American composer John Cage (1912–1992) was one of the 20th century’s leading artistic figures and an important voice in postwar experimental music.
Cage was born in Los Angeles and as a young man was interested in a number of subjects and art forms, including theology, literature and painting. After deciding to concentrate on music in 1933, he studied with various teachers including Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. His interest in dance developed following work as a dance accompanist, during which time he met the dancer and future choreographer Merce Cunningham, who would go on to become a crucial artistic collaborator and also Cage’s life partner. Cage’s many innovations in composition for percussion led to him writing for prepared piano (a piano with various objects placed on and over the strings in order to alter the sound). In 1950, his encounter with a copy of the I Ching led to a preoccupation with the use of chance techniques that stayed with him until the end of his career. The famous 4' 33'' stems from his parallel interest in silence.
Hugely prolific, Cage wrote works for almost all types of ensemble, from miniatures to one of the longest pieces ever (a performance of As Slow as Possible for organ, begun in 2001, is scheduled to end in 2640). Compositions containing a dramatic element include five late operas, all entitled Europera, and several works inspired by the circus, Musicircus and Roaratorio. Other key works include Music of Changes for solo piano, Song Books and his late series of ‘number pieces’. He was also a significant visual artist, and a keen amateur mycologist.
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We look at one of the 20th century's most polarizing composers.