Connections: John Cage

When an unfamiliar name pops up, I may or may not pay attention, unless it happens twice in a day. John Cage was big at the Guggenheim’s The Third Mind and then at Merce Cunningham’s Nearly Ninety at BAM, where the program noted that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was partly founded by John Cage. I started to pay attention.

John Cage, Where R = Ryoanji (3R/17), 1992

John Cage with Pianist David Tudor

Yes, the same man is connected with the circle drawings above at the Guggenheim, the photo on the left, the Fluxus movement, Merce Cunningham, and silent music. I was surprised by the collaboration of Sonic Youth and Merce Cunningham, but apparently Sonic Youth, the experimental rock band, are fans of Cage who included 3 of his pieces on their album SYR4.

John Cage (1912-1992) was primarily a composer, albeit one more fascinated by sounds in themselves than creating structure. His most (in)famous piece, 4’33, consists of three movements of silence, signaled by the pianist opening and shutting the piano. The idea behind it is to open you the the noises in the room, the rustling, the whispers, sounds from the street. Many people at the original performance did not appreciate this.

Cage is now a well-established cutural influence, whose Bhuddist-inspired work left a huge-impression on American art. As the Guggenheim describes it, “Cage staunchly refused to create art in keeping with expectations, and all his creative endeavors, including dance, music, and visual art, were revolutionary. His Lecture on Nothing began with his statement, “I am here and there is nothing to say.” His concerts were even more challenging.”

John Cage, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969

John Cage’s Experimental Composition classes in the 1950s have become legendary as an American source of Fluxus, the international network of artists, composers, and designers. In addition to music, Cage created works of visual art, like the one above referring to his old chess partner Marcel Duchamp, and writings. Cage was also a life-long mushroom collector.

6 thoughts on “Connections: John Cage

  1. Wow, I forgot the name of this composer– thank you for reminding me.

    One of my strangest experiences was watching someone do a rendition of a John Cage composition. One of his instruments was a potted cactus that he pierced with a toothpick (the sound was amplified by a tiny microphone—it sounded nassssty to say the least).

    Tres bizarre. I consider myself fairly cultured but I nearly died laughing.

  2. I was at a John Cage concert in the summer garden of MOMA in the 90’s. He attended. I had never heard of him, the applause was deafening, A pianist sat at the piano for a few minutes and then closed it. People clapped and laughed and chuckled as well as Cage. Then another piece was performed with individual notes in various tones one at a time. The vibrations were the music. It was amazing to hear. I have never forgotten the experience. He just deconstructed music as we knew it. BUT…when I heard his compositions danced by the Merce Cunningham dancers at a show later, it made complete sense to me. I am glad you had the experience of the dance and the music collaboration with Sonic.

  3. I feel like I should have known about him before. I can see how how music would make more sense as danced to by the Merce Cunningham Dance company, but even that, I’m afraid, wouldn’t make music out of a cactus

  4. I used to listen to John Cage’s music years ago but really haven’t thought much of it recently. Your post has me thinking it’s time to explore what he does again, thanks!

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