever they may within the ambience of the 'performance' - in coughs, grunts, rustles, natural sounds, which acquire new meanings when the context of an 'art-work' is added to them. Innovations poured from Cage: graphic notation (in place of traditional crotchets and quavers), the charmingly 'prepared' piano (whose inside is stuffed with nuts and bolts or whatever else to produce a tinkling, oriental metallic effect), the use of electronic devices, the musical 'happening', all were taken up by his contemporaries and made either the more fashionable or purposeful.

Cage was in some sense a musical surrealist, in the spirit of his friend Marcel Duchamp; but he was all too close to the spirit of Andy Warhol and his Americanised conceptual chic. Like Warhol, Cage easily gives the impression of having confronted the problems of devising indigenous art by filling a vacuum with a vacuum. Which is not, however, to deny the musical substance of a clutch of memorable pieces, for instance the three Constructions for percussion (1939-41), the Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) for prepared piano, and the dazzling Freeman Etudes (1978-79) for violin.

Cage's work in not strictly musical media was extensive and striking: a prodigious series of experimental writings (the Lecture on Nothing, 1959, is printed in four parallel metrical columns, and contains the well-known utterance, 'I have nothing to say/and I am saying it/and that is poetry'; the Lecture on Something is printed in five; Writings through 'Finnegans Wake' and Writing through the Cantos which are sequences of mesostics, or acrostics, sustained over the years); and, latterly, a series of 38 wispy, abstract etchings, Dereau, which Cage thought of as a continuation of music by other means. Chance operations were used in literary and graphic, just as in musical composition: Cage's adherence to the method was absolute. He pointed out that most computers are automatically fitted with a program very like the binary selection from 64 possibilities of the I Ching, and, moreover, that DNA works in the same way: 'Every time parents conceive a child they perform a chance operation.'

Cage promulgated a humanist and environmentalist philosophy throughout his life, and drew consistently on the thought of a few chosen gurus: Thoreau, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Daisetz Suzuki. He maintained a long and close working relationship with the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He was an expert (prize-winning) mycologist. He played demonstration chess games with Marcel Duchamp. Interviewed at the time of his 70th birthday, Cage commmented: 'In Buddhism, two Coca-Cola bottles are both, separately, seen as the centre of the world. A different light strikes them when you look. It's not only that my work is about that realisation. The 20th century is all about seeing things that way.'

(Photograph omitted)

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