Collaboration Work With John Cage
John Cage was a revolutionary artist that transcended his time and his generation. He was a man that refused to limit himself or his work in any way. Being a musician myself, I was certainly very appreciative of his radical and uncompromising musical style and his unique willingness to take great chances in his work. However, after further research I have realized that I had only come to regard a small sliver of Mr. Cage’s true mastery. While my musical penchants drew me specifically to his melodic concoctions, I was unaware of his other talents in the genres of poetry, painting, printmaking, philosophy and composition. Through extensive examination of his remarkable and groundbreaking works in these artistic arenas, I began to realize Mr. Cage’s genuine and complete genius. The vast scope of his artistic capacity did make it a bit difficult to decide on which contemporary relevancy I should focus on. Cage took many creative risks throughout his working life and each was seemingly used to touch on a different social, cultural or humanistic topic. With inspirational sources ranging from ancient Greek and Gothic architects to the poetry of Walt Whitman, Cage was able to create art forms that were equally comprehensive. Consequently, his work has gone on to impact areas of music and art such as modern dance, electronic music, and the spontaneous melodic style known as chance music . Though through his many worldly influences and naturally experimental style, some of his most famous works seem to have a great degree of religious subtext within them. This is the main area of interest for my work. While I will be using music and musical performance as my main tangible mediums, the topic of religion will be ever-present throughout my project. And similarly to Mr. Cage, my ultimate goal will be to provoke self-inspection and self-questioning from all audience members.
John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California on September 5, 1912. Creativity and imagination were the foundations of his childhood and home life. His father was an inventor who struggled financially, though was very intelligent and hungry for ideas, while is mother was a relative socialite who occasionally moonlighted as a journalist. While Cage often described his childhood as “an alienated experience,” his parents were always very supportive of his artistic endeavors. Young John Cage began to take piano lessons from local teachers during his years in elementary school. Learning mostly 19th Century music, Cage quickly developed a keen talent for reading music. This attribute helped him to learn a great deal of famous works at a relatively fast pace. Nevertheless, this was not the most popular style of his era (the early 20th Century). Rather, many teachers advocated a virtuoso style of playing, whereby the experience of playing became much more emotional. Cage was not particularly drawn to this type of musical tact, and thus he became somewhat disinterested in musical composition. Despite his unquestionable knack for music, Cages’ artistic eye began to move away from the keys. And by the time he had reached the age of sixteen he had already convinced himself that he wanted to be a writer. Soon after this realization Cage determined that school was not helping him achieve his occupational or artistic goals. Thus, instead of continuing his education in a formal institution Cage convinced his parents to let him travel to Europe in pursuit of his dream of becoming a writer. Once again, Mr. And Mrs. Cage supported his choice. In fact, they (more so his mother) were thrilled to hear of his life-enhancing decision. What is more, when Cage told his mother that he was coming home after touring Europe for more than a year, she said, “Don’t be a fool, stay in Europe as long as possible, soak up as much beauty as you can. You’ll probably never get there again” (Cage, An Autobiographical Statement 1).
It was during his time in Europe that Cage thoroughly increased his artistic prowess. Immersing himself in poetry, painting, musical composition and theater, the young Cage began to take pieces from all of these artistic forums. Upon his return to The United States he dove head first into the art world and began composing assiduously (Nicholls). Befriending many popular faces in the California art world during this period, Cage further increased his inspirational pool and he was soon creating works that were very innovative. On the advice of a close friend and with an idle feeling that he had outgrown the musical scope of California, Cage took his talents to the Big Apple. After his arrival in New York City, Cage began a long apprenticeship with a man that would become perhaps his largest artistic influence, Arnold Schoenberg (Perloff and Junkerman). Schoenberg introduced Cage to numerous musical techniques as well as several worldly musical sources, thus ultimately giving Cage all the fuel he needed to create his own set of revolutionary and truly groundbreaking works (Perloff and Junkerman). In fact, Schoenberg proved to be so influential on Cage that the young composer once referred to his musical mentor as “an inventor of genius” (Kozinn 1). With these vital tools that he had acquired through his apprenticeships and his travels, Cage began to turn his eyes to the world for musical inspiration.
One of Cage’s key musical accomplishments came when he developed his personal and social philosophy, which revolved around simultaneity, spontaneity and chance . For the creation of this theory, Cage regarded himself as a contextual benefactor of numerous Eastern writings . Using ancient Chinese texts and philosophical parables, Cage developed the idea that chance encounters are the true engines of fruitful life. He then began to notice how the vast majority of people he came across disregarded these occurrences. Consequently, his firm belief in the importance of chance caused him to heavily integrate this theme into his music. His hope was to draw people’s attention to the beauty and essentiality of chance. One of the devices he used to combat this societal stigma was simultaneity and spontaneity. Cage once described the theory behind his use of simultaneity saying, “many things occurring at once regularly conjures the experience of joy.” In order to heighten his level of artistic spontaneity, Cage became heavily involved in modern dance. He thoroughly enjoyed the profound sense of freedom and unencumbered grace present within this school of dance . Its contemporary artistic approach truly thrilled him and soon he was composing accompaniments for some of the leading schools of modern dance (most notably with the dance companies of Merce Cunningham). Nevertheless, during this time modern dance was a relatively new and not particularly glamorous field, and some of his critics feared that his musical talents would be wasted in this experimental arena . To such doubters Mr. Cage so eloquently responded, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas, I am frightened of the old ones.” Continuing without hesitation, Cage’s work proved to be monumental in shaping the field of modern dance and introducing his philosophical concept of chance into the performance theater . By incessantly pushing the envelope, Cage’s musical mastery and subsequent compositions brought out the full potential of the dancers and took audiences on an emotional and riveting artistic journey.
Another aspect of Cage’s musical approach to addressing contemporary societal issues was through his use of silence in his work. Keeping with his original goal of shedding light upon critical facets of life that people continually overlook or discount, Cage used silence to highlight this social pitfall. One of his most famous and controversial works is entitled “four minutes and thirty-three seconds” (4’33”), which is an entirely silent piece lasting the length of its title . Though Cage was initially hesitant to release this work, he eventually overcame his trepidations in the early 1950’s citing a social need for greater appreciation of “the magic of true and profound silence.” By being able to genuinely embrace the silence of the world, Cage believed that people would be much better able to understand and appreciate the world around them. Cage was once quoted as saying, “I have nothing to say, I’m saying it, that is my poetry” in description of his silent pursuits . And with the post-war wounds still fresh around the globe during this period, this type of external appreciation and unobtrusive styling certainly seemed essential.
What is more, in addition to advocating a greater sense of gratitude regarding one’s surroundings, Cage believed that immersion in silence would trigger great amounts of introspection and self-questioning. And once again, he felt that this type of autonomous action was absolutely critical for the betterment of society. More generally, Cage always seemed to be much more interested in questions than answers. In fact, Cage once stated, “a good question can lead to discovery, whereas an answer is inevitably something like a small death.” Accordingly, Cage always strived to provoke questions rather than answers or staunch judgments. By passing this philosophy along to society through his musical compositions, Mr. Cage longed to place a metaphorical mirror in front of the masses. With his continuous, and often controversial, promotion of self-examination and societal welfare, Cage’s Eastern influences began to show themselves. The clear associations to Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions are blatantly evident when one takes the time to analyze his foundational philosophies.
And as stated above it is this quasi-religious association that I hope to expand upon in my work. For I believe that the ideas, stigmas and philosophical ambitions proposed by Cage in the 19th Century still directly apply to society today. I strongly support the idea that a greater degree of introspection and appreciation would ultimately benefit people all over the world. I also genuinely embrace his means of conveying true personal freedom and the enlightening benefits of self-examination. Especially when embarking on the topic of religion in contemporary society, the surplus of external remedies and manipulators has caused many young individuals to abandon the cause completely or be influenced by dubious sources as to what to believe.
As a result of this regrettable modern conundrum, I will attempt to further the ideals of John Cage, through the artistic utilization of his simultaneous musical style. Though while my work will have a much more blatant relation to religion, the technique and medium will be very much the same. My goal will be to put my audience in a place where they will be able to readily examine themselves in a religious or spiritual context. Similarly to the ambitions of John Cage, I feel like such an environment will allow for greater levels or personalization and individualization in an aspect of life that is truly personal. I do not believe that any institution should determine one’s religious or spiritual propensities. Therefore, while I am not claiming to be against any religion, I hope to promote some greater degree of introspection and even perhaps enlightenment (to a small degree).
In order to reach towards these goals, I will use Cage’s musical medium as my primary vehicle. By simultaneously playing various types of religious music, I will utilize Cage’s compositional style. What is more, I plan to blindfold my audience members during the listening experience and give them each a writing utensil with which to spontaneously concoct an emotional drawing based upon their tendencies in response to the sound. This additional feature also follows in line with Cage’s love of true artistic freedom. Somewhat like modern dancers, I hope for my audience members to feel a true sense of freedom in their creations. Lastly, while the audience is listening and creating I will be changing my clothes to ready myself for the final performance part of my work. My new attire will consist of a mask that has the word “religion” on it and a shirt that says, “follow me! I’m the #1 religion.” This finale will aim to illustrate the absurdity of many external influences. Like art, religion is highly personal and should never be subject to such manipulative atrocity. And just as Cage experienced great amounts of criticism and abuse for his experimental and controversial approaches to his music, people continue to feel this type of prejudice in the religious arena. Ultimately, I hope my audience members can see the uncompromising and fearless attitude of John Cage as a beacon of hope in an ever-prejudicial contemporary world.
Cage, John. “An Autobiographical Statement.” Southwest Review 17.1 (1991).
John Cage: From Zero. Dirs. Andrew Culver and Frank Scheffer. Perf. John Cage. 2004.
John Cage: One11 with 103. Dir. John Cage. Perf. John Cage. 2006.
Kozinn, Allan. “John Cage.” The New York Times 28 July 2009.
Lienhard, John H. And Andrew Boyd. “John Cage.” 2005. Engines of Our Ingenuity. 30 May 2011 .
Nicholls, David. American Composers: John Cage. The University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Perloff, Marjorie and Charles Junkerman. John Cage: Composed in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Rockwell, John. “The Impact and Influence of John Cage.” The New York Times 8 February 1987.
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