Who was the most important musical figure of the 20th century? It’s a loaded question with contention written all over it, but it’s one worth asking. There are a number of viable answers. Woody Guthrie. John Coltrane. Ella Fitzgerald. Phil Spector. Chuck Berry. Bob Dylan. George Clinton. Nina Simone. Elvis. David Bowie. Prince. Brian Wilson. Some aggregate of the Beatles. All were formative and integral to the state of music’s development. These names are largely responsible for today’s music scene, a fluctuating stasis of genre borrowing and niche fragmentation (e.g. chill wave/dark wave/no wave/new wave/post wave). But it took an experimental mindset to make music evolve in the way that it has. Someone needed to grant these musicians permission to reach across the aisle, think upside down, and generally do whatever the hell they wanted–no context or pretense necessary. And the man who did this most prominently was John Cage, the most important musical figure of the 20th century.
Before he was playing amplified cacti and other plants with a feather, John Cage was simply a pathfinding student in California. Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and grew up playing the piano. By the time he graduated as valedictorian of his high school, though, he had given an award-winning speech on silence at the Hollywood Bowl (an important theme in his career–more on that later) and decided he wanted to be a writer.
Cage matriculated at Pomona College in 1928, where he was exposed to pioneering artists like Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and art music experimentalist, Henry Cowell. He then dropped out of school in 1930 after experiencing what he felt was the ineptitude of institutionalized education. His reaction largely sums up his artistic MO: “I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book,” he said in his autobiography. “Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.”
Cage subsequently traveled to Europe, where he began experimenting with writing music based on dense mathematical systems, and he would ultimately choose music as his life path. Cage’s interest in serialism, a method of composition that uses values to manipulate music, led to a brief communique with Cowell, who suggested Cage study with prolific serialist, Arnold Schoenberg. Cage would do so for two years. Schoenberg, whose twelve-tone system of composing remains the most notable of all serialist languages, wasn’t impressed by Cage’s compositional skills, but he did declare him an “inventor… of genius,” according to Cage’s A Year From Monday, and Cage would soon adopt the inventor moniker as his stylistic tag.
His invention of the prepared piano, an instrument in which objects are affixed to piano strings in order to change their timbre, bolstered his reputation as both inventor and trailblazer. He employed the device in a percussion ensemble, which brought Cage his first renown and led to more eminent art circles with people like Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Duchamp, Morton Feldman, and Jackson Pollack. As he ascended, he became disillusioned by traditional music as a form of communication and began studying zen buddhism and eastern philosophy. He wrote in his 1973 book, M, that one of his students, an Indian woman named Gita Sarabhai, shared with him the idea that music is meant “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
This philosophy would help solidify Cage’s idea that music might be better served if free of the composer’s will. In a 1991 interview with Miroslav Sebestik, he reflected on that sentiment:
“When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound […] I don’t need sound to talk to me.”
In 1951, he began consulting the ancient Chinese divination text, I Ching, to guide his creations, and in 1952 he would compose his most famous and controversial piece of “music”: 4’33”. The three-movement composition, which calls for any instrument or combination of instruments, instructs the player(s) to spend four minutes and 33 seconds not playing. More than any other composition in the 20th century, it demanded that we asked the question: what is music? Do we need a rhythm and ordered set of pitches to call something music, or can it be anything at all?
4’33” prompted the oft-quoted Cage line: “Everything we do is music.” And it inspired musicians to begin thinking of music and sound in more abstract ways. His influence has been acknowledged by Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, and Radiohead, and he is often regarded as the forefather of New York’s renowned Downtown scene. Out of that scene came people like La Monte Young, Laurie Anderson, the Velvet Underground, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Terry Riley, and Glenn Branca. Try and find a musician today that isn’t inspired by one of those people, or at least by one of the people that they influenced.
I interviewed Branca earlier this year and he lauded Cage in a very objective, matter-of-fact way: “There’s no question that the whole Manhattan downtown scene came out of Cage. He was so far in advance of everyone. I don’t think most people are aware of the fact that in the 1930s he did a performance in Town Hall where the entire group was playing nothing but animal bones. He was the first.”
Think about that. Before Elvis shocked a conservative America and shook his hips, and before Chuck Berry introduced the world to a blues-based music called rock ‘n’ roll, John Cage was playing music on bones. So, if you find yourself asking: “Where would we be without Radiohead?” or “Where would we be without Sonic Youth?” or the Velvet Underground or Eno or Zappa? Ask yourself first: where would we be without John Cage. Perhaps there would have been another that filled his shoes, or perhaps we’d be experiencing a much different, astonishingly less interesting musical landscape. He died this week back in 1992, so take a moment of silence to think about his influence. In fact, take four minutes and 33 seconds.
Image: Fotocollectie Anefo via Wikimedia Commons