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John Cage and Postmodernism: Contemporary Classical Special Topic

John Cage and Postmodern Composition

John Cage and His Influence on Classical Composition

John Cage, in full John Milton Cage, Jr., (born September 5, 1912, Los Angeles, California, U.S.—died August 12, 1992, New York, New York), was an American avant-garde composer whose inventive compositions and unorthodox ideas profoundly influenced mid-20th-century music. The son of an inventor, Cage briefly attended Pomona College and then traveled in Europe for a time. Returning to the United States in 1931, he studied music with Richard Buhlig, Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and Henry Cowell. While teaching in Seattle (1938–40), Cage organized percussion ensembles to perform his compositions. He also experimented with works for dance, and his subsequent collaborations with the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham sparked a long creative and romantic partnership.

Cage’s early compositions were written in the 12-tone method of his teacher Schoenberg, but by 1939 he had begun to experiment with increasingly unorthodox instruments such as the “prepared piano” (a piano modified by objects placed between its strings in order to produce percussive and otherworldly sound effects). Cage also experimented with tape recorders, record players, and radios in his effort to step outside the bounds of conventional Western music and its concepts of meaningful sound. The concert he gave with his percussion ensemble at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1943 marked the first step in his emergence as a leader of the American musical avant-garde. Continue reading from Encyclopedia Britannica

What Makes his Compositions "Postmodern"?

Did Cage tend more toward "modernism" or "postmodernism"? How is his radical contribution best understood? Cage moves between the seemingly oppositional contexts of postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s, and European modernism in the early twentieth century, with reference especially to the art of Erik Satie (whom Cage championed), Italian Futurism, and German Dada. Cage’s friendship and intellectual exchange with the French composer, Pierre Boulez, during the early 1950s offers a third vantage point. Although the three contexts are quite separate, stylistically and chronologically, each is integral to the evolving Cage oeuvre. Yet none entirely accounts for his radicality. Through a discussion of these comparative settings, Cage emerges as an experimentalist and an avant-garde figure who believed in his responsibility to change the world through new music.

Writers on music have used "postmodernism" less frequently than critics in other fields. Even when comprised of quotation and appropriated soudns, music is an abstract language. In the case of Cage, a particularly complex scenario emerges. Here we have a composer who wrote poetic texts and mesostics, transformed the score into a visual object, and created music to be performed with dance and theater. Owing perhaps to the revolutionary changes Cage introduced in the meaning of musical composition, critics have skirted the issue of Cage’s postmodernism, identifying him instead as a leader of the late twentieth-century avant-garde. By reviewing the postmodernist debate in relation to Cage, what conclusions might be drawn about the usefulness of "postmodernist" or avant-garde in defining his art? Continue reading from UbuWeb Papers

Watch Music History


John Cage's Composition "4'33", Performed by William Marx



Is This Even Music? John Cage, Schoenberg and Outsider Artists



"Music Made of Listening: John Cage and 4'33", Gresham College Lecture

Link to the History of Music Resource Guide Series