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American composer, pianist and writer John Cage (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

John Cage

Raoul Mörchen / gsw
September 3, 2012

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, composer John Cage turned the world of music on its head. He sought to free his work from the influence of his will, opening it to randomness. And he proved that silence can also be music.


John Cage's best composition - or at least the one he liked the most - cannot be recorded. It must be experienced in concert. Cage dubbed it simply his silent work; officially it's called 4'33", signifying four minutes and 33 seconds. That's how long the composition's three movements last in total while an undefined number of musicians stand on stage and do nothing.

At the premiere of 4'33", the pianist sat down at the piano, covered the keyboard and waited four minutes and 33 seconds to open it once more. Newspapers later reported that the majority of the audience boiled with anger, with one listener standing up to shout that they should chase people like Cage out of town.

Art or accident?

The year was 1952. Cage was 40 and no stranger to scandal, but he did not set out to shock people and provoke them to rage. Instead, he hoped to open their ears - also in his silent work. In a sound-proof room, Cage marvelled that he was able to hear the whir of his internal clockwork and his pulsating blood. His insight: silence is not the absence of sound but, instead, the absence of intentionally produced sound.

So 4'33" does not represent a nothingness. Instead, the work points out that, when no one's making music, the world is still full of sound. In a sense, the piece mediates between art and life by breaking down the barrier between the two.


On September 5, 1912, John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles. His father was an inventor, his mother a journalist. Cage finished school with top grades and considered occupations like poet, priest, architect - or maybe painter? Then he decided to concentrate on music first, ultimately expanding his activities with his poetic writings, drawings and prints.

Taking lessons in composition from the famous composer Arnold Schönberg, Cage began writing innovative works particularly for percussion ensembles and dance. But by the end of the 1940s, his life had begun to break down. He had almost no money, smoked, drank, and faced a failing marriage.

Away from musical purposefulness

A coincidence led him out of his crisis. After being introduced to the "I Ching," an ancient Chinese oracular book, he felt he had discovered a way to compose works free of his own inclinations and disinclinations. "To sober and quiet the mind" - this motto from an Indian philosopher, together with the "I Ching," guided his work for the rest of his life.

Friends like painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as well as his new life partner, dancer Merce Cunningham, served as creative partners.

Music is nature, nature is music

John Cage's works and the ideas that inspired him set music history on a new track. "Music of Changes" or the legendary "Concert for Piano and Orchestra," works that were performed in Germany early on, as well as Cage's later cross-medial works, performances, music for musical theater and audio dramas - his oeuvre expanded ideas of art, and a number of young artists moved into his orbit. Touchstones of 20th century art like the Fluxus movement or happenings are unthinkable without Cage's influence.

Until his death in August 1992, Cage tirelessly continued creating sound in ways that limit the influence of human will - in order to, as he put it, "imitate nature in its manner of operation." Listening to Cage's music or simply opening one's ears and consciously listening to how the world sounds: There's no real difference between the two acts - at the most, it's a difference of quality.

Cage demonstrated what he understood as conscious listening after moving with Merce Cunningham into a penthouse directly on Sixth Avenue, one of New York's busiest streets. He liked to tell visitors he had no use for a radio anymore - all he had to do was open a window.

John Cage and partner Merce Cunningham Copyright: Hans Wild
John Cage and partner Merce CunninghamImage: Hans Wild
The church in Halberstadt where Cage's
In Halberstadt, Germany, Cage's work "As Slow As Possible" unfolds over 639 yearsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa
Famed avant-garde composer and poet John Cage (AP Photo/Julia Malakie)
Poet, composer, artist, lecturer: Cage was a man of many hatsImage: AP
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