John Cage


John Cage was born in Los Angeles, California in 1912. From an early age, Cage took piano lessons and although he enjoyed music, writing was his first passion. He graduated from Los Angeles high school and attended Pomona College for less than two years before dropping out. Cage spent several months in Paris in 1930 in addition to visiting several cities in Germany, Spain, Capri, and Majorca. During this time, he began to experiment with different mediums such as poetry, painting, and architecture, but nothing truly sparked real innovation for him. However, towards the end of his trip, Cage encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky, and others which inspired him to create his own compositions.

Cage returned to the US in 1931 where he continued to tinker with composition. After initially being in California, Cage moved to New York City and took classes at The New School. There,  Henry Cowell, Cage’s friend and instructor, suggested he study with Arnold Schoenburg, an avant-garde composer. Schoenburg agreed to teach Cage for free on the condition that Cage devote his life to music. Cage studied extensively with Schoenburg at USC and UCLA, however it came to a point where Cage felt the need to move on from his mentor in order to develop his own innovative and unique style.

Around this time, Cage began to differentiate his sound by experimenting with new and innovative instruments in addition to including non-musical items into his compositions. While at the Cornish College of Arts, Cage met Merce Cunningham, a choreographer who would become his life-long collaborator. He also invented his prepared piano in 1940 which is a piano that has items placed in, under, and around it to influence and change the sound. Cage moved to New York City in 1941 and spent the 40s and 50s developing an interest in Indian music, Zen Buddhism, and Chinese texts which inspired him to experiment with chance and randomness in his compositions. Also during the 1950s, Cage became closer with Cunningham and their co-collaborator Robern Rauschenberg, a painter, in addition to composing one of his most innovative and well known works, 4’33” (1952).

Cage continued to produce highly innovative compositions into the 1990s until his arthritis prevented him from performing. Towards the end of his life, his work returned towards the multimedia he enjoyed previously and he practiced printmaking and watercolor in addition to composing. John Cage died on August 12, 1992 at the age of 79.

PBS: John Cage Biography

The Art Story: John Cage – Biography and Legacy

Britannica: John Cage