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…