John Cage Imaginary Landscape No 1 Analysis Essay

"The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations."


Working during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, John Cage honed his skills in the midst of the growing American avant garde. Neither a painter or a sculptor, Cage is best known for revolutionizing modern music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of environmental music dictated by chance. His approach to composition was deeply influenced by Asian philosophies, focusing on the harmony that exists in nature, as well as elements of chance. Cage is famous not only for his radical works, like 4'33" (1952), in which the ambient noise of the recital hall created the music, but also for his innovative collaborations with artists like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. These partnerships helped break down the divisions between the various realms of art production, such as music, performance, painting, and dance, allowing for new interdisciplinary work to be produced. Cage's influence ushered in groundbreaking stylistic developments key to contemporary art and paved the way for the postmodern artistic inquiries, which began in the late 1960s and further challenged the established definition of fine art.

Key Ideas

Cage discovered that chance was as important of a force governing a musical composition as the artist's will, and allowed it to play a central role in all of his compositions. Although each piece has a basic, composed structure, the overall effect varied with each performance as different variables like the location and audience directly affected the sounds that were produced.

By breaking with the historically determined preconception that music was made by musicians using traditional instruments to perform structured and prearranged compositions, Cage opened up a new wealth of possibilities within modern art. His revolutionary performances ushered in an era of experimentation in all media and shifted the focus away from the artist's inner psyche to the artist's contemporary environment.

Cage focused his compositional career on the incorporation of unconventional elements such as kitchen gadgets, metal sheets, various common objects, and even silence into his works to change the way modern audiences listened to music and appreciated their surroundings.

Most Important Art

Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)

Theater Piece No. 1 was one of Cage's first large scale collaborative, multimedia performances, created and performed while Cage was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Referred to by many as simply "The Event," the piece involved several simultaneous performance components - all orchestrated by Cage, where chance played a determining role in the course of the performance. Some of the components included in "The Event" were: poetry readings, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and the four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. Cage sat on a step ladder and lectured about Buddhism, or said nothing, and M.C. Richards and Charles Olson read different poems from ladders, while Rauschenberg played Edith Piaf records, Merce Cunningham danced amidst the audience (chased by a barking dog), coffee was served by four boys dressed in white, and David Tudor played improvised notes on a prepared piano, fitted with pieces of felt and wood between the strings. Cage composed the piece such that each participant did whatever they chose during assigned intervals of time and within certain parameters, but the overarching principle of chance guided the course of events. The highly involved multimedia characteristics of No. 1 are a wonderful example of the Neo-Dada movement and its incorporation of the everyday into modern art. This early proto-happening prefigured later developments in modern art, particularly the increasing focus on the outside world, as evidenced in later movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, as well as performance art in general.

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John Cage Overview Continues Below



John Cage was born in Los Angeles to John Milton Cage, Sr., an inventor, and Lucretia ('Crete') Harvey, an amateur artist and occasional journalist for The Los Angeles Times. The range of his father's inventions (including a diesel-fueled submarine and electrostatic field theory), could be characterized as both revolutionary and eccentric, and certainly left an impression on the young Cage.

Cage took piano lessons as a child, beginning around age ten, and, although he enjoyed music and showed great academic standing, his first real passion was writing. Following his graduation from Los Angeles High School as valedictorian of his class, he enrolled at Pomona College, but dropped out less than two years into his studies, feeling he wasn't challenged enough as an aspiring writer.

In 1930, Cage traveled to Europe, spending several months in Paris followed by visits to cities in Germany, Spain, Capri, and Majorca. He experimented with a number of mediums while abroad, including painting, architecture, and poetry, but nothing moved him to create innovative works. However, during the latter portion of his grand tour, Cage first encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to contemporary composers like Igor Stravinsky, and was inspired to create his own compositions.

Early Training

By 1931, Cage had returned to the United States, initially settling in Santa Monica, not far from his childhood home. He continued to experiment with composition (often attempting things far beyond his training and skills) and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Cage desired a more refined understanding of music composition, but was not yet fully committed to a singular artistic vocation. During this interim, he traveled to New York and began taking classes at The New School, where his instructor and friend Henry Cowell recommended Cage seek out the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg, whom Cowell believed could provide the kind of instruction that Cage needed. After months of a grueling schedule honing his composition skills, Cage was secure enough in his ability to approach Schoenberg, who agreed to take him as a pupil - free of charge - on the condition that he would dedicate his life to music.

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John Cage Biography Continues

Cage spent two years training under Schoenberg at USC and UCLA, and, although Schoenberg's tutelage proved fruitful and he remained a lifelong influence on the young composer, he needed to part ways with his mentor in order to develop a completely new and innovative style of music. An oft recounted exchange between Cage and Schoenberg describes the impetus for their parting: "After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, 'In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.' I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, 'In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'

While studying at UCLA and working at his mother's craft shop, Cage met Xenia Kashevaroff, an American-Russian artist whom he married in 1935. Following the whirlwind romance and marriage, Cage found work composing music for various choreographies at UCLA, and began the practice of incorporating non-musical elements into his work such as kitchen utensils, metal sheets, and household items. Despite several teaching engagements throughout the 1940s, including posts at Mills College in Oakland and the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, the young couple still endured regular financial hardship. However, it was at Cornish College of the Arts where Cage first met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham - who would eventually become his life-long collaborator and partner. While at the college, Cage gained notoriety for his prepared piano - a traditional piano with objects placed amidst, under, and above the strings to alter its sound - which he invented in 1940.

The Cages moved to Chicago in 1941. A year later, after receiving a commission from CBS, Cage sought more commissions and moved to New York with Xenia. Upon arriving in New York, the Cages stayed with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim generously offered to support the couple as long as they needed and offered Cage a concert at her gallery. However, he had already been offered a performance at the Museum of Modern Art, and, when Guggenheim learned of this performance, she felt betrayed and withdrew her support, leaving the couple homeless and without any immediate income. The Cages' marriage was on the rocks and ended in divorce in 1945, after Cage became romantically involved with Merce Cunningham, who had also moved to New York.

Mature Period

In 1946, Cage began studying Indian music and philosophy from Gita Sarabhai - an Indian musician whom he was tutoring in Western music. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage attended several lectures given by the famous Zen Buddhist, D.T. Suzuki, who would also have a large influence on his work. In 1951, he received a newly translated copy of the I-Ching - the ancient Chinese "Book of Changes" - from his pupil, and became fascinated with the text's symbol system used to identify order in chance events. This was a major breakthrough for Cage and inspired him to compose music incorporating the elements of chance and randomness as guided by the ancient Chinese text. For example, he would take a tape recording of a music performance, cut it up at random, and then consult the I-Ching for how to re-assemble the tape for a new, final composition.

By the 1950s, Cage had spent two summers as an instructor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and was in residence there in 1952, along with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. This radical institution provided the environment for the development of the young Neo-Dada movement as well as some of Cage's most experimental and avant-garde works, including Theater Piece No. 1(1952), and 4' 33"(1952). Both works used standard musical instruments in unorthodox manners and relied heavily on aspects of chance to create the music. Cage began incorporating more non-musical elements like radios, seashells, and recordings of random events into his work. Some performances lacked any specifically created sound whatsoever.

Cage's close relationship with Cunningham - by 1954 the two were living together in Stony Point, NY - allowed the two to collaborate often, combining Cage's musical scores with Cunningham's choreography, often calling upon Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns for theater set design. Cage began teaching experimental composition at The New School in New York, where one of his students was Allan Kaprow. Kaprow applied Cage's instruction in the importance of chance to a new form of performance art that he called "happenings".

Late Years and Death

Cage was affiliated with Wesleyan University from the late 1950s through his death. In addition to his artistic and musical pursuits, Cage was also an avid mycologist throughout his life, co-founding the New York Mycological Society - a group dedicated to the scientific study and appreciation of fungi - in 1962. Until the early 1990s Cage continued composing, but due to increasing arthritis in his hands, he conducted fewer and fewer live performances. However, Cage's creative output did not slow down, even though he was obliged to rely on other performers to carry out his work. In his final years, his work had returned, in a sense, to the diverse multimedia practice that had consumed him as a young man in Europe; in addition to working on a number of operas and other musical scores, Cage practiced printmaking and watercolors. In the last five years of his life, nearly paralyzed by arthritis, a recent stroke, and other ailments, he created his lauded works, the Number Pieces, which many consider the final masterpieces from one of the twentieth century's greatest avant-gardists. In the late summer of 1992, while enjoying a quiet day at his Stony Point home with Cunningham, John Cage suffered a second stroke and succumbed the following day, less than one month shy of his 80th birthday.


Cage's innovations with sound, instrumentation, performance, and composition all helped redefine music in the twentieth century. More specifically, his use of chance and the creative ways in which he utilized performers in his works helped inform and shape avant-garde movements like Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Conceptual art. His innovations also had a profound influence on late twentieth-century developments in sound art and performance art, which focused increasingly on context and variability. Through his collaborations at Black Mountain College, Cage also encouraged artists such as Rauschenberg to explore visual art that incorporated chance, an element that would have a major impact on the course of modern art during the second half of the century.

Cage's radical oeuvre has encouraged many composers after him to utilize chance in their work as well, including artists like Witold Lutoslawski and Mauricio Kagel, among others. Through his unique developments in rhythm and sound elements, Cage influenced musicians like Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich, who were inspired to pursue similar non-traditional instrumentation in their compositions. His style also deeply affected late twentieth-century rock bands like Stereolab, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth, while Aphex Twin even featured the prepared piano on one of their albums in 2001.

On August 29, 1952, David Tudor walked onto the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down at the piano, and, for four and a half minutes, made no sound. He was performing “4'33",’’ a conceptual work by John Cage. It has been called the “silent piece,” but its purpose is to make people listen. “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Indeed, some listeners didn’t care for the experiment, although they saved their loudest protests for the question-and-answer session afterward. Someone reportedly hollered, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” Even Cage’s mother had her doubts. At a subsequent performance, she asked the composer Earle Brown, “Now, Earle, don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?”

This past July, the pianist Pedja Muzijevic included “4'33" ” in a recital at Maverick, which is in a patch of woods a couple of miles outside Woodstock. I went up for the day, wanting to experience the piece in its native habitat. The hall, made primarily of oak and pine, is rough-hewn and barnlike. On pleasant summer evenings, the doors are left open, so that patrons can listen from benches outside. Muzijevic, mindful of the natural setting, chose not to use a mechanical timepiece; instead, he counted off the seconds in his head. Technology intruded all the same, in the form of a car stereo from somewhere nearby. A solitary bird in the trees struggled to compete with the thumping bass. After a couple of minutes, the stereo receded. There was no wind and no rain. The audience stayed perfectly still. For about a minute, we sat in deep, full silence. Muzijevic broke the spell savagely, with a blast of Wagner: Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.” Someone might as well have started up a chain saw. I might not have been the only listener who wished that the music of the forest had gone on a little longer.

Cage’s mute manifesto has inspired reams of commentary. The composer and scholar Kyle Gann recently published “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4' 33" ’ ” (Yale; $24), which doubles as an incisive, stylish primer on Cage’s career. Gann defines “4'33" ” as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” That last thought ruled Cage’s life: he wanted to discard inherited structures, open doors to the exterior world, “let sounds be just sounds.” Gann writes, “It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life.”

On a simpler level, Cage had an itch to try new things. What would happen if you sat at a piano and did nothing? If you chose among an array of musical possibilities by flipping a coin and consulting the I Ching? If you made music from junk-yard percussion, squads of radios, the scratching of pens, an amplified cactus? If you wrote music for dance—Merce Cunningham was Cage’s longtime partner—in which dance and music went their separate ways? If you took at face value Erik Satie’s conceit that his piano piece “Vexations” could be played eight hundred and forty times in succession? Cage had an innocent, almost Boy Scout-like spirit of adventure. As he put it, “Art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.”

Many people, of course, won’t hear of it. Nearly six decades after the work came into the world, “4'33" ” is still dismissed as “absolutely ridiculous,” “stupid,” “a gimmick,” and the “emperor’s new clothes”—to quote some sample putdowns that Gann extracted from an online comment board. Such judgments are especially common within classical music, where Cage, who died in 1992, remains an object of widespread scorn. In the visual arts, though, he long ago achieved monumental stature. He is considered a co-inventor of “happenings” and performance art; the Fluxus movement essentially arose from classes that Cage taught at the New School, in the late nineteen-fifties. (One exercise consisted of listening to a pin drop.) Cage emulated visual artists in turn, his chief idol being the master conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. The difference is that scorn for avant-garde art has almost entirely vanished. A Times editorial writer made an “emperor’s new clothes” jab at Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” when it showed at the Armory, in 1913. Jackson Pollock, too, was once widely mocked. Now the art market bows before them.

The simplest explanation for the resistance to avant-garde music is that human ears have a catlike vulnerability to unfamiliar sounds, and that when people feel trapped, as in a concert hall, they panic. In museums and galleries, we are free to move around, and turn away from what bewilders us. It’s no surprise, then, that Cage has always gone over better in non-traditional spaces. Last year, MACBA, in Barcelona, mounted a remarkable exhibition entitled “The Anarchy of Silence,” which traced Cage’s career and his myriad connections to other arts. (The show is now playing at SCHUNCK, in the Netherlands.) The day I was there, the crowd was notably youthful: high schoolers and college students dashed through galleries devoted to Cage’s concepts and contraptions, their faces wavering between disbelief and delight. Like it or not, Cage will be with us a long time.

Morton Feldman, another avant-garde musician with an eye for the wider artistic landscape, once said, “John Cage was the first composer in the history of music who raised the question by implication that maybe music could be an art form rather than a music form.” Feldman meant that, since the Middle Ages, even the most adventurous composers had labored within a craftsmanlike tradition. Cage held that an artist can work as freely with sound as with paint: he changed what it meant to be a composer, and every kid manipulating music on a laptop is in his debt. Not everything he did was laudable, or even tolerable. Even his strongest admirers may admit to sometimes feeling as Jeanne Reynal did when, in 1950, Cage recited his “Lecture on Nothing” at the Artists’ Club: “John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.” Yet the work remains inescapable, mesmerizing, and—as I’ve found over months of listening, mainly to Mode Records’ comprehensive Cage edition—often unexpectedly touching. It encompasses some of the most violent sounds of the twentieth century, as well as some of the most gently beguiling. It confronts us with the elemental question of what music is, and confounds all easy answers.

Cage’s high-school yearbook said of him, “Noted for: being radical.” His radicalism was lifelong and unrelenting: he took the path of most resistance. As much as any artist, he enjoyed receiving applause and recognition, but he had no need for wider public or institutional approval. The one time that I saw him up close, he was delivering the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, at Harvard. Eminences of the faculty had gathered in Memorial Hall, possibly laboring under the illusion that in such august company Cage would finally drop his games and explain himself. Unease rippled through the room as Cage began reciting a string of mesostics—acrostics in which the organizing word runs down the middle instead of the side:

Much of our

of borEdom

Toward talks in

it misled Him

diplOmatic skill to

place to place but Does it look

at present Most

fivE Iranian fishermen

cuTbacks would not

It went on like that, for six lectures, the verbal material generated randomly from Thoreau, Wittgenstein, and the Times, among other sources. Later, when Cage was asked what he thought of being a Harvard professor, he commented that it was “not much different from not being a Harvard professor.”

Carolyn Brown, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, offers a winning portrait of Cage in “Chance and Circumstance,” her 2007 memoir. “He was open, frank, ready to reveal all his most optimistic utopian schemes and dreams, willing to be a friend to any who sought him out,” Brown writes. In the early days of the Cunningham company, Cage served, variously, as tour manager, publicist, fund-raiser, and bus driver; Brown recalls him behind the wheel, chattering away on innumerable subjects while taking detours in search of odd sights and out-of-the-way restaurants. He had a sunny disposition and a stubborn soul, and was prone to flashes of anger. When he learned, in 1953, that he had to give up a beloved home—his tenement on Monroe Street, on the Lower East Side—he was crestfallen, and Brown made matters worse by reminding him of the Zen Buddhist principle of non-attachment. “Don’t you ever parrot my words back at me!” Cage roared. His indefatigable optimism carried him through periods of frustration. Gann writes, “He was a handbook on how to be a non-bitter composer in a democracy.” The dance critic Jill Johnston called him a “cheerful existentialist.”

The life of Cage is meticulously told in a new biography by Kenneth Silverman, “Begin Again” (Knopf; $40). Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912. His father, a brilliant, intermittently successful inventor, devised one of the earliest functioning submarines; his mother covered the women’s-club circuit for the Los Angeles Times. The art of publicity was hardly unknown in the Cage household, and the son inherited the ability to get his name in the papers, even when he was delivering an unpopular message. In 1928, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest with a speech titled “Other People Think,” which he delivered at the Hollywood Bowl:

One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created. . . . We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.

Cage’s passion for silence, it seems, had political roots. He was a lonely, precocious child, mocked by classmates as a sissy. “People would lie and wait for me and beat me up,” he said, in a rare comment on his personal life, shortly before his death. In 1935, when he was twenty-two, he married a young artist named Xenia Kashevaroff, but it soon became clear that he was more strongly attracted to men. His most sonically assaultive works might be understood, at least in part, as a sissy’s revenge.

Cage dabbled in art and architecture before settling on music. He studied with Henry Cowell, the godfather of American experimental music, and then took lessons with none other than Arnold Schoenberg, the supreme modernist, first at U.S.C. and then at U.C.L.A. Although Cage was not a disciple, rejecting most of the Germanic canon that Schoenberg held dear (Mozart and Grieg were the only classics he admitted to loving), he fulfilled Schoenberg’s tenet that music should exercise a critical function, disturbing rather than comforting the listener. Cage was to the second half of the century what Schoenberg was to the first half: the angel of destruction, the agent of change. Some commentators later tried to dissociate Schoenberg from his most notorious student, claiming that the two had had little contact. But scraps of evidence suggest otherwise. When, in 1937, Schoenberg invited friends to his home for a run-through of his Fourth Quartet—the guest list included Otto Klemperer and the pianist Edward Steuermann—Cage seems to have been the only American pupil in attendance.

Schoenberg told Cage to immerse himself in harmony. Cage proceeded to ignore harmony for the next fifty years. He first made his name as a composer for percussion, following the example of Cowell and Edgard Varèse. He transformed the piano into a percussion instrument—the “prepared piano”—by inserting objects into its strings. He brought phonographs and radios into the concert hall. He famously declared, “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.” Yet most of his early music—from the mid-thirties to the end of the forties—speaks in a surprisingly subdued voice. “Music for Marcel Duchamp,” a prepared-piano work from 1947, never rises above mezzo-piano, offering exotic tendrils of melody, stop-and-start ostinatos, and, at the end, eighth-note patterns that drift upward into some vaguely Asian ether. “When the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds,” Cage later said. “There seemed to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society. But quiet sounds were like loneliness, or love, or friendship.”

Beneath the plinking of junk-yard percussion and the chiming of the prepared piano was an unsettling new idea about the relation of music to time. Cage wanted sounds to follow one another in a free, artless sequence, without harmonic glue. Works would be structured simply in terms of durations between events. Later in the forties, he laid out “gamuts”—gridlike arrays of preset sounds—trying to go from one to the next without consciously shaping the outcome. He read widely in South Asian and East Asian thought, his readings guided by the young Indian musician Gita Sarabhai and, later, by the Zen scholar Daisetz Suzuki. Sarabhai supplied him with a pivotal formulation of music’s purpose: “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage also looked to Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas, finding another motto in Aquinas’s declaration that “art imitates nature in its manner of operation.”

Audiences were initially unaware that a musical upheaval was taking place. More often than not, they found Cage’s early work inoffensive, even charming. When he gave an all-percussion concert at MOMA in 1943, a year after he moved to New York, he received a wave of positive, if bemused, publicity. By the late forties, he had acquired a reputation as a serious new musical voice. After the première of his prepared-piano cycle “Sonatas and Interludes,” in 1949, the Times declared the work “haunting and lovely,” and its composer “one of this country’s finest.” Cage might easily have found a calling as a purveyor of delicate exoticism. Instead, he radicalized himself further. On a trip to Paris in 1949, Cage encountered Pierre Boulez, whose handsomely brutal music made him feel quaint. In 1951, writing the closing movement of his Concerto for Prepared Piano, he finally let nature run its course, flipping coins and consulting the I Ching to determine which elements in his charts should come next. “Music of Changes,” a forty-three-minute piece for solo piano, was written entirely in this manner, the labor-intensive process consuming most of a year.

As randomness took over, so did noise. “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” employs twelve radios, whose tuning, volume, and tone are governed by chance operations. “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” does much the same with forty-two phonograph records. “Williams Mix” is a collage of thousands of prerecorded tape fragments. “Water Music” asks a pianist not only to play his instrument but also to turn a radio on and off, shuffle cards, blow a duck whistle into a bowl of water, pour water from one receptacle into another, and slam the keyboard lid shut. “Black Mountain Piece,” which is considered the first true sixties-style “happening,” involves piano playing, poetry recitation, record-players, movie projectors, dancing, and, possibly, a barking dog. All this occurred in the eighteen or so months leading up to “4'33",” the still point in the sonic storm.

Did Cage love noise? Or did he merely make peace with it? Like many creative spirits, he was sensitive to intrusions of sound; years later, when he was living in the West Village, next door to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he asked Lennon to stop using wall-mounted speakers. But he trained himself to find noise interesting rather than distracting. Once, in a radio discussion with Cage, Feldman complained about being subjected to the buzzing of radios at the beach. Never one to miss a good setup, Cage responded that in such a situation he’d say, “Well, they’re just playing my piece.” He also disliked Muzak, and in 1948 spoke of trying to sell a silent work to the Muzak company. Gann points out that in May, 1952, three months before “4'33",” the Supreme Court took up a Muzak-related case, ruling against complainants who hoped to have piped-in music banned from public transport. There was no escaping the prosperous racket of postwar America. In a way, “4'33" ” is a tombstone for silence. Silverman, in “Begin Again,” rightly emphasizes Cage’s later obsession with Thoreau, who said, “Silence is the universal refuge.”

Zen attitudes notwithstanding, Cage had a conservative, controlling side. It is a mistake to think of him as the guru of Anything Goes. He sometimes lost patience with performers who took his chance and conceptual pieces as invitations to do whatever they pleased. Even his most earnest devotees sometimes disappointed him. Carolyn Brown recounts how puzzled she was when, after she had laboriously followed Cage’s instructions for one work, he reprimanded her for executing it “improperly.” If the idea is to free oneself from conscious will, Brown wondered, how can the composer issue decrees of right and wrong?

Even a piece as open-ended as “4'33" ” is, ultimately, an assertion of will. The philosopher Lydia Goehr, in her book “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works,” notes that Cage is still playing by traditional rules: “It is because of his specifications that people gather together, usually in a concert hall, to listen to the sounds of the hall for the allotted time period.” If “4'33" ” is supposed to explode the idea of a fixed repertory of formally constrained works, it has failed, by virtue of having become a modernist classic. You could argue that this was Cage’s plan all along—his circuitous path to greatness. Richard Taruskin, in a cold-eyed 1993 essay reprinted in his collection “The Danger of Music,” proposes that Cage, no less than Schoenberg, participated in the Germanic cult of musical genius. Indeed, Taruskin writes, Cage brought the aesthetic of Western art “to its purest, scariest peak.” Perhaps Cage’s entire career was a colossal annexation of unclaimed territory. If, as he said, there is nothing that is not music, there is nothing that is not Cage.

Though Cage no doubt had one eye fixed on posterity, he delighted less in the spread of his influence than in the fracturing of the tidy musical order in which he came of age. Gann makes a persuasive case that “4'33" ” effectively split open the musical scene of the mid-twentieth century. He writes, “Listening to or merely thinking about ‘4'33" ’ led composers to listen to phenomena that would have formerly been considered nonmusical”—sustained tones, repeating patterns, other murmurs of the mechanical world. Cage cleared the way for minimalism, even if he showed little sympathy for that movement when it came along. He also spurred the emergence of ambient music, sound art, and other forms of relating sound to particular spaces. (If you stand on the north end of the pedestrian island in Times Square between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Streets, you hear one such piece—Max Neuhaus’s “Times Square,” a processing of resonances emanating from the subway tunnels below.) John Adams, in his memoir “Hallelujah Junction,” describes how a reading of Cage’s 1961 book “Silence” encouraged him to drop out of East Coast academia, pack his belongings into a VW Bug, and drive to California. The easiest way to pay tribute to Cage is to imagine how much duller the world would have been without him.

When Gann talks about “4'33" ” in classes—he teaches composition and music theory at Bard College—a student invariably asks him, “You mean he got paid for that?” Kids, Cage was not in it for the money. The Maverick concert was a benefit; Cage earned nothing from the première of “4'33" ” and little from anything else he was writing at the time. He had no publisher until the nineteen-sixties. After losing his loft on Monroe Street—the Vladeck Houses stand there now—he moved north of the city, to Stony Point, where several artists had formed a rural collective. From the mid-fifties until the late sixties, he lived in a two-room cabin measuring ten by twenty feet, paying $24.15 a month in rent. He wasn’t far above the poverty level, and one year he received aid from the Musicians Emergency Fund. For years afterward, he counted every penny. I recently visited the collection of the John Cage Trust, at Bard, and had a look at his appointment books. Almost every page had a list like this one:

.63 stamps

1.29 turp.

.25 comb

1.17 fish

3.40 shampoo

2.36 groc

5.10 beer

6.00 Lucky

“I wanted to make poverty elegant,” he once said.

By the end of the fifties, however, Cage’s financial situation had improved, though not because of his music. After moving to Stony Point, he began collecting mushrooms during walks in the woods. Within a few years, he had mastered the mushroom literature and co-founded the New York Mycological Society. He supplied mushrooms to various élite restaurants, including the Four Seasons. In 1959, while working at the R.A.I. Studio of Musical Phonology, a pioneering electronic-music studio, in Milan, he was invited on a game show called “Lascia o Raddoppia?”—a “Twenty One”-style program in which contestants were asked questions on a subject of their choice. Each week, Cage answered, with deadly accuracy, increasingly obscure questions about mushrooms. On his final appearance, he was asked to list “the twenty-four kinds of white-spore mushrooms listed in Atkinson.” (Silverman supplies a transcript of this historic moment.) Cage named them all, in alphabetical order, and won eight thousand dollars. He used part of the money to purchase a VW bus for the Cunningham company. The following year, he appeared on the popular American game show “I’ve Got a Secret”: as he had done on “Lascia o Raddoppia?,” he performed “Water Walk,” a piece that employed, among other things, a rubber duck, a bathtub, and an electric mixer. Cage charmed the audience from the outset; when the host, Garry Moore, said that some viewers might laugh at him, the composer replied, in his sweet, reedy voice, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.” (YouTube has the clip.) Radios were included in the score, but they could not be turned on, supposedly because of a union dispute. Instead, Cage hit them and knocked them on the floor.

As Cage’s celebrity grew, his works became more anarchic and festive. For “Theatre Piece,” in 1960, Carolyn Brown put a tuba on her head, Cunningham slapped the strings of a piano with a dead fish, and David Tudor made tea. (This is when Brown was reprimanded for rendering her part “improperly.”) His lectures became performances, even a kind of surrealist standup comedy. In the midst of Cunningham’s dance piece “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” Cage sat at a table equipped with a microphone, a bottle of wine, and an ashtray, placidly reading aloud items such as this:

[A] monk was walking along when he came to a lady who was sitting by the path weeping. “What’s the matter?” he said. She said, sobbing, “I have lost my only child.” He hit her over the head and said, “There, that’ll give you something to cry about.”

Later in the decade, Cage incited mass musical mayhem in huge venues such as the Armory in New York and the Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the Armory, for a piece titled “Variations VII,” Cage and his collaborators manipulated two long tablefuls of devices and dialled up sonic feeds from locations around the city, including the kitchen of Lüchow’s Restaurant, the Times printing presses, the aviary at the Zoo, a dog pound, a Con Ed plant, a Sanitation Department depot, and Terry Riley’s turtle tank. In Urbana-Champaign, six or seven thousand people materialized to hear “HPSCHD,” a five-hour multimedia onslaught involving harpsichords playing fragments of Mozart and other composers, fifty-one computer-generated tapes tuned to fifty-one different scales, and a mirror ball.

The carnival element persisted to the end. His five “Europeras” (1985-91) mash together centuries of operatic repertory. (“For two hundred years the Europeans have been sending us their operas,” Cage explained. “Now I’m sending them back.”) But in the music of Cage’s last two decades you sense a paring down of elements and, often, a heightened expressivity, notwithstanding the composer’s rejection of personal expression. The musicologist James Pritchett points out that even Cage’s chanciest works have a personal stamp, because he took such care in selecting their components. The execution varies, yet the performances end up sounding more like each other than like any other piece by Cage or any other music in existence.

A case in point is “Ryoanji” (1983-1985), which takes its name from the famous Zen temple and rock garden in Kyoto. Five solo instruments play a series of slow-moving, ever-sliding musical lines, their shapes derived from tracings of stones. A solo percussionist or ensemble supplies an irregular, halting pulse. The composer is not in full control of what the musicians play, yet he is the principal author of the spare, spacious, meditative music that emerges. (The Hat Art label released an especially haunting version in 1996; it’s due for reissue, and can be pre-ordered at Downtown Music Gallery.) Consider also the 1979 electronic composition “Roaratorio,” Cage’s response to “Finnegans Wake.” A verbal component, which the composer recorded in a vaguely Irish brogue, consists of words and phrases drawn from the novel and arranged in mesostics. Around him swirls a collage of voices, noises, and musical fragments, based on sounds and places mentioned in the novel. Chance comes into play, but Cage has carefully followed the structure of the text. In the final section, the composer-reciter breaks into song, his folkish chant encircled by impressions of Anna Livia Plurabelle’s plaintive final monologue—cries of seagulls, rumbling waters, an intimation of “peace and silence.” It is an uncanny evocation of Joyce’s world.

In his last years, Cage returned to his point of departure—the pointillistic sensibility of the early percussion and prepared-piano works. He released a series of scores that have come to be called “number pieces,” their titles taken from the number of performers required (“Four,” “Seventy-four,” and so on). Within a given time bracket, players play notated material at their own pace—usually a single note or a short phrase. The result is music of overlapping drones and airy silences. “After all these years, I’m finally writing beautiful music,” Cage dryly commented.

Beautiful but dark. As he grew older, the cheerful existentialist had crises of doubt, intimations of apocalypse. Darkest of all was the installation “Lecture on the Weather,” which was created for the Bicentennial. Twelve vocalists recite or sing quotations from Henry David Thoreau against a backdrop of flashing images and the sounds of wind, rain, and thunder. The proportions of the three sections are about the same as in “4'33",” but nature makes a crueller sound than it did on that August night in 1952. Attached to the piece is a politically tinged preface that echoes, perhaps consciously, Cage’s teen-age oration “Other People Think.” It ends thus:

We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems. . . . Our political structures no longer fit the circumstances of our lives. Outside the bankrupt cities we live in Megalopolis which has no geographical limits. Wilderness is global park. I dedicate this work to the U.S.A. that it may become just another part of the world, no more, no less.

The last room of the “Anarchy of Silence” exhibition is taken up with a 2007 realization of “Lecture on the Weather,” with John Ashbery, Jasper Johns, and Merce Cunningham among the reciters. I sat for a long time in the gallery, listening to the grim swirl of sound and observing the reactions of visitors. Some poked their heads into the room, shrugged, and moved on. Others seemed transfixed. One young couple sat for a while in the opposite corner, their hands clenched together, their heads bent toward the floor. They looked like the last people on earth.

In July, 1992, a mugger made his way into Cage’s apartment, pretending to be a U.P.S. man. After threatening violence, he took money from the composer’s wallet. It was a weird premonition: on August 11th, Cage suffered a stroke, and died the following day. I moved to New York a few weeks later, and, as a fledgling music critic, attended various tributes to the late composer, the most memorable being a three-and-a-half-hour “Cagemusicircus,” at Symphony Space. The afternoon began with Yoko Ono banging out cluster chords on the piano and ended with a quietly intense performance of Cage’s early piece “Credo in Us,” for piano, two percussionists, and a performer operating a radio or a phonograph. In the final minutes, the hall went dark and light fell on a spot in the middle of the stage. There the audience saw a desk, a lamp, a glass of water, and an empty chair with a gray coat draped over the back.

Cage’s last home was in a top-floor loft at the corner of Eighteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, in a cast-iron building that housed the original B. Altman store. Cunningham remained in the apartment, and several years ago I was invited there to dinner. Cunningham was, as so many had reported, gentle, taciturn, elusive, and poetic in even his slightest gestures. The two men had their difficulties, but they were joined by a powerful physical and intellectual attraction. (Yet to be published is a birthday mesostic in which Cage pays tribute to Cunningham’s cock and ass.) I listened avidly to Cunningham’s stories of the avant-garde’s pioneer days, but I found myself distracted by noises floating up from the street below. When the couple moved there, in 1979, Cage made his unconditional surrender to noise: certainly, on that corner, there was no such thing as silence. Yet, as I listened, the traffic, the honking, the beeping, the occasional irate curses and drunken shouts seemed somehow changed, enhanced, framed. I couldn’t shake the impression that Cage was still composing the sound of the city.

That block of Chelsea is not as dangerous, or as interesting, as it used to be. When Cage and Cunningham arrived, the major store in the building was the Glassmasters Guild, which sold, among other things, stained-glass models of Sopwith Camel and Piper Cherokee airplanes. Now there is a Container Store. A Bed Bath & Beyond and a T. J. Maxx loom across the street. At the end of January, the final glimmer of Cagean spirit left the block, when Laura Kuhn, the director of the John Cage Trust, removed the last of the couple’s belongings from Apartment 5-B. At Christmastime, she invited me over again. Several artist friends dropped in as well. Christmas lights were strung up on the wall facing the kitchen. Cunningham had liked the lights, and had let them hang year-round. On July 26, 2009, at the age of ninety, he passed away beneath them.

Toward the end of his life, Cunningham wrote in his diary, “When one dies with this world in this meltdown, is one missing something grand that will happen?” He wondered whether people could learn to live less wastefully, whether traffic could die down, whether manufacturing could return to Kentucky towns, even whether “the Automat could return.”

Cage and Cunningham’s Manhattan is mostly gone. Real-estate greed and political indifference have nearly driven bohemian culture out of Manhattan; “uptown” begins in Battery Park. Cage’s urban collages are almost elegies now; with the mechanization of the radio business, even the piece for twelve radios has probably lost its random charm. But lamentation is not a Cagean mood. If he were alive, he would undoubtedly find a way to pull strange music from the high-end mall that Manhattan has become. He might even have been content to stay in that homogenized patch of lower midtown, where, after a long search, he found his Walden.

“I couldn’t be happier than I am in this apartment, with the sounds from Sixth Avenue constantly surprising me, never once repeating themselves,” Cage said late in life, in an interview with the filmmaker Elliot Caplan. “You know the story of the African prince who went to London, and they played a whole program of music for him, orchestral music, and he said, ‘Why do you always play the same piece over and over?’ ” Cage laughed, his eyes glittering, his head tilting toward the window. “They never do that on Sixth Avenue.” ♦

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