Tag Archives: John Cage

Most discussions of John Cage sight his significant influence on art and the art community of the back half of the twentieth century.  Composers such as Philip Glass, Frederic Rzewski, and Morton Feldman have cited Cage as a significant inspiration.  There is ongoing discussion about John Cage’s influence on Andy Warhol (an interesting discussion can be read here).  In my hunt for more “big names of the art world influenced by John Cage” on the internet, I ran across a lot of interesting things.  The following is an account of what I found:


The ACTAcademy UK trains young people (4 – 19 years old) in the art of acting.  They created a movie that was inspired by John Cage’s Aria.

And a performance of Aria for your comparison:


Claire Janine Satin

Music and theater were certainly not the only art form inspired by John Cage.  South Florida artist Claire Janine Satin shows us some materials derived from and inspired by writings by John Cage.



Inspired by Cage’s visual artwork entitled Eninka, a printer shows us the technique used by John Cage to create the work and, in the process, create his own art.

And the work it was inspired by, Eninka:


A Digital Prepared Piano

Cage’s prepared piano takes on an electro-acoustic flare with this work for two TENORI-ON(s):

And a sample from one of Cage’s prepared piano works, Sonatas and Interludes, which inspired the composition above:


Bassman Webcomics

Cage’s influence even popped up in a comic strip: Bassman Webcomics




Cage’s 4’33” inspired this video, which is, technically, a performance of 4’33” set in a parking garage – or is it?  4’33” requires a performer…

And a very interesting performance of 4’33” by a full symphony orchestra.  The commentator at the beginning makes a very interesting comment: “…the orchestra will remain silent — we hope — throughout the piece…” [0:24].


Other Interesting Finds

An online media aggregator, Mevio, has search results for “Artists Influenced by: John Cage” which features a few miscellaneous bands that must have been inspired by Cage’s music.

An artist plays with Google and John Cage’s philosophy of change-events to create these images.  I’m not completely sure what the process was here, but Cage was certainly an influential figure.

I ran across this invitation to “Take part in an Ambitious, John Cage-inspired art event” which discusses a little about what the plan for the work will be.

This interesting design discussion is brief, but clearly inspired by Cage.

And here’s a promotional listing for a tribute concert to John Cage, by a band called 4thirtythree who promises they won’t play 4’33”.


Get on With It!!!

At the end of this journey, it’s easy to see how Cage’s work has influenced a wide variety of art in early twenty-first century culture.  I was surprised to see how much of this inspired art is not specifically aural (or music) and how many genres of art are represented in a relatively brief search for Cage-inspired works.  Cage is alive and well in the twenty-first century.


Reading about Milton Babbitt immediately preceding John Cage presents the two extreme directions in which American music has gone in the twentieth century.  And what a refreshing change of pace it is to read about John Cage and his concept of musical creation!  Where Babbitt is intellectual and elitist, Cage is insightful and down-to-earth.  Not knowing much about Cage himself, and only knowing a little about the miscellaneous sampling of his music that I have heard, It was interesting, although logically expected, for me to learn that Cage was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy.

The concept of chance in music, however, is startlingly contrary to this philosophy, as chance does not exist; everything is and happens as it is and happens.  Another interesting realization I had while reading about John Cage is that, despite his rejection of pre-calculated and mathematical form, his art-music, like Milton Babbitt’s, is still not easily accessible to general audiences.  Where Babbitt expects you to decipher his code, Cage expects you to be open to hearing more than the expectation of a performance; neither idea is something a general (American) audience is likely to grasp on first listen.  The difference for me, however, is that deciphering Milton Babbitt provides the listener with nothing more than knowledge about the algorithm Babbitt used for composing the piece, where expanding your perception of the world around you to truly appreciate John Cage’s later works can ultimately benefit one’s awareness of the world around them.

Reading selections of Cage’s writing on music, Silence, I was amused by the overall form of the writing as well as some of the micro-stories sprinkled in here and there.  “Saturday came.  Nothing happened” (6).  Priceless.  I couldn’t help thinking of magnetic poetry as I was reading some of the sections.  I wonder what John Cage had on his refrigerator?

Once again, like many composers before him, we see Cage’s desire to make music out of electric “instruments” without the hindrance of live performers to muck up their music.  Having lived my entire life with this technology available, I sigh at this notion, as I have yet to hear any real music come out of an automated instrument – be it car, computer, or one of those creepy looking robots that pays the trumpet.  As fascinating as this technology is, the lack of the human element (perhaps chance?) fails to make anything more than “organized sound.”  Why was everyone so obsessed with the idea of using machines to make music??  I just can’t comprehend it.  Surely in an age where the machine had been around long enough to create pollution, poverty, and war, people would already be aware that the sounds coming from these instruments is undesirable.  I am aware that the idea of flying cars is awesome, but in practice would be nearly impossible to control.  Technology on the horizon is understandable – and with it always comes a benefit (flawless performance, insane rhythmic accuracy, etc).  There are two sides to every coin, however, and one must consider what gets lost when technology takes the place of something.

After finishing another chapter from Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century, “Experimentalism,” I am starting to feel overwhelmed with names, techniques, and theories pertaining to the development of music in mid-twentieth-century America.  As is the case with music in Vienna of the late eighteenth century, the new generation of composers all are somehow directly linked with the previous or older generation of established composers – either through education, employment, mentorship, or some other relationship within the business.  Everyone continues to have a new idea about music and is attempting to inject those ideas into performance and musical art.

Harry Partch, with his insistence on turning pitch and instrumentation on its head, was on to something when it came to tuning.  The narrow-mindedness, however, of composers to look at tuning as the ‘well-tempered klavier’ makes my blood boil and I found myself stifling a yell or two while reading.  Many instruments that have enjoyed a long tradition of Western musical composition can play in the ratios uncovered by Partch.  The trombone, for example, has been around since the late fifteenth century, and it has the wonderful ability to play perfectly out of tune!  String instruments enjoy this ability as well (proven by the last orchestra rehearsal I attended).  To reinvent instruments to be able to match this new-fangled “tuning” is beyond narcissistic.  I was elated to read that composers that have followed Partch’s path, or at least experiment with semi-tonality, have written for the trombone, even if it was in excess (specifically, Wendy Mae Chambers’s Mass for seventy-seven trombones and Henry Brandt’s Orbits for eighty trombones).

Partch’s instruments can be explored in greater detail here.

Last week I ran across an interesting modern twist on a classic instrument and posted the video here.

What a shame it is that composers have become so mathematical!  Twelve-tone serialism teeters on the edge of emotionless due to its formulaic approach, but the obsessiveness of Partch with intervallic ratios and the impossibility of Nancarrow’s rhythmic oppositions blatantly disregards expression – it feels more like a “Hey, look what my machine can do!” mentality and less of a reflection of life and the world around us.  During this period in history, composers such as Bartok and Shostakovitch were writing expression while their “friends across the lake” were playing with their toys.

In the larger context of our discussion, I find it hard to pin the works of Partch and Nancarrow as “experimental,” at least by John Cage’s definition: “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[1]  The precision of tuning employed by Partch and of rhythm by Nancarrow, by definition, are precisely predictable and thus, lack experimentation.  These works, perhaps, are better labeled “proofs of musical concept” over experimental.

Lastly, Gann brings back the notion of spatial music through his discussion of Henry Brandt.  Though it seems that the concept of “spatial” was slightly different with Brandt than with Varese, I will harp on the idea that spatial music is not new!  Brandt is quoted by Gann as saying “Spatial separation is essentially a contrapuntal device….It makes counterpoint more distinct” (98).  Something tells me that  Gabrieli knew this idea to be true as well – his music is the quintessential sixteenth-century counterpoint and was heavily antiphonal, often utilizing three choirs of performers to express his spatial compositions.

Avant Garde – Experimental Music – Modernism – Vanguard – Bohemianism – Post-Modernism.  Aren’t these terms all basically interchangeable?  It depends on who you ask…

After reading up on Avant Garde in Grove Music Online as well as Experimental Music and Avant Guard on Wikipedia, I have more questions about the topic than when I started.  Labels on art have generally-accepted definitions, however works of art that stand out in time often don’t fit nicely into these labels.  A prime example is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808) – is this a Classical composition or a Romantic one?  There are elements of both genres throughout this masterpiece; could not the audience of that time have even labeled this work ‘Avant Garde’ (had the term been used to classify artwork at the time)?  Did Beethoven not push ‘the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm’[1]?

Classicism and Romanticism have sets of defined rules, including time periods, for categorizing works as one or the other (or neither), as do Baroque and Rennaisance and Serialism.  Avant Garde comes with no clear label.  The French translation of “advance guard” gives us the most clear interpretation of the term, but also allows us to use it freely throughout time.  Specifically, when discussing art, the “advance guard” would be those composers, artists, or performers that push the current boundaries of what has already been defined.  I think back to those masterpieces of music that the line between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ has been broken: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Beethoven’s Symphonies,  Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Each of these works could be Avant Garde to the current time period.

Why, then, is Experimental Music separated out?  It seems to me that Experimental Music is Avant Garde music, however Avant Garde music is not Experimental Music.  Most of the major transitions of style in art were driven by experimentation.  John Cage offers the most precise distinction of what can be classified as experimental: “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[2]  I like this definition because it plays on the idea of the unpredictable – art is not limited by the artist, but rather, by the precise and random occurrences of what happens during (and possibly after) the performance.  4’33” is a good example – it is never exactly the same, as nothing except the presence of the performer(s), the time of the performance, and the assumption of an audience has been defined.  The artwork is that which occurs during the performance at that time on that day, thus is impossible to predict what will happen.

A paradox occurs as we discuss the Avant Garde.  We’re looking back in time at what once happened and are labeling it Avant Garde for being ahead of its time or at the front of a [political, cultural, artistic, etc] movement.  But anything we label as Avant Garde, is, by definition, no longer Avant Garde.  If we’re able to see a work as new and unique, it can be labeled Avant Garde – until others begin to use the same technique(s), and then: It was Avant Garde and a new genre has been defined.

But what’s all the fuss about, really?  They’re just labels… the art itself doesn’t (shouldn’t?) care what we call it.