The Innovative and Unconventional John Cage

July 15, 2021

Written by Ismenia Diego

When most people think of art, they think of music, dancing and painting. But when John Cage thought of art, he thought of so much more. Along with composing songs, he created the piece 4’33”, in which the performer was to remain silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. His goal was to have his audience observe the sounds of their environment, rather than be distracted from the sound of music. Cage saw the beauty in his surroundings. But did anyone else?

Though Cage had the talent to compose music, he didn’t always have the ambition. It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he gained interest to do so. When given the chance to learn composition, he put his all into creating, promising to always do so. Throughout the ups and downs of his career, Cage maintained his promise to compose music that taught others to be in tune with their environment in hopes that they would experience the world the way he did.

John Milton Cage was born on September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles, California. Cage was born to John Milton Cage Sr. and journalist Lucretia Harvey.

The Learning Stage

Cage first got into music as a child, when he received lessons from private piano teachers, as well as some relatives. One relative introduced Cage to 19th century piano music, he then began practicing the piano at only nine years old.

Alternative Dreams

Though he liked music as a child, Cage was more interested in sight reading. Despite receiving piano lessons and having famous composer and pianist Fannie Charles Dillon as a music teacher in high school, Cage was adamant about becoming a writer.

In 1928, Cage graduated from high school as valedictorian. Along with being an exceptional student, one thing Cage was notable for was his unique mindset. When giving a speech at the Hollywood Bowl as a high school senior, he used his platform to tell his audience to remain quiet for the day. He believed that by being “hushed and silent, we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think.” He wanted people to take time out of their busy lives to observe their surroundings.

Later that year, Cage attended Pomona College as an undergraduate, majoring in theology. Two years later, however, he dropped out, believing that attending college was pointless for an aspiring writer. Instead, he took a trip to Europe, where he explored different forms of art to figure out what he was most interested in.

True Calling

After many trials, Cage finally realized what form of art he wanted to pursue. It was during his stay in Europe that his teacher, Lazaro Levy, introduced Cage to music by contemporary composers. This inspired Cage to compose music himself.

In 1933, he relocated to New York City to study composition with composer Adolph Weiss. Eventually, Cage began to master composition and got the opportunity to study it from Arnold Schoenberg, after promising Schoenberg that Cage would devote his life to music.


Cage studied with Schoenberg for two years. During this time, Schoenberg taught Cage resiliency, telling Cage that he must overcome his struggle with having a feeling for harmony in order to be able to write music.

Eventually, Cage stopped studying with Schoenberg after a disagreement with his teaching methodology. Despite this, Schoenberg admired Cage, referring to him as “an inventor of genius”.

Even decades afterwards, Cage managed to keep the promise he made to Schoenberg about dedicating his life to music. This is why Cage continued composing music into his old age despite no longer feeling a need to do so.

New Beginnings

In 1938, Cage and his wife at the time, Xenia Kashevaroff, moved to Seattle, Washington. There, he worked as a composer and accompanist for Bonnie Bird at the Cornish College of the Arts. It was during this time that Cage organized a percussion ensemble that traveled throughout the West Coast to perform. This led to him first receiving fame for his work.

Rough Patch

In 1942, Cage moved to New York City, in order to find more significant commissions. Unfortunately, Cage did not succeed in the way he thought he would. During his stay in the Big Apple, he did not get commissions from performing. In addition, Cage and his then-wife lost support from a friend he and his wife had been living with and receiving financial and career support. This left Cage destitute.

Along with lacking basic necessities, Cage was left without his percussion instruments. He began to doubt the use of music as a way of communicating due to his being often being misunderstood and rejected by the public.

Stepping Stones

In 1951, Cage was given a copy of the I Ching, which Cage used as an aid in composing music. I Ching helped Cage produce Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and Music of Changes, as well as many other works as his career progressed.

In 1952, Cage composed his best-known work: 4’33”. During this 4 minute and 33 second piece, the performer is to abstain from playing an instrument, so that the audience will focus on the sounds of their environment. This work was a reflection of Cage’s mindset and habit of taking note of his environment, something many neglect to do because of the distractions from everyday life.

Despite Cage’s good intentions with the release of 4’33”, his reputation further deteriorated after its release. The press did not acknowledge this work and Cage’s relationships with many people ended.

Turning Point

Eventually, Cage’s career took a turn for the better when the university he taught in, Wesleyan University, published a book containing a collection of his lectures and writings. Cage was later offered a contract by C.F. Peters Corporation, a classical music publishing company, in which Cage’s work was published. This led to him reaching a much higher level of fame and being offered many opportunities to perform.

Cage continued to compose music until the 1970s. About a decade afterward he produced operas as well. Even in the last few years of his life, when he could no longer compose music, Cage continued creating art. He wrote books of poetry and prose and worked at Crown Point Press, producing prints up until his death.

Cage passed away in New York City on August 12, 1992, after suffering a stroke.

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Фестиваль "Приглушённые голоса"

Сезон 2023-2024