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John Cage: Biography

By Edited Aug 9, 2015 0 0

John Cage was born in Los Angeles on September the 5th 1912. His father, John Milton Cage Sr. (1886–1964), was an inventor, and his mother, Lucretia Harvey (1885–1969), worked continuously as journalist for the Los Angeles Times.

A pioneer of chance music, electronic music, and non-standard use of instruments, John Cage was one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. He is also seen as important in the development of modern dance, due to his relationship with Merce Cunningham, his second romantic partner. He is best know as the "composer of the silent piano piece", due to his work entitled "4'33". Influenced by Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism, he has composed many innovative and creative works of music, dance, and theatre. In addition to being a composer and musician, he was also a philosopher, writer, artist, printmaker, mycologist, and avid mushroom collector.

He died in New York City on August 12th 1992, only weeks before a celebration of his 80th birthday

John Cage grew up in Los Angeles with his mother and father. He first began the study of music in 4th grade under his Aunt, who taught him piano. He expressed a stronger interest in sight reading than in becoming a good performer. He graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1928, and enrolled in Pomona College to become a writer, but dropped out in 1930 because he believed college "was of no use to a writer." He promptly traveled to Europe and spent 18 months trying out forms of art. He studied architecture, painting, poetry, and music. He started composing in Majorca, one of the cities he traveled to, and acquired a love of theatre in Seville.

When he returned to America after his tour of Europe, he met Richard Buhlig, who became his first teacher. He sent some of his compositions to Henry Cowell, who suggested he study with Arnold Schoenberg because they shared the same style of composing. After taking lessons with Adolph Weiss and Cowell himself, he approached Schoenberg, but couldn't afford the price of lessons. After swearing his life to music, Schoenberg tutored him for free. Schoenberg's influence and his vow were so strong that some 40 years later, Cage continued to write music even though he had no need to. Throughout his career he attended (the last two as faculty) many educational institutions including:
Pomona College, Claremont
The "New School for Social Research", New York
University of South California
University of California, Los Angeles
Cornish School of the Arts, Seattle Washington
Chicago School of Design, Chicago
Black Mountain College

His first works in Majorca were of dense mathematical formulas. He was displeased with the results, and left the finished copies behind when he left Europe. He composed in the 12-tone technique similar to Schoenberg's, but soon grew bored of that style. He started composing percussive pieces whilst amongst the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, using them for his inspiration. While working on a piece for the dancers, he experimented with placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the piano. He liked the sound and continued to experiment with "prepared piano," a creation influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell. He also experimented with electronic music using turntables and radios. His styles were all influenced greatly by Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and 1Ching. He used the Chinese "Book of Changes" to compose several pieces.

In 1934 Cage was working at his mother's art shop when he met the artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff. She was an Alaskan born daughter of a Russian priest, who specialized in bookbinding, sculpture, and collage. Although already involved with Don Sample, he instantly fell in love with Xenia. They married in the middle of the Yuma desert, Arizona, on the 7th of June, 1935. He worked as a dance accompanist at the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle, Washington, while continuing to compose both for theatre and dance. Later in his career he toured America with Merce Cunningham and his dance company, and toured Europe with David Tudor. After his 1945 divorce with Xenia, Merce Cunningham became his romantic partner for the remaining 47 years of his life. Throughout this whole time, he continued to compose music, write, and paint.

John composed this in 1951 for twelve radio receivers. Each radio has two players, one to control the frequency, the other to control the volume. Cage wrote precise instructions in the music for how the "performers" should change the settings over time, but he could not control the actual sound coming out of them.

This song is named such because it was created for Theatre No.1, and it happens right amongst the audience. Cage named it so because it occurs in the present, attempting to arrest the concept of passing time.

This consisted of a quartet using a muted piano, a suspended cymbal, and two variable-speed turntables on which single-frequency radio test records were played at various steady speeds and also sliding between speeds in siren-like glissandos. It represented his first composition involving chance and electronic sound.

His inspiration for this piece came from a visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University (an anechoic chamber is a chamber designed so that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sound waves, rather than bouncing them back as echoes). He entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but instead he "heard two sounds one high and one low". When he described them to the engineer in charge he was informed that the high one was his nervous system in operation and the low one his blood in circulation.

Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, yet sound was nevertheless discernible. He stated "until I die there will be sounds. One need not fear about the future of music." He realized the impossibility of silence, and that led to the "composition" of his most famous piece, 4'33.
The entire composition is 4 minutes and 33 seconds long. It reflects the sounds of the world around the listener because there is no sound played by any instrument during the 4:33.
It is speculated that the work is a representation of absolute zero. 4:33 is worth 273 seconds. -273 is absolute zero in Celsius.



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