Centennial Of Maverick American Composer John Cage - Visionary Genius or Charlatan ?
John Cage was born 100 years ago today . He was either one of the most important composers of the 20th century or a complete and utter charlatan depending on what you think of his music . Some consider him to be a visionary genius and bold innovator and others dismiss him as a trendy pseudo composer and pseudo intellectual poseur . He died twenty years ago just a month before his 80th birthday .
Cage was born in Los Angeles and was a maverick from the very beginning . He studied briefly at UCLA and USC with the great Arnold Schoenberg, whose compositional style, with its tightly controlled 12 tone techniques were diametrically opposed to the aesthetic views he came to develop , and the older composer described him as not so much as composer but "an inventor of genius." In fact, Cage's father was a rather eccentric professional inventor .
Cage sought to depart from everything classical music as we know it stands for ; pre-existing forms such as sonata , variation etc, conventional harmony , use of standard instruments, etc . He made pioneering use of aleatoric , or made up on the spur of the moment chance improvisation , and used the fampous I Ching of Chinese philosophy as a means to create chance music constructed by arbitrary means . Alea means dice in latin , and composition for Cage became something of a casting by dice affair .
Cage made the use the of silence as an integral part of his compositional techniques , and perhaps hjis most famous work ? is the so called 4 ' and 33' , or four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in front of a piano . The performer ? just sits there at the keyboard and does absolutely nothinhg for four minutes and 33 seconds . The ocmposition consists of whatever random sounds happen , coughing ,or whatever . Is this real music or just a clever gimmick ? Not every one agrees .
Like his music or not, Cage was very much taken seriously during his lifetime by many important composers ,critics and musicologists , and he became something of a cultural hero in Europe . He tended to be rather dismissive of pretty much the whole centuries long tradiition of western classical music, and even declared that "Beethoven was wrong ", in his approach to composition, that is . But how was Beethoven supposed to know that 200 years ago ? You might as well find fault with Goya because he did not paint like Salvador Dali .
Cage was also a devotee of Zen Buddhism and an amateur mycologist, or expert on mushrooms , and was able to distinguish posionous from non-poisonous mushrooms caught in the wild ! He developed a method of putting nuts ,bolts, and other metal objects inside pianos to make them sound, well, rather strange . This is called "prepared piano ".
Whether you consider him to be a real composer or not, Cage was certainly a colorful character ! Some of his works can be heard on youtube for free .