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John Cage: Still a controversial figure 100 years on from his birth

We look at one of the 20th century's most polarizing composers.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Online Content)

5 September 2012 at 5.00pm | Comment on this article

One of the most controversial figures in 20th century music, John Cage's music attracts as much disapproval and bamboozlement as it does admiration.

Born 100 years ago today (5 September), John Cage is perhaps most famous for 4′33", a three-movement composition with a score that instructed performers not to play for the entire duration in an attempt to get the listener to listen to the ambient sounds of the performance space. Cage stated that it was his most important work.

The composer was immersed in left-field music from a young age and was taught by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, the innovator of the 12-tone technique. As he developed as an artist, he became increasingly influenced by Asian culture; specifically Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism. His later work was based upon the principles of chance, using the I Ching, an ancient classical text, to create his pieces.

As well as being a member of the musical avant-garde, Cage was influential in the field of modern dance, collaborating with choreographer Merce Cunningham. His association with the world of dance began with him taking the job of accompanist at UCLA where he produced music and lectured.It was at this time that Cage began experimenting with unorthodox instrumentation.

Later in his life, Cage turned to opera and produced five works, each with the title Europera. The first of these was premiered in 1987 and the pieces have no conductor, rather the performers (including dancers) are guided by projections of a digital clock. The libretto interrupts and juxtaposes traditional operatic narratives - the first piece's libretto begins; "Dressed as an Irish princess, he gives birth; they plot to overthrow the French".

Twenty years after his death, his influence lives on with the likes of Philip Glass, Aphex Twin, Sonic Youth and Radiohead all revering him.

Watch John Cage perform Water Walk, a piece scored for - among other instruments - a rubber duck, bath and five radios:

What do you think of John Cage's work?

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