August 1st, 2001
John Cage
About The Composer

“In the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions.”

n 1952, David Tudor sat down in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and did nothing. The piece 4′33” written by John Cage, is possibly the most famous and important piece in twentieth century avant-garde. 4′33” was a distillation of years of working with found sound, noise, and alternative instruments. In one short piece, Cage broke from the history of classical composition and proposed that the primary act of musical performance was not making music, but listening.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied for a short time at Pamona College, and later at UCLA with classical composer Arthur Schoenberg. There he realized that the music he wanted to make was radically different from the music of his time. “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’” But it wasn’t long before Cage found that there were others equally interested in making art in ways that broke from the rigid forms of the past. Two of the most important of Cage’s early collaborators were the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg.

Together with Cunningham and Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College, Cage began to create sound for performances and to investigate the ways music composed through chance procedures could become something beautiful. Many of Cage’s ideas about what music could be were inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who revolutionized twentieth-century art by presenting everyday, unadulterated objects in museum settings as finished works of art, which were called “found art,” or ready-mades by later scholars. Like Duchamp, Cage found music around him and did not necessarily rely on expressing something from within.

Cage’s first experiments involved altering standard instruments, such as putting plates and screws between a piano’s strings before playing it. As his alterations of traditional instruments became more drastic, he realized that what he needed were entirely new instruments. Pieces such as “Imaginary Landscape No 4″(1951) used twelve radios played at once and depended entirely on the chance broadcasts at the time of the performance for its actual sound. In “Water Music” (1952), he used shells and water to create another piece that was motivated by the desire to reproduce the operations that form the world of sound we find around us each day.

While his interest in chance procedures and found sound continued throughout the sixties, Cage began to focus his attention on the technologies of recording and amplification. One of his better known pieces was “Cartridge Music” (1960), during which he amplified small household objects at a live performance. Taking the notions of chance composition even further, he often consulted the “I Ching,” or Book of Changes, to decide how he would cut up a tape of a recording and put it back together. At the same time, Cage began to focus on writing and published his first book, “Silence” (1961). This marked a shift in his attention toward literature.

In the ’70’s, with inspirations like Thoreau and Joyce, Cage began to take literary texts and transform them into music. “Roratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake” (1979), was an outline for transforming any work of literature into a work of music. His sense that music was everywhere and could be made from anything brought a dynamic optimism to everything he did. While recognized as one of the most important composers of the century, John Cage’s true legacy extends far beyond the world of contemporary classical music. After him, no one could look at a painting, a book, or a person without wondering how they might sound if you listened closely.

Connected artists:

Related Web sites:

  • danielle

    you should add images to this web site it would realy help

  • mckenzie

    like danielle said, you should add some pictures and not just paragraphs, you should bullet or number som information

  • gabriel


  • moulinrougefan768

    weres the music?

  • Jesse

    Um, I think you mean that Cage studied with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, unless there is another, less famous teacher of Cage’s named Arthur Schoenberg.

    Other than that, it’s a good article, and a nice overview of Cage and his legacy.

  • yasmin

    you should show the outline on him like i said

  • natalia

    danielle needs to learn of a website called or/and if she wants pictures or images as she says………..=/

  • grace.

    hes super sexy.

  • randi

    what ever

  • mario

    Arnold was right. Cage found a wall he could not tare nor jump. No feeling for harmony is no feeling for music. It seems to me that Leonard (Bernstein) or Ellington, Webern, Strawinsky, Bartok contributed more to 20th century music than Cage.

  • lacey

    Who is John Cage???? Iv’e never herd of him in my life?????

  • bob

    i love the site

  • Amanda

    You should mention that Cage and Cunningham met at Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington before they went to Black Mountain College. It is misleading to only mention BMC when they met and began making music together 15 years earlier at CSA. This website has a lot of accurate information.

  • David

    I’ve been a drummer, yes a drummer, not a percussionist, ok, a percussionist for over 24 years, and you can believe many of the percussion parts have down time, silence, that leads into a crescendo of musical instruments only to follow with more downtime or bouts of silence. Makes music much more interesting.

  • darlene

    wat.ever .. and yah hey ! wheres the music ?

  • Mike

    Ever listened to the various roars of vehicles going by while driving on the highway, or the precise rhythmic, cranking of a copying machine, or a crowd of people laughing, or just the hum of an air conditioner? I think what Cage was doing was trying to get the listener to realize music in areas of life other than the usual mediums. This does not take away from harmonic and melodic music one normally listens to, but add to it. Filmmakers have employed utilizing ordinary noise for effect for years, especially in the noir genre. Just watch Bladerunner, for example.

  • Abbie

    You all don’t get it.Search images Danielle if you want them, everyone else, if you don’t like it ; don’t bash it search another sites, this has useful information, im doing a project on him. THANK YOU!

  • jeremy

    there appears to be some missing text after the leading quote, i am assuming that it is from Cage.

  • kevin

    Ah yes, “Arthur Schoenberg”, Arnold’s mutant half-brother. …And 2 of 5 “Related Web sites” are “404 not found”.

    Come on, PBS. This is not just ANY American Master, Cage is truly one of THE American masters.

  • elizabeth

    make sure the links are working please

  • TJ

    Cage was quite a revolutionary artist. Enjoyed the insight of the article. Cremation Urns

  • Inquisitor

    Soundless music? What a concept. How about wordless web pages. For instance, if the content of this one were removed I couldn’t possibly imagine a better way to make the point.

  • teenee
  • brokenears


    I grew up just a few miles away from the Black Mountain area in North Carolina. The idea for providing an institution of such high merit does not seem that unusual some 60 odd years later.

    These days I work to complete a Masters pertaining to digital music and constantly study experimental and electronic music.

    If you have the opportunity go to my blog (an assignment) and post a comment:


  • Rob Haskins

    If possible, can this documentary be released on DVD? $199 for a new copy is a little steep:

  • Blackjack

    Was John Cage influenced by the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen ?

  • Watch NHL

    think what Cage was doing was trying to get the listener to realize music in areas of life other than the usual mediums. This does not take away from harmonic and melodic music.

  • ประกาศ


  • Quentin German

    Could you list historic events that influenced him

  • jacko bro

    i think that we need to put some info on this site about all of his compositions, not just two and how we done them, we need more! :)

  • Jenenne

    Thanks for the overview.

  • michele

    ARTHUR SCHOENBERG???? Are you kidding me? who wrote this article must be a music illiterate… too bad

  • bev

    it’s spelled Pomona…

  • Diana


  • Patrick Redmond

    April 11, 1970, I (Patrick Redmond, met John Cage at the Macalester College, Saint Paul, Minnesota “Musicircus”. I had studied Cage’s book “Silence” which was required reading at the time at the Minneapolis School of Art (now known as MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art & Design,, where I was a second-year student in 1970. Cage’s ideas were among many influences in my development as a creative. New-music ensemble Zeitgeist, Saint Paul, Minnesota, presented performances of Cage’s work in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth. See for further information. Note: I am not affiliated with, Macalester College, or the late John Cage.

  • Nick Collins

    “Pamoma College” in the second paragraph should be Pomona College.

  • Meg

    i used this article as a source for my project in school. Thanks soooooo much for publishing this! it gave me tons of info on John Cage and his life.

    This guy is a little crazy though. i still don’t get the point of 4 min. 33 sec. of silence. to me its stupid, to him, it’s art.

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