Technician of the Sacred

Three recent books demonstrate that John Cage is overdue for a populist revival

John Cage Books

Cage’s life is a complicated tale that reads like an instructive fable about the fate of the 20th-century artist.

Photo courtesy Siglio Press/Bob Cato

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Silence: 50th Anniversary Edition, by John Cage (Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), by John Cage (Siglio Press, 2015).

The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn (Wesleyan University Press, 2016).


An obscure American artist performs on national, primetime television. In our pop-saturated present, it’s unimaginable. But in 1960, avant-garde composer and musician John Cage guested on the wildly popular CBS program I’ve Got a Secret. This would not have been as incongruous then as it would be today. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, American artists were from, time to time, accorded celebrity stature. Years earlier, Cage’s performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art garnered a profile in Life magazine, the same must-read publication that had put the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock on its cover. As the 1960s dawned, the distinction between the “highbrow” and “lowbrow” was breaking down, opening the traditional arts to a wider public while instilling introspection and experimentation into mainstream cultural productions. The affable Cage, being both a classically trained, world-travelling musician and a Dada-inspired stuntman who invented what came to be known as “happenings,” thrived at that crossroad. Performing “Water Walk” (1959) on CBS, the tall, patrician composer—then at his creative peak—looked at ease on the makeshift soundstage. With a stopwatch in one hand, he rushed about with sprightly seriousness, bending down and reaching forward, using his free hand to generate timed noises by manipulating household objects: a bathtub filled with water, a whistle, a pressure cooker, a vase of tulips, a watering can, cocktail drink dispensers, a bucket of ice, and a piano, on the wires of which the performer had plopped a rubber fish. The bemused studio audience responded with attentive curiosity, no doubt wondering whether this bizarre act was a comic prank or some kind of genuine musical art. 

Well over a half century since that televised performance, Cage, whose thoughts about the creative process have been revered by practicing artists for generations, is overdue for a populist revival. Unlike other artists whose relevance diminishes after their death, Cage, who died in 1992 at the age of 79, remains, as he was throughout his lifetime, ahead of the curve.

Against centuries of our culture’s worshipping inspiration and artistic individuality, Cage believed that regulated and systematized chance plays a far greater role in creativity than do character and intention. He upended the very concept of modern music, by positioning noise and sound on the same plane. His aurally complex compositions prove that there is no such thing as silence per se. Not surprisingly, his legacy still generates critical unease. Contemporary biographers and journalists who revisit Cage frequently rehash the old charges of charlatanism while sidestepping the deep-seated perspectives that informed and shaped his art. A practical philosopher, he challenged foundational ideas in a voice so soft and unassuming that one could be forgiven for missing how radical it still is. A trained devotee of Zen Buddhism, he internalized its goal of breaking with attachment, selfhood, and premeditated egoism, and then he channeled these hard-earned liberations into a diligent adoption of chance as a governing principle in the creative act.

Accident, after all, is fundamental to human existence and experience. “Implicit in one’s conception and birth,” the elderly Cage reminds one interviewer, “is a chance operation.” An openness to randomness, however, requires a special kind of rigor in order to make it comprehensible and efficacious. “Chance is a discipline,” he remarks, “that frees the ego from its likes and dislikes and its reliance on taste and memory.” Such renunciation sounds antithetical to contemporary self-curating habits and public profiling. To Cage, a break from the “individual” meant throwing open otherwise foreclosed avenues of attention and experience and the creation of new forms. In this vein, precious subjectivities and private histories—the mental “selfies” we replicate and cycle through each day—diminish access to what is real because they filter out the unfamiliar.

The purely new, when properly seen as such, stands before us in any given experiential moment. Building on precursors like the French composer Erik Satie, Cage found supreme value in surrounding ambient sounds—arbitrary dins, white noises, natural and urban vibrations—resounding within our environments within every moment. Looked at more acutely, ambience, or noise, or even silence, is each an overarching metaphor for whatever matter the sensory world offers up to our five senses, whether we are receptive to those available sensations or not. By stripping us of blinders and buffers imposed by egocentricity, habit, and preference, Cage believed that certain innovative forms of music can reinvigorate our impoverished sensory involvement with the immediate concrete world. Far from a Luddite, he reasoned that computer-driven technologies and social readjustments could facilitate such an end. Given that such a substantive affirmation is in short supply these days, it is time to bring Cage back from the margins.

Cage’s life is a complicated tale that reads like an instructive fable about the fate of the 20th-century artist. Though by now a worldwide iconoclast whose work in music has been rightly said to have influenced just about every innovator, from Steve Reich, Earle Brown, and Philip Glass to The Beatles, Brian Eno, and Sonic Youth, Cage the composer tends to get obscured by the scope of his interests and his productivity, which extended into the visual arts, dance, and media studies. As James Pritchett argues in The Music of John Cage, his reputation as a musical composer who dismissed intentionality has, rather ironically, led music historians to play down his originality. In overemphasizing Cage’s articulations of his processes, Pritchett writes, we have forgotten the musician. And the critical emphasis on Cage’s collaborations with figures in other creative fields further dwarfs his stature as a composer in his own right. Add to these activities his frequent lecturing, journalism, and his productivity in poetry, painting, and printmaking, and that prolix extends cultural attention further afield from music. However, three recently published gatherings of Cage’s writing can help connect these disparate strands. And in putting his thoughts into stark relief from the life itself, these writings allow a reappraisal of the musician and composer.

Originally published in 1961, Silence presents Cage’s essential writings on music theory from the 1940s and 1950s. In often wry parables and humorous anecdotes woven into unpretentious yet provocative speeches, talks and lectures, Silence maps out the composer’s evolving ideas about the nature of music, performance, sound, and noise.  Some of these theories are presented in unusual typography and layouts that mimic the alternative practices that they describe, attesting to the composer’s view that though he is being deadly serious, “discussions (of art making) are nothing more than entertainment.” In a similarly enchanting spirit, Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is a collection of Cage’s journals-in-verse, dating from 1965 to 1983, a stretch of striking social, political, and cultural transformations to which Cage was subtly attuned. Diary’s elliptical, cut-up poetry unfolds on the page in varied fonts of changing colors, patterns that the collection’s editors fashioned by adhering to Cage’s prescribed chance procedures. Cage’s poetry samples from and synthesizes his copious readings, bringing them into conversation with current events happening both near and far away from his writing desk, and proving that long before the Internet age, he understood that we are navigating a hyper-mediated modernity from which there is no turning back. Thus Diary is a kaleidoscopic, polyphonic poetic voice, a speaking antennae, picking up and transmitting and juxtaposing global messages about everything from communes, ecology, and food culture to space science, university structures, and oil drilling. One entry from 1968 declares “Computers’re bringing about a situation/that’s like the invention of harmony,” an observation that is more cutting once the reader remembers that Cage was forever wary about music’s overreliance on harmony. Other lines read like prophecies of what-might-still-be. Writing in 1965, he foresees, “Alteration of global/society through electronics so that world/will go round by means of united/intelligence rather than by means of/divisive intelligence (politics/economics).” Readers seeking a domesticated version of John Cage as respite from the digressive, adventurous voices in Silence and Diary, will find The Selected Letters of John Cage to be a straightforward career-spanning survey of the man’s correspondence—filled with occasional insights but hardly any revelations—tracking the composer’s daily life across seven decades, serving up snapshots of evolving working relationships with friends, collaborators, journalists, and peers in many other arts.

Throughout all three books, the reader encounters Cage defining life, or experience, as a project in the root meaning of the word. The productive urgencies of his present moment are foretasting the next stage, a next-ness that, in truth, is always, already, arriving.

The roots and branches of his aesthetics grew from ever-renewable chance improvisations in the composer’s long life. Born in 1912 into the energized yet still emergent city of Los Angeles to a father who was an inventor known for early forms of radio, color television, and sonar technology, and a mother who worked for a time as a journalist with The Los Angeles Times, he took piano lessons and attended Pomona College, initially studying theology. In 1930, he suspended those studies to travel in Europe and North Africa.

In Paris, Cage served briefly as a draughtsman for the architect Ernó Goldfinger. Though he decided against architecture, the restrained, self-effacing Bauhaus design, which he studied informally through a jaunt in Germany, remained a lifelong touchstone, fortified later when he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental school for artists overseen by Josef Albers, himself a foundational Bauhaus painter. A talented visual artist, Cage searched hard and wide for an art that could accommodate, as architecture does, a passion for original formations, spatially oriented presentations, and a calibrated, designed environment. He soon found such a potential in, of all places, the modernist advancements in classical music. At the Paris Conservatoire, he worked with pianist Lazare-Levy and drifted into the close reading of what he called “easy” piano pieces, finding inspiration from the work of innovators like Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Scriabin.

In letters from the 1930s, the young searcher is biding his time. He has one eye on his family’s fortunes—he often assisted his father in research and development—and the other eye mulling a move that might permit sustained creativity to take hold. Below the surface of these middle-class currents, a more adventurous path was already stirring.

Back in Depression-era Los Angeles in 1931 and temporarily reenrolled at Pomona, he continued a formative relationship with Don Sample, a poet and Harvard College grad who introduced him to the experimental fiction of Irish novelist James Joyce. The imprint of Joyce was deep. Years later, Cage mined the “five thousand sounds” of Joyce’s poly-vocal prose for a musical composition Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake (1979).

After abandoning studies at Pomona, he drifted into the Santa Monica arts scene and graduated from three highly influential music teachers: pianist Richard Moritz Buhlig, composer Henry Cowell, and, in New York City in the mid-1930s, Adolf Weiss. Weiss sent Cage back to California where, at UCLA, he studied with Weiss’ own teacher, the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, pioneer of atonality and 12-tone technique. While Cage’s education peaked, his personal life was unsteady.

Though Cage was gay, he met and married a young woman named Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, a surrealist sculptor and social radical who worked in art preservation, book binding, and painting, undoubtedly reinforcing Cage’s ambition to be a similarly cross-disciplinary artist. And though Arnold Schoenberg and Cage clashed temperamentally and aesthetically—the latter having disavowed the musical pillars of harmony and pitch—the often forbidding and dismissive European master nevertheless boosted his student’s confidence and provided a model for a frontline vocation. Writing about this period, he confesses, “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ I said, ‘Well then, I’ll beat my head against that wall.’ I quite literally began hitting things, and developed a music of percussion that involved noises.”

During a brief stint as an assistant, Cage was told by animator and filmmaker Oskar Fischinger that, “Everything in the world has its own spirit which can be released by setting it into vibration.” That was a crucial epiphany. Increasingly percussion was everything for the aspiring composer. By the late 1930s, he was forging a new species of sounds, called “percussive music.” In the opening chapter of Silence, entitled “The Future of Music” (1937),  Cage defines this as an “all sound music,” in which “no rhythm will be beyond the composer’s reach.” Such music, he theorizes, relies on non-harmonic syncopated sound—or what is traditionally called “noise.” At the time, in classical music, percussion was only an accompaniment, and even though rhythm was gaining new prominence in popular music, such as jazz, he sought to push this much further, foregrounding percussion and distilling music into purely discreet rhythms with little or no harmonic context.

Early masterpieces from these breakthroughs included “First Construction (in Metal)” (1939), “Imaginary Landscapes” (1942), and “Credo in Us” (1943), which employ what he termed a “micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure.” Sounds are organized into identical units of time on the small and on the large scale. Performances required unusual numbers and configurations of musicians, repurposed traditional instruments and the introduction into classical music of unconventional ones, such as Asian gongs and bells, industrial tools, and electronica, including tape machines and early model synthesizers. Pushing further, Cage developed the “prepared piano” technique in which objects are placed on or between the strings to create new aural effects through the keyboard, leading to another run of breakthrough compositions such as Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945),  Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947), and Sonatas and Interludes (1947-48).

With his career as a composer well underway, Cage was buoyant but broke. He moved to Seattle, teaching at the Cornish College of the Arts. There he found further liberties in anti-rationalist, non-dualistic perspectives of Zen Buddhism, ideas made more intelligible in the late 1940s when he attended Daisetz Suzuki’s classes at Columbia University. Through a friendship with Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player, Cage became attracted to the mind-quieting purposes behind certain Asian music. At Cornish, he had met choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham who went on to become his lifelong lover and collaborator. Accompanied by the younger experimental composer and musician David Tudor, who remained another long-
lasting intimate and creative partner, Cunningham and Cage toured Europe and Japan.

By the end of the Second World War, divorced from Kashevaroff, Cage settled into the fertile world of lower Manhattan where he met abstract painters. There he enjoyed a loft with a view of the Statue of Liberty and became the most prominent figure in the city’s expanding galaxy of experimental musicians and composers, the ranks of which included his peers Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff and, later, La Monte Young and John Cale.

But it was Cunningham who had the most galvanizing influence on Cage’s development, personally and professionally. Their tours in Europe in the late 1940s brought them into contact with almost every central avant-garde figure. And the composer’s  passionate notes home to Cunningham are effusive and vulnerable in his otherwise hard-headed and rather dry correspondence. Writing from the road, he addresses Cunningham as “au prince delicieux” and abandons punctuation and capitalization, speaking in uncharacteristically romantic terms about new projects and declaring Cunningham to be his muse.

In practical terms, this Cage-Cunningham partnership reinforced their shared position that form and content are inseparable and that composition is a process, not a product. The audience participates in the formal accomplishments of a presentation through their spontaneous attentiveness to its movements. In the early 1950s, this thinking took a decisive turn through the use of hexagrams from the Chinese divinatory text the I Ching (The Book of Changes), a method that Cunningham also adopted. The I Ching gave Cage license to further purge conscious intentionality, replacing it with “chance operations” based on coin-tossing and a coordinative matching of those results with the numbering in the I Ching. In turn, those numbers were carefully charted to dictate the tempo, duration, and dynamics of a developing musical composition. Writing to Pierre Boulez about this method in the creation of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-51), he explains, “By making moves on the charts (based on chance operation and consulting the I Ching), I freed myself from what I had thought to be freedom, and which actually was only the accretion of habits and tastes.” 

By the early 1960s, Cage was in high demand both in downtown New York and around the world. But financially he was barely keeping a head above water. Always improvising, he plowed forward, finding simultaneous direction from the future and the past.

New computers expanded his range of sonic possibilities, epitomized by his opus HPSCHD (1967-1969) which involved seven solo pieces culled from classical music sources and rearranged for electric harpsichord, integrated with computer-generated tape loops as well as slides and film. The nature writings of Henry David Thoreau were another crucial inspiration late in his career. The famous Transcendentalist’s texts are scrambled and reconstituted by Cage for the score of Empty Words (1974). “Music is sounds,” he writes in one letter, quoting Thoreau, “sounds around us, whether we’re in and out of concert halls.”

Still,  those concert halls kept him busy, allowing less time for his beloved (and often lucrative) mushroom harvesting in the woods of his home near Rockland County.  He was busily overseeing new performances of past work while he
labored away at original compositions. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, artistic commissions and residencies, prestigious teaching gigs, and worldwide honors abound. Public and private had converged. And Cage often bristled at what he saw as unnecessary detours. The letters from this period reveal him turning down ill-suited projects, such as one proposed by filmmaker Arthur Lispett who needed soundtracks for collage films. Writing to Lispett, Cage indicates that “for the last 10 to 15 years I have been concerned with not controlling the continuity of sounds, and certainly not controlling the togetherness of sounds and images, sounds and stories, or sounds and movements of dancers. I am insistent upon letting things go
together.”

Though Cage’s work was still largely discounted by establishment critics, his reputation within the American avant-garde remained unrivalled. As a result, his fields of collaboration continued to expand. Longtime friend and painter Robert Rauschenberg had collaborated on a production of Music Walk with Dancers (1960), and Cage worked with artist Jasper Johns on works such as Second Hand (1969/1970). Cage played chess with his hero and friend, the ageing Marcel Duchamp, whose own Dada-era forays into aleatory music had inspired the young composer decades earlier.

Through a growing reputation as a painter and printmaker, Cage also developed a fruitful professional association with Crown Point Press in San Francisco. He maintained long-cultivated intellectual associations with leading system theorists like Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and Norman O. Brown, whose respective ideas about architecture, new
media, and philosophy frequently form the raw material and textual samples that ricochet through the uncoiling verses of Diary.

In reading Cage, it can be tempting to admire the tenacity and then declare, a quarter century since his death, that the rest is up to history. But history was an anathema to modernists like Cage. Before the nightmares of two world wars and the ongoing postwar environmental devastation, such artists understood how narrative assumptions about “history” as predetermined, rational progress only pacifies the popular imagination and, at worse, turn individuals into sleepwalkers in their own daily lives.

But even in his often incisive writings about society, the mild-mannered Cage is no scold. His mission seems to have been, mainly, to keep himself wide awake within his own existence, especially when, like an undaunted Pied Piper, he guided his growing audiences into listening to the sounds of “silence” and relishing the symphonic cadences of artfully refined “noise.” Read closely, the Cagean wake-up calls involve reconsideration about how time intersects with how we conceive of our lives. We are more than mere objects moved in a largely pregiven public history or personal memory. Chance reminds us experience is organically unpredictable and therefore of a piece with the dynamics in an unfolding work of art. As Cage notes in Diary, the time for creative risk is always now:              

                        To raise language’s

Temperature we not only remove
        syntax: we

Give each letter undivided attention,

Setting it in a unique face and size;

To read becomes the verb to sing.


Tim Keane teaches creative writing and literary modernism at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York City.