John Cage is among the most famous of 20th century composers. While his earliest compositions were written in a traditional style, he quickly moved on to create unique kinds of works. One of his first inventions was the “prepared piano,” which is an instrument modified so that it can produce new, percussive sounds.
John Cage wanted music to escape from any sort of control and, in some cases, to express the idea of zero thought. He therefore created purposeless music based on the throw of some dice, a star chart, or some other such random device so that his personal preferences were not part of the compositional process. He called this method indeterminacy. One such work, Imaginary Landscape No. 4, includes 12 radio sets, each of which is tuned to a different station. Every performance is therefore unique.
4’33”, one of Cage’s most famous pieces, is “performed” by a pianist who sits unmoving in front of a keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds. The members of the audience are expected during this time to listen to the sounds that occur around them.
Cage was always experimenting. He was one of the first musicians to create electronic music, using tape and making musical collages that combine many different sounds. Some of his compositions allow the performer to choose the order in which the sections of the piece are played as well as the number of musicians. Still others are “action” pieces that involve the audience and “happenings” that are simultaneous but uncoordinated. HPSCHD, which consists of seven harpsichord solos created from computer-generated sounds, also uses lights, films and slides, making performances of this work multimedia events.
A true innovator, Cage wanted to break down the barriers between art and living, to make audiences aware that they are surrounded by sounds and that everything they do is actually music. He was very influential in the 20th century musical world and in his later years was honored with many formal awards and recognitions.