John Cage


20th Century

When John Cage was young, he worshipped Arnold Schoenberg, a composer whose music sounded strange compared to older classical music. But Cage soon started writing music even stranger-sounding than Schoenberg’s! Schoenberg had questioned how we use harmony in music (harmony is the word that describes how musical notes sound when played together). Cage questioned the very nature of music itself. In the end, he became more interested in the wonder of pure sound. He became particularly interested in writing percussion music for people to dance to.

Asked in 1940 to provide music for a dance performance in a theatre too small for a percussion ensemble, he hit on the idea of inserting objects – nuts, bolts, pencil erasers and the like – between the strings of the piano to make it into a percussion band all on its own. This invention, the ‘prepared piano’, is what he is most famous for. The sounds he produced were like no other – tinkling, clunking, buzzing… Piano manufacturers were not always pleased when their top-quality instruments were doctored like that!

Then Cage noticed that when he wrote sad music, people often laughed at it, and what he thought was cheerful music others thought sad. He concluded that music couldn’t communicate feelings and gave up composing until he could find a good reason for doing it. He found it in Zen – a Japanese version of Buddhism that was popular in America at that time. Zen taught people to forget everything they thought they knew about music and, instead, discover the beauty of chance noises, even of silence. Indeed, Cage wrote a famous piece, called Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds (often written as 4’33”), where the pianist simply sits in silence at the piano for that length of time. Instead of giving answers, Cage thought the composer’s job was to ask questions.

Many people thought his music silly. It must be admitted that he rather enjoyed pulling people’s legs. But there is a serious point to his music: he wants us to listen to the sounds all around us and become more alive as a result. Listen carefully and see what you think.

John Cage, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Choose a track to hear Cage’s music!

Sonata No. 5

This is typical of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. The prepared piano sounds mysterious and its repeated patterns encourage a kind of trance in the listener. Do you feel like that when you listen?

Performers: Boris Berman, prepared piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554345

Ryoanji (version for flute, percussion and tape)

Ryoanji’s haunting quality was inspired by the famous Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan, called Ryoanji. Just as Ryoanji is simply raked gravel, punctuated by stones, so this piece is simply a background of flute music, punctuated by percussion sounds. Listen to the silences as well as the sounds. Close your eyes… How can a piece containing so little be so spellbinding?

Performers: Katrin Zenz, flute; Maxim Mankovski, percussion

Taken from Naxos 8.559773

Music for Two

A thoughtful piece for piano and flute. Again, the silence is as important as the sounds. It sounds quite ‘edgy’, as if the composer is feeling his way through an unfamiliar sound-world. Like many works by Cage, this leaves some details up to the musicians, so every performance could be a bit different.

Performers: Katrin Zenz, flute; Ludovic Frochot, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559773

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 John Cage is famous for which invention?

a. The electronic synthesizer
b. The electric guitar
c. The prepared piano

 In Cage’s Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds what does the performer do?

a. Pick his/her nose
b. Stand on his/her head
c. Nothing

 Which composer did Cage particularly admire?

a. Arnold Schoenberg
b. Sergey Rachmaninov
c. Joseph Haydn

 Cage wrote a gigantic five-hour work involving sound, pictures and moving images. What was it called?

a. Megamusic
c. Whalemusic

 John Cage in particular learnt much from which religion?

a. Hinduism
b. Christianity
c. Zen Buddhism

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. John Cage’s father was an inventor of ingenious but not necessarily useful devices.
  2. John Cage’s father told him ‘If someone says “can’t”, that shows you what to do.’ John Cage followed this advice for the rest of his life. He was always doing things other people said couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be done.
  3. During his 80 years, John Cage studied not only music, but architecture, painting, philosophy and dance. As a result he became very influential with all sorts of people.
  4. John Cage insisted he was not a composer, but an inventor. When you think of his ‘prepared piano’ you can see what he meant.
  5. Cage’s enormous work called HPSCHD used seven harpsichords, computer-generated noises, 6,400 slides, 64 projectors and 40 motion-pictures. During the five-hour performance, the audience was encouraged to arrive after it started, leave before it ended and wander around in between!

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Prepared Piano

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata No. 1

This is the first of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. It is a strangely delicate work and seems to proceed in spasms. At first, the lack of a tune and the quiet of the sounds will seem odd – but Cage wants you as the listener to forget what you have heard in the past, and just concentrate on the wonder of pure sound.

Performers: Boris Berman, prepared piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554345

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: First Interlude

The first interlude in Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, this work is gossamer light, delicately chiming like a forest of fairy bells.

Performers: Boris Berman, prepared piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554345

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata No. 8

Here the bell-like sounds almost evaporate away, like the tinkling sounds heard in a Zen Temple. If you’ve never been to a Zen temple you will have to use your imagination! The piece is, like most of Cage’s music, static.

Performers: Boris Berman, prepared piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554345

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Second Interlude

Here the prepared piano seems to carry on a dialogue with itself, always quiet, but sometimes blurting out noises. The music is simple but curious… what notes will he play next?

Performers: Boris Berman, prepared piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554345

Flute Pieces

Solo for Flute, Alto Flute and Piccolo (from the orchestral parts for Concert for Piano and Orchestra)

You can see why people thought John Cage was so unconventional. The variety of sounds he draws from flutes and piccolo is dazzling and unpredictable. This is an eerie kind of music. The same performer plays all three parts (as well as making vocal sounds): how do you think that was done?

Performers: Katrin Zenz, flute, alto flute, piccolo

Taken from Naxos 8.559774

Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo (realized by A. Deniosos, for alto flute, piano and vibraphone)

This strange work, here performed on flute, vibraphone and piano, is in seven movements; all but the first are very short. It is intimate yet, somehow, at the same time, remote, as if the sounds were breathed on a distant planet. The vibraphone makes a strange, other-worldly sound, don’t you agree?

Performers: Katrin Zenz, alto flute; Chara Iacovidou, piano; Tobias Liebezeit, vibraphone

Taken from Naxos 8.559774

Playing with Toys

Music for Amplified Toy Piano

We can safely say that few composers have written for toy piano. Here Cage uses the idea of chance (there is no score: the performer uses sheets with markings on to create a diagram to play from). The result is a spacious feel and a music full of surprises. The sound is a bit like a Javanese gamelan orchestra heard at a distance – with a few odd noises thrown in!

Performers: Xenia Pestova, toy piano; Pascal Meyer, toy piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559726

Suite for Toy Piano

This suite is a modest miracle of precise expression and the first serious music written for a toy piano. The first two movements of five are given here.

Performers: Xenia Pestova, toy piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559726