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date: 17 September 2019

Cage, John

The Oxford Dictionary of Music
Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy, Joyce BourneJoyce Bourne

Cage, John (b Los Angeles, 1912; d NY, 1992) 

American composer and writer. From 1937 developed interests in dance and perc. In 1938 experimented with Cowell's invention of the ‘prepared pf’ by inserting various objects, from rubber‐bands to hatpins, between the str to create new effects. Settled in NY 1942, beginning long assoc. with Merce Cunningham Dance Co. as music dir. 1944–68. Theater Piece (1952) for Cunningham is regarded as first musical ‘happening’ (spontaneous event). Study of oriental philosophies and Zen Buddhism and his reading of I Ching led to his utilization of chance, as in Music of Changes (1951), in which many compositional decisions were determined by coin tosses. In 1952 he prod. his first published piece for tape, Imaginary Landscape V, and in the same year came 433″ for tacet performer(s). Cage’s discovery of silence as a musical resource was central to his aesthetic, and he often referred to 433″ as his most significant work. Such music earned him unjust notoriety as ‘a philospher, not a composer’, but his later music, including the 5 Europeras, Roaratorio, and the beautifully austere series of ‘number pieces’ composed in his final years, are the products of a profound and brilliantly imaginative musical mind.

Books incl. Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967), and For the Birds (1981). He was also an expert on mushrooms. Prin comps.:


Europeras 1 and 2, 19 vv, ens, tape (1987);

Europeras 3 and 4, 6 vv, 2 pf, 12 victrolas, tape (1990);

Europera 5, 2 vv., pf, victrola, tape/TV/radio (1991).


The Seasons (1947).


conc., prepared pf, chbr orch (1951);

Concert for pf (1957–8);

Atlas Eclipticalis (1961–2);

Etcetera (1973);

Score (40 drawings by Thoreau) and 23 Parts (any instr and/or vv., 1974);

Quartets I–VIII (24, 41 or 93 instrs, 1976);

Quartet, concert band and 12 amp. vv. (1976–8);

30 Pieces for 5 Orchs (1981);

Etcetera 2/4 Orchs (1985);

Twenty-three, str (1988); 101 (1988); 108 (1991); Seventy-four (1992).

perc & elec:

perc qt (1935);

Trio, suite for perc (1936);

Construction I in Metal, perc sextet (1939), II, perc qt (1940), III, perc qt (1941);

Imaginary Landscape I, 2 variable speed record turntables, frequency recordings, muted pf, cymbal (1939), II (March), perc qnt (1942), III, perc sextet (1942), IV (March No.2), 12 radios, 24 players, cond. (1951), V, 42 tape (1952);

Living Room Music, perc qt (1940);

Credo in Us, perc qt incl. radio or turntable and pf (1942);

Speech, 5 radios with news reader (1955); 27′10.554″ (1956);

Child of Tree, perc, amp. plant materials (1975); Six, 6 perc (1991).


cl sonata (1933);

Nocturne, vn, pf (1947); Str. Qt (1949–50);

6 Melodies, vn, kbd (1950);

433″, any instr or ens (1952);

Variations I–VI, any no. of players and sound‐producing means (1958–66);

HPSCHD, 7 hpd soloists, 51 or any no. of tape machines (1967–9); Freeman Etudes, vn solo (1977);

Chorals, vn (1978);

Postcard From Heaven, 1–20 hps. (1983);

30 Pieces for Str. Qt (1984);

13 Harmonies, vn, kbd (1986); Four, str qt (1989); One6, vn (1990); Eight, wind qnt., tpt, tb, tuba (1991); Ten, ens (1991).


(solo unless stated otherwise):

Metamorphosis (1938);

Music of Changes (1951, in 4 vols.); 34′46.776for a pianist (1954); 31′57.9864for a pianist (1954)

Winter Music, 1–20 pianists (1957);

Cheap Imitation (1969, orch version 1972, vn solo 1977);

Études Australes, 32 studies in 4 books (1974–5);

ASLSP (1985);

One (1987);

Swinging (1989); many early pieces for dance.

prepared pf:

Bacchanale (1940);

In the Name of the Holocaust (1942);

Totem Ancestor (1943); A Valentine Out of Season (1944); Sonatas and Interludes (1946–8);

Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947); many early pieces for dance.


Music for Carillon Nos. 1–5 (1952–67); 0'00" (4'33" No.2), any solo instr (1962);

Musicircus, mixed-media event (1967);

Apartment House 1776, any ens (1976);

Les Chants de Maldoror pulverisés par l'assistance même (1971);

Haikai, gamelan (1986).


5 Songs, cont., pf (e.e. cummings) (1938);

The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, v., closed pf (Joyce) (1942);

Song Books, Solos for voice 3–92 (1970);

62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham (1971, unacc.);

Lecture on the Weather, 12 vv., tapes (1975);

Hymns and Variations, 12 amp. vv. (1978);

Litany for the Whale, 2 vv. (1980);

Ryoanji, vv., fl, ob, tb, db, perc, chbr orch (1958);

Five, 5 vv. or instr (1988);

4 Solos for Voices 93–96, sop., mez., ten., bass (1988);

Four2, SATB (1990).

tape, audio‐visual, etc.:

Water Music (1952); Fontana Mix, tape (1958);

Where are we going? And what are we doing? (1960);

Rozart Mix (1965);

Bird Cage, 12 tapes (1972). Collection of some of Cage's writings