Composer John Cage would’ve turned 100 earlier this month on September 5th. His inventive take on classical music inspired many (includingand members of the band Wilco). However, many aficionados continue to be infuriated by his noise-like performance art.
Yoko Ono was one of Cage’s pupils at the New School in New York City, to give you an idea of how wacky he could be.
Cage, who died in 1992, was a born tinkerer. We can only guess at what Cage would’ve done in our time with the multitude of technology available—who knows what he’d have done with Autotune? Cage created all his compositions by innovating form and hacking traditional instruments. In the process, he created some hauntingly beautiful and always interesting music that today’s music technicians could take a cue from.
The Cage-ian Piano
According to legend, Cage was accompanying a dance lesson in Seattle in 1939 and, somehow, a metal bar fell into his piano. While the dancers were probably displeased, Cage was so inspired by the sound that he decided to completely re-invent the piano for his own style of composition. Using screws, stretches of rubber, bolts, and other assorted odds and ends, Cage would hack the belly of pianos for performances of his sonatas and interludes (which are surprisingly moving and worth looking up on Spotify). The process took over 3 hours. He did write down a schematic of his piano so now anyone can create his Frankenstein monster, if you have 3 hours to kill and a spare piano to mutilate.
As Slow As Possible
Cage might be dead, but one of his songs being played over in a church in Germany will outlive us all. There, an organ is a couple of notes into his piece ASLAP (As Slow As Possible), an 8-page composition with a duration of 639 years. The organ started playing in 2001. Cage created the work to explore time and the infinite. He composed it for organ because, properly maintained, an organ can hypothetically last forever.
Indeterminacy: The Proto Tweet?
In 1959, Cage recorded Indeterminacy, a spoken collection of 90 short tales from his life. Each story was read in exactly 60 seconds. This meant that some were spoken very slowly while others were very rapid. These “autobiographical fragments,” as Cage called them, bring to mind a modern version of micro-storytelling.
Cage’s most famous composition is 4’33, where a pianist enters, opens the piano, does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and closes the piano. It may seem like a pompous avant-garde joke (and many thought it was at its premier), but Cage is actually trying to focus the attention on the ambient music of life—coughing, creaking seats, or rain on the roof. Cage called 4’33 the most important composition of his career and critics have hailed it as the most pivotal piece of music in the 20th Century.