updated 22 March 2012
© Archives Ircam

John Cage

American composer, poet, painter, and mycologist born 5 September 1912 in Los Angeles, CA; died 12 August 1992 in New York City.

Born in Los Angeles (USA) on 5 September 1912, John Cage was a musician, writer, painter, mycologist, and thinker, who crafted his life as an ongoing process and lived outside all categorization.

His first contact with music was through the piano lessons he took as a child. Later, in 1930, bored with an education based on repetition and uniformity, he set sail for Europe looking for new experiences. Returning to California the following year, he began studying composition with Richard Buhlig and Henry Cowell, and then undertook private lessons with Adolph Weiss. In 1935 he married Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, from whom he separated ten years later. From 1934 to 1936 he studied analysis, composition, harmony, and counterpoint with Arnold Schoenberg, which gave him occasion to understand how little inclined to harmonic thinking he was. From 1938 to 1940, he worked at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he met Merce Cunningham, who would become his companion and collaborator. It was during this period that he wrote his manifesto on music, “The Future of Music: Credo” invented the water gong and the prepared piano, and composed Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939), one of the first works of music to use electronics.

The 1940s marked a turning point for Cage after these early, formative years in which voice and percussion were his instruments of choice. In New York, he participated in a concert at the MoMA during which his composition Amores (1943) was premiered; he met Indian musician Gita Sarabhai and began reading the work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Meister Eckhart. In 1948, he completed Sonatas and interludes, the fruit of several years’ worth of experimentation with prepared piano. In 1949, he returned to Paris, where he worked on the music of Erik Satie and encountered such composers as Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Schaeffer, and Pierre Boulez. He and Boulez maintained an extensive correspondence that lasted until 1954.

Returning to New York in 1950, Cage became involved in what would come to be known as the New York School, which included Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, joined by Earle Brown in 1952. His friendships with painters in this circle, particularly Robert Rauschenberg, were also significant during this time, as may be observed in his silent piece 4’33’’ (1952). His Music of Changes (1951) and Untitled Event(1952) marked the birth of the musical happening. Water music (1952) explores unconventional notation. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was founded in 1953, with Cage as its musical director, a position he would hold until his death. His collaboration with Cunningham was one in which music and dance coexisted equally, without relationships of dominance and subordination between them. During this time, Cage also attended lectures on Zen Buddhism by Daisetz T. Suzuki and began working chance operations and free choice into his music: he first used the I Ching in the third movement of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1957-1958).

His lecture “Composition as Process” at the Darmstadt Summer Course in 1958, and his indeterminate music, including Variations I, sparked widespread debate among the European avant-garde. In 1961, he published Silence: Lectures and Writings, and by 1962 his understanding of music as theatre was beginning to take shape, with the premiere of 0’00’’ (4’33’’ nº 2). Variations V andVII, Musicircus (1967), HPSCHD with Lejaren Hiller, the electronic music/chess performance Reunion (1968) with Marcel Duchamp and Teeny Duchamp, were all major events in the evolution of multimedia and environmental sound art. Song Books, published in 1970, was a collection of a wide variety of compositional processes and types of notation with texts by Cage and authors he admired such as Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and, most prominently, Henry David Thoreau. The social aspect of his work began to emerge in the project Freeman Etudes for violin (1980; 1990).

John Cage’s career as a visual artist began with an exhibit of his scores in 1958 at the Stable Gallery; despite regular appearances in the visual arts world, it was only with the etchings created at Crown Point Press on invitation from Kathan Brown that this practice became a central one for Cage. At the time of his death, he had produced some 900 etchings, watercolors, and drawings. In these works – as in the mesostics he began writing after composing Empty Words in 1976 – Cage worked along the same principles as he did in his music, as may be observed in Where R=Ryoanji(1983-1992), for example. Between 1987 and 1991, he composedEuroperas**I-V, and between 1987 and 1992, the cycleNumber**Pieces, where he made use of what he called “time-bracket notation.” In this period, Cage explored forms of automatic or computer-assisted writing based on programs created by his assistant Andrew Culver. He received many major awards and honors in the last years of his life, including the Kyoto Prize (1989) – a life devoted to experimentation and freedom.

John Cage died in New York City on 12 August 1992.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2010


  • Pierre BOULEZ/John CAGE*, Correspondance*, Paris, Christian Bourgois Éditeur, 1991.
  • John CAGE, « An Autobiographical Statement » (1989), dans John Cage Writer (selected and introduced by Richard Kostelanetz), New York, Limelight Editions, 1993.
  • John CAGE, Silence, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
  • Richard KOSTELANETZ, Conversing with Cage. New York, Limelight, 1987.
  • David NICHOLLS, John Cage, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
  • David REVILL, The Roaring Silence. John Cage a life, London, Bloomsbury, 1992.

Cage – Pour une poétique de l’oubli

By Carmen Pardo

In a 1982 interview, John Cage stated:

My name has become well known, but the experience of my music is as unknown, I would say, as ever. That’s partly due to the fact that I’ve written a great deal of music and it’s not all the same, and I’m always making new music, so no one knows what they’re going to hear when they hear some of it.1

Cage’s statement reveals two crucial notions: he does not compose in one style, and as a result, the audience’s perception of his music cannot rely on a prior basis. His music is, as the musicologist Daniel Charles suggested in 1976, a music of forgetting. In this case, forgetting is not a failure, but rather a demonstration that Cage refuses to do what he is supposed to do. His forgetfulness is built on opposition to rules and to all that perpetuates convention. Forgetting, in Cage’s music, is a deliberate act.

I. The First Act of Actively Forgetting

Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Cage studied in 1934 and 1935, declared to him that in order to write music, he would have to have a feeling for harmony; otherwise, his lack of mastery of this aspect of music would bar his path. It would be “as though he came to a wall through which he could not pass.” Cage decided to dedicate his life to “beating his head against that wall.”2

Cage first experimented with his own approach to dodecaphonic music in pieces like Sonata for Two Voices (1933) and Composition for Three Voices (1934), after which he turned to percussion — a sound domain with little or no pitch determination. It was during this time that he started to dig a hole in Schoenberg’s aforementioned “wall” of harmony and discovered that there were sounds on the other side. He realized that the world of music was wider than acknowledged in current systems. Between 1935 and 1943, Cage composed fifteen pieces for percussion, including Quartet (1935), First Construction in Metal (1939), and Double Music (1941) in collaboration with Lou Harrison.

In these years, Cage explored what he would later call the rhythmic micro-macrocosmic structure. He built his pieces on proportional relationships: by applying square roots to the number of measures, long lengths would have the same relationship within a set as short lengths within a smaller unit. This rhythmic structure could be manifested with sounds — including noise — and movement, as it was the case with dance. This discovery was his answer to Schoenberg’s structural harmony.3 Cage used this type of structure starting with First Construction in Metal, a piece made of sixteen units that last sixteen measures each.

His breach in the harmonic wall began to broaden in 1938 when Cage used a water gong for an underwater ballet, as well as in 1940 with his invention of the prepared piano. Both developments were influenced by his work at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he found he had more affinities with the dancers than with the musicians. The prepared piano appeared in his Second Construction, but he related its invention to his collaboration on Bacchanale, a ballet by Syvilla Fort (1940). Inspired by his teacher Henry Cowell, who would pluck the strings of the piano or strike them with sewing needles, Cage turned to a pie tin, a book, wood screws, bearings, and bolts. He would distribute these objects throughout the piano strings, consequently affecting four fundamental dimensions of sound: duration, intensity, pitch, and timbre. He essentially attacked the emblematic instrument of Romantic music. For prepared piano, Cage composed works including Amores (1943), A Book of Music (1944), Three Dances (1945), and his masterpiece of the time, Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948), a piece inspired by The Dance of Shiva by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.

Cage’s breach in the wall of harmony further expanded with Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), a piece for piano, cymbal, and two turntables playing at changing speeds, which was one of the first pieces in the history of music to use electric sound-reproduction instruments. Technology, for Cage, was a tool without a history and without associated memories. It could thus evoke imaginary future landscapes. Cage would call his pieces that use a technological component Imaginary Landscape No. 1, II, III (1939–1942), IV (1951), and V (1952).

In all his pieces from this period, however exploratory and creative, Cage still worked with notions of method, structure, form, and material. In a 1949 text, he defined these notions:

Structure in music is its divisibility into successive parts from phrases to long sections. Form is content, the continuity. Method is the means of controlling the continuity from note to note. The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.4

Such unrestrictive definitions reveal how Cage had started to reach beyond dualities, including the one opposing structural harmony and rhythmic harmony. His ideological position was strengthened by his encounter with Daisetz T. Suzuki, who was the main voice of Zen Buddhism in the West and with whom Cage studied for three years. Cage was also influenced by The Transformation of Nature in Art by Coomaraswamy (Harvard University Press, 1934), where he read that the function of art was to imitate the processes of nature. Cage also had several other important encounters in the 1940s: with Marcel Duchamp, for whom he nurtured a profound admiration; with Merce Cunningham, with whom he shared his life after his divorce in 1945; and with the architect Buckminster Fuller.

II. The Second Act of Actively Forgetting

As early as the 1940s, Cage began experimenting with two concepts that he put into action during the following two decades. These concepts were chance and indeterminacy.

His method of composition (here understood as a means to create a continuity between notes) opened itself to improvisation, as is portrayed in Imaginary Landscape IV (1951) for twelve radios, twenty-four instrumentalists, and a conductor. The same year, Cage composed Music of Changes for the pianist David Tudor. This time he introduced chance into his method. The timings of the sounds, and thus the duration of the piece, are determined by operations described in the I Ching (The Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese divination treatise to which Cage referred numerous times. With Music of Changes, the structure became indeterminate.

This does not mean that structure disappeared. Rather, structure rules the density of sounds and silences in even the smallest sections of the piece. One of Cage’s hobbies was taking walks to look for mushrooms. He noticed that when one observes the different species up close, one readily recognizes their organizational structure; but when one looks at the totality of the species and their interrelations during a whole day, it becomes difficult to locate any organization whatsoever: the structure fades out. Likewise, in Cage’s works from the 1950s, the structures progressively become like the ones found in nature.

He also worked with empty structures, as was the case with his Lecture on Nothing (1949) — where any word can emerge — as well as his famous 4’33” (1952), where he makes listeners pay attention to sounds of the environment and to the unintentional. Ten years later, 0’00” (4’33” nº 2) proved that the mere idea of structure is contingent.

By pursuing chance, Cage sought to detach his personal taste from music. His responsibility lay not in the choices made but in the questions asked. The I Ching became his preferred tool for composing. Other inspirations were his interpretations of imperfections in a piece of paper, geometrical juxtapositions, and magic squares. These affected both the organization of the music and its performance, and liberated Cage from the burden of memory. Cage defined chance as providing a “leap out of reach of one’s own grasp of oneself.”5

Cage also gave up traditionally notated scores in favor of graphic notation, which, because of its subjective interpretation made each performance unique for the composer, the performers, and the audience. The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1957-1958) is an example. Everything in this work depends on chance operations. The material can encompass anything: every sound, every silence is accepted as central. The work is based on a philosophy of non-obstruction and the mixing and merging of sounds, a notion Cage borrowed from Zen Buddhism.

In this period, Cage turned to indeterminacy, as exemplified by his Variations I-VII (1958-1966). In Variations III and Variations IV (1963), time is not measured (as is also the case in 0’00”). In Variations V (1965), the score was written after the performance, and it contains only comments for future performances, without giving an exact description of what the performers are supposed to play.

Cage made a clear distinction between chance and indeterminacy: in chance operations, the performers know to a certain extent the elements with which they will work, whereas in indeterminate works they do not. Cage’s process was authentically experimental, both in his way of considering music as inseparable from life, and by the fact that, like audience members, he was also facing the unknown.

His conception of music was broadened by this attitude, as well as by his involvement with artists and scenes outside music — such as the painters of the New York School and the Artists Club, of which he was a member from the late 1940s on. Around 1950, after having read Le Théâtre et son double by Antonin Artaud, Cage proposed a theater piece without text where the audience attended many simultaneous and disassociated events. His piece Untitled Event, premiered at Black Mountain College in 1952, used such a format and was considered to be the first happening. In 1960, Cage composed Theatre Piece, a work involving unspecified superposed elements that the performer chooses, and to which is added a “lecture […] involving combing the hair and kiss sounds and gestures that made the lecture theatrical.”6

III. The Third Act of Actively Forgetting

The period between the end of the 1960s and Cage’s death in 1992 was marked by a radicalization of all that he had previously proposed. He conceived the musicircus (a word taken from a poem by E. E. Cummings, “Here of This Earth. Musicircus”), which is a situation in which two or more pieces are performed simultaneously. Results of this process include Musicircus (1967), a non-notated piece called HPSCHD (1967-1969, in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller), and Song Books (1970). The musicircus involves the acceptance of a process devoid of directionality and intention. It is the fruit of Cage’s longstanding interest in the coexistence of events and, consequently, in not focusing attention on a single action. Like nature, musicircus involves non-duality and merging: if observed in its totality, it appears disorganized even though everything is organized from within.

Cage’s writings follow a similar pattern. For example, he planned his Diary as a mosaic that inhibits linear reading.

The integration of sounds from the environment, which had already appeared in 4’33”, for example, continues in Etcetera (1973) and Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras (1985). These works tend to what Cage would later call a sound ecology — music that enables one to inhabit the world in its totality, as opposed to mere parcels of the world. This thought implies that humanity’s role is no longer to dominate nature but rather to listen to the world. This social concern became more acute in the 1970s when Cage encountered Henry David Thoreau’s work. For Cage, Thoreau supplemented the inspiration he found in the writings of Coomaraswamy.

Furthermore, Cage’s concerns for society were rooted in his conception of technology. He considered, with Fuller, that one should think at the scale of a worldwide monetary economic system and, with the philosopher Marshall McLuhan, that in the era of electronic communications, technology had become an extension of the individual’s central nervous system. Consequently, technology held the potential to modify intelligence and even to lead to social equity. For Cage, the abundance of information that technology offered would bring what he called techno-anarchism: the dismantling of the state and all forms of government. A piece like Etcetera, where the performers can choose to be conducted or not, is an example of this techno-anarchism.

Cage’s non-dual mindset and his acceptance of all sounds led him, during this same period, to repurpose preexisting music: music that he had once considered worn out and filled with memory. Emblematic of this process are his Europeras I-V (1985-1991), a series of operas on the topic of the opera as a genre which create “a collage […] of a pulverized sort, of European opera.”7 In the first two Europeras, seventy excerpts from preexisting operas were subjected to chance operations — through a computer that would simulate the I Ching — to determine the number of notes. The fragmentation in the resulting collage defies the coherence of traditional opera. With the Europeras, Cage caused audience members to experience coexisting autonomous means of expression — music, text, and lighting — as Cunningham in the 1940s had done with the relationship between dance and music.

Between 1987 and 1992, Cage composed the cycle Number Pieces, in which the performer would decide when the sound emission started and ended by looking at a stopwatch. The limits were established by “time brackets”:

With time brackets we can write one line of music and have a whole orchestra with eighty to one hundred musicians play that single line. There is nothing difficult about this, and it is rather quite simple. Because of the time brackets, the diversity of the sounds that can be obtained is immense: musicians can decide to lengthen or shorten a sound, they can produce any type of timbre they wish to, etc. Musicians are also free to move forward with the sounds, or not. In brief, stemming from one line of written music, the same event is open to all types of differences.8

It is thus a question of erasing all objectives that could form in one’s mind before a performance. To use the composer’s expression, one is to write on water.

Toward the end of life, Cage wrote on water, left his music on the beach, and waited for waves.

1. Richard KOSTELANETZ, Conversing with Cage, New York, Routledge, 2003, p. 32.
2. Quoted in John CAGE, Silence: Lectures and Writings [1961], Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, 2012, p. 261.
3. John CAGE, “An Autobiographical Statement,” in John Cage Writer (selected and introduced by Richard Kostelanetz), New York, Limelight Editions, 1993, p. 239.
4. John CAGE, “Forerunners of Modern Music” [1949], Silence, p. 62.
5. John CAGE, “45’ for a speaker,” Silence, p. 162.
6. Richard KOSTELANETZ, Conversing with Cage, p. 114.
7. Ibid., p. 136.
8. Translated to English from John CAGE, Je n’ai jamais écouté aucun son sans l’aimer: le seul problème avec les sons, c’est la musique, La Souterraine: La main courante, 1994, p. 24-26.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012


Textes de John Cage
  • John CAGE, Silence, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1961 (Silence. Conférences et écrits [1961], Genève : Héros-Limite, 2003.)
  • John CAGE, A Year from Monday, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1968. (Une année dès lundi. Conférences et écrits [1967], Paris : Textuel, 2006.)
  • John CAGE, M. Writings ’67-’72, Londres / Middletown : Calder & Boyars, 1973.
  • John CAGE, Empty Words. Writings ’73-’78, Boston / Londres : Marion Boyars, 1980.
  • John CAGE, X. Writings ’79-’82, Middletown : Wesleyan University Press, 1983.
  • John CAGE, Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • John CAGE, I-VI. Cambridge, MA. and London, Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • John CAGE, Je n’ai jamais écouté aucun son sans l’aimer : le seul problème avec les sons, c’est la musique, La Souterraine : La main courante, 1994.
  • John CAGE, Escritos al oído (édition et traduction de C. Pardo), Murcia, Colegio Oficial de Aparejadores y Arquitectos Técnicos de Murcia, Colección de Arquilectura, nº 38, 1999.
  • John CAGE en conversation avec Daniel CHARLES, For the Birds, Boston-London, Marion Boyars, 1981. (Pour les oiseaux. Entretiens avec Daniel Charles [1976], Paris : L’Herne, 2002.)
Textes sur John Cage
  • Richard KOSTELANETZ, Conversations avec John Cage [1988], Paris : Syrtes, 2000.
  • Joan RETALLACK, Musicage : Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, Londres / Hanovre : Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
  • Pierre BOULEZ et John CAGE, Correspondance et documents, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1991.
  • « John Cage » dansRevue d’esthétique, nouvelle série, nº 13-14-15, 1987-1988, Paris, éd. Privat, 1988.
  • « De la composition : l’après John Cage» dans Revue d’esthétique, nouvelle série, nº 43, Paris, J.M. Place, 2003.
  • Gino Di MAGGIO, Achille BONITO OLIVA, Daniele LOMBARDI, éd., John Cage, Milano, Fondazione Mudita, 2009.
  • Daniel CHARLES, Jean-Louis HOUCHARD (contributions sollicités et rassemblées par), Rencontrer, encountering John Cage, Elne, VOIXéditions, 2008
  • H. K. METZGER et R. RIEHN (éd.), Musik-Konzepte, Sonderband John Cage I et II. München, edition text+kritik, 1990.
  • David NICHOLLS, éd., The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • David W. PATTERSON, éd., John Cage : Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, Londres / New York : Routledge, 2002.
  • Jean-Yves BOSSEUR, John Cage, Paris : Minerve, 1993.
  • Daniel CHARLES, Gloses sur John Cage [1978], Paris : Desclée de Brouwer, 2002.
  • Marc FROMENT-MEURICE, Les Intermittences de la raison. Penser Cage, entendre Heidegger, Paris : Klincksieck, 1982.
  • Ulrike Kasper, Écrire sur l’eau. L’esthétique de John Cage, Paris : Hermann, 2005.
  • David NICHOLLS, John Cage, University of Illinois Press, 2007.
  • Carmen PARDO SALGADO, Approche de John Cage. L’écoute oblique [2001], Paris : L’Harmattan, 2007 (La escucha oblicua: una invitación a John Cage, Editorial Universidad Politécnica de Valencia. Colección Letras Humanas, 2001).
  • En el mar de John Cage, Ediciones de La Central, Barcelona, 2009
  • James PRITCHETT, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • David REVILL, The Roaring Silence. John Cage a life, London, Bloomsbury, 1992
  • Stefan SCHÄDLER et Walter ZIMMERMANN, John Cage. Anarchic Harmony, Francfort-sur-le-Main : Schott, 1992
  • Anne DE FORNEL, John Cage, Paris : Fayard, 2019.

Lien internet


  • Merrill BROCKWA, Aspects of a New Conciousness, Dialogue III, 1969, (30m.).
  • John CORBER, John Cage: Man and Myth, 1990 (video).
  • Elliot CAPLAN (dir.), Beach Birds for camera, 1992.
  • Fundació Espai Poble Nou/Barcelona, John Cage. Essay, Gener - abril de 1991 (vídeo).
  • Takahiko IIMURA, John Cage Performs James Joyce, 1985, (video 15m.).
  • Henning LOHNER, One 11 and 103, 1992 (125m.).
  • Allan MILLER, I have nothing to say and I am saying it, 1990. John Cage. Je n’ai rien à dire et je le dis. Music Project for Television Inc. American Masters, Lola Film, Wnet New York, 1994 (54m.).
  • John Cage, 1990 (TV).
  • Henning LOHNER, Die Rache der Toten Indianer, 1993, 125’, couleur, son.
  • Nam June PAIK, A Tribute to John Cage, 1976 (1973), 29’02’’, couleur, son.