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"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."

John Cage was born on September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles. His father was an inventor with a passion for thinking outside of the square. John also developed his own way of thinking and using ideas in ways that clashed with conventional views. After dropping out of college, he devoted his life to music and studied under Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the 12-tone system. This paved the way for Cage's unique musical career as Schoenberg taught him expressionist techniques at no cost. They both quickly discovered that Cage had absolutely no feeling for harmony so Cage decided to experiment with other, less harmonic mediums. He used materials from both natural and urban environments and developed a system to compose music using chance operations, eliminating his likes and dislikes from his work and developing pure compositions in his own style.

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

Cage developed into an artist, a musician, a chef, an agriculturalist and tried to experience a range of other varied and interesting professions. He was always looking for different ways to approach things and get the most out of life. Cage went on to develop a strong working relationship with Marcel du Champ, a provocative and conceptual artist, and they worked together on numerous compositions and artworks. Cage also had a considerable amount to do with Merce Cunningham, a respected dancer and choreographer. The two brought music and dance together in abstract ways but always managed to keep them independent of each other. This resulted in two interconnected pieces working together as one but in a disconnected fashion.

"Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?"

One of Cage's most famous compositions is titled 4'33". This piece is divided into three movements and written to be performed at a piano. The performer plays no notes on the piano; the music consists purely of rests of varying durations. It takes four minutes and thirty-three seconds to perform and a stopwatch is used to make sure movements start and finish at the right time. It presents a formal setting to perceive reality as an art. This piece infuriated many musicians and musical communities. Cage is said to have lost one of his best friends because of this piece. An interesting performance of 4'33" depends on the audience and any ambient or unintentional sounds that are present, meaning every performance will be unique.

"People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn't laugh - they were just irritated when they realised nothing was going to happen, and they haven't forgotten it 30 years later: they're still angry."

Another interesting piece Cage wrote was organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible). This work has started to be performed in the abandoned Buchardi church in Halberstadt, eastern Germany, but this particular performance will go for 639 years before it is finished. The performance started on 5 September, 2001, but for the first 17 months no notes were sounded. A note was addded in July of 2004 and another note was added in July of 2005. The next chord progression took place on March 5, 2006. This is another example of Cage's music that sits outside the square, but it is interesting to note that people are continuing his musical legacy by honouring performances of his works.

John Cage was an artist with many unique ideas. His style of learning and changing his mind has forced people to view his ideas very differently and even change some of their own ideas with him. His unconventional methods of success have received mixed views and respect but only with an open mind can one take John Cage and his work for what he is worth.

Reference List:

Filreis, A. 'John Cage sayings' in English 88, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, (14 July 2004)


John Cage Video (classroom resource)

Cage, J. 'John Cage: An Autobiographical Statement' in New Albion Artists, (14 July 2004)

Salamandir-Feyrecilde, B. 'John Cage' in Introducing Salamander, (15 July 2004)

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