Cage, John (1912-1992)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/05/2010
  • Essay 9423
Experimental music pioneer John Cage created some of his most astounding work while teaching, composing, and performing at Seattle's Cornish School during the pivotal years 1938 through 1940. At once a bold innovator, brilliant essayist, philosopher, iconoclastic rebel, poet, lecturer, raconteur, and certified eccentric, Cage continually confounded plenty of his admirers, as well as critics, who linked him to every art movement from the Dadaists to the Surrealists to the Minimalists. He was, to be certain, a ground-breaking explorer of atonal music, an early adopter of electronic devices in music-making, and a leading theoretician (and practitioner) of employing two aural extremes -- noise and silence -- in his compositions. Cage embraced a radical vision that, by design, would ideally produce music without order, harmony, or even sound. Cage relentlessly pushed the creative envelope: He formed America's first all-percussion group, penned songs for a piano "prepared" with odd objects wedged between its strings, and created recordings and mixed-media performances based on snippets of various records, spoken word recitations, and/or random radio broadcasts and static. The result was anarchic music that the general public barely noticed, and mostly rejected, but that thrilled those listeners blessed with open ears and progressive minds.

Son of an Inventor

John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles on September 5, 1912, to an inventor, John Milton Cage Sr. (d. 1964) and a journalist, Lucretia Harvey (d. 1969). Young Cage took to writing as a child and was also given private piano lessons as a fourth grader. His mother owned an arts and crafts shop and Cage took a liking to painting and with the cutting-edge hobby of radio broadcasting, which he took up while in the Boy Scouts.

Always a bright lad, Cage was the valedictorian at his high school, and in 1928, at age 16, he enrolled in Pomona College in Claremont, California. Repulsed by the regimentation, he dropped out in 1930 and then spent almost two years in Europe, where he studied under the piano virtuoso and composer, Lazare Lévy (1882-1964), of the Paris Conservatoire.

Inventory of Genius

Back stateside, Cage studied composition under Richard Buhlig, harmony with Adolph Weiss, and then modern harmony and rhythm with avant-garde composer Henry Cowell. That exposure to new ideas had a big impact on Cage's career trajectory: "Interest in rhythm brought me closer to the modern dance" (Cage, unaddressed résumé letter, undated). By 1935 Cage was studying counterpoint with the great Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) at UCLA. Only years after-the-fact did Cage learn that his strict teacher once described him as "not a composer, but an inventory of genius" (Russcol, 138).

Meanwhile, one day while working at his mother's retail shop, Cage crossed paths with an artist named Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff -- the two hit it off and were married on June 7, 1935. They moved to Hollywood, where Cage was employed as a dance accompanist. In time, he met the famed abstract filmmaker, Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), who told him that "everything in the world has a spirit that can be released through its sound" -- an idea that got Cage thinking about the use of unorthodox objects as musical instruments: "I began to tap everything I saw. I explored everything through its sound. This led to my first percussion orchestra" (Peyser).

During the summer of 1937 Cage taught "percussion composition" at the Virginia Hall Johnson School in Beverly Hills, and in the spring of 1938 he taught a Musical Accompaniments for Rhythmic Expression course. Then -- with the support of fellow Cowell student, composer, and faculty member, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) -- he scored a gig teaching at Mills College in Oakland. During that summer, Cage met the school's dance instructor, Portland-born Bonnie Bird (1915-1995), and presumably, her teenaged assistant from Centralia, Washington, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), who would go on to become a modern dance legend and perhaps the finest choreographer of his era. At summer's end, both Bird and Cunningham would return to their home-base at Seattle's Cornish School (today's Cornish College of the Arts).

The Cornish School

On August 22, 1938, Cage penned a long letter from San Francisco to Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956), who'd founded her namesake school back in 1914. Located at 710 East Roy Street, the Cornish School featured studies in art, drama, music, dance, and radio -- and boasted an esteemed faculty that included the head of the dance department, Bonnie Bird.

Cage's correspondence informed that: "A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Bird; we discussed the possibility of my being engaged as a dance accompanist and composer in your school. She suggested that I write to you stating the extent of my studies and experience." After doing so over three long-hand pages, he wound up his pitch by confessing that "For many reasons I wish to leave Los Angeles and the opportunity of working with Miss Bird is very attractive to me. I am exceedingly interested in the dance and composition for it and I should devote myself to the work with enthusiasm."

Three days later, Cornish responded cordially, saying that "I am very much interested in your letter ... Miss Bird has written to me about you. The Dance Dept. is small ... [f]or this reason, the salary has to be very small ... . If you would be interested in the salary of $80.00 a month with a percentage of the fees received from concerts (and take a chance on us with the concerts) I will be very glad to give you such a contract ... . If you come, we could offer courses in dance accompanying, I presume, and, perhaps, that would add to your budget."

Then, on September 2, Cage responded affirmatively: "I am glad to accept your offer ... I look forward to the work very much. I do not know exactly when my wife and I will arrive in Seattle, I imagine about the tenth of this month, but we shall take the liberty of calling at the school to see you, and to make what final arrangements may be necessary."

Northwest School

John and Xenia Cage arrived in Seattle and on September 7 Cornish offered him a contract that detailed that his work for the school term of September 12, 1938, through June 10, 1939 would receive recompense at the rate of $80 a month (plus 50 percent of any net profits on the student's public dance concerts). The couple settled into an Capitol Hill apartment (711 E Aloha) located just around the corner from the school.

By the following year the Polk directory noted that the Cage's residence had moved a few blocks southwest (136 Melrose Avenue N -- today's Melrose Avenue E) and he had been promoted from an "accompanist" to "music teacher." Seattle was still a small enough town that anyone as splashy and talented as Cage would not be overlooked and he soon struck up friendships with leading luminaries of the "Northwest School" of art, including both Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Morris Graves (1910-2001).

Heavy Metal

Only three months later, on December 9, 1938, Cage's astounded concert attendees at the Cornish Theatre with the live debut of his new all-percussion sextet, which comprised not musicians but rather Cornish dancers -- including Merce Cunningham. While Cage directed the "percussion orchestra" in playing his compositions -- including "First Construction (In Metal)" -- they tapped and beat tones out on an insane variety of "instruments" that, at this show and subsequent ones, might include  a piano, a rattle, dinner bells, tortoise shells, a triangle, a slide whistle, dragon's mouths, lion's roar, bongos, Chinese gongs, tom-toms, a guiro, cymbals, woodblocks, maracas, a ratchet, quijadas, jawbone gongs, sleigh bells, Japanese temple gongs, claves, marimbula, a xylophone, cowbells, rice bowls, a thundersheet, a washtub, automobile parts, pipe lengths, a saw -- and one wine bottle "to be broken" (Cornish concert program, May 19, 1939).

Some of these had been kindly lent from a collection of exotic instruments owned by one of Cage's faculty peers at Cornish, the German dance instructor, Lora Deja. The local press didn't know what to make of the unprecedented event -- neither of the two major metropolitan dailies reviewed the actual show, and The Seattle Times could only gossip in advance that: "Animated talk can be expected at the reception which will follow the concert in the Cornish Theatre this evening, for the program is to be of modern American percussion music."

Brake Dance

The Cornish School produced an event in their theater on May 12 which featured a "Complementary concert of new Dance Compositions" with Bonnie Bird and her Dance Group (presumably backed by Cage). Four nights later, Cage offered up a "2nd Percussion Concert. 53¢ & 27¢" at the same venue, and the program sheet noted that "The Percussion Concert under the direction of John Cage, and assisted by Xenia Cage, Merce Cunningham, Doris Dennison, Lenore Hovey, Imogene Horsley, Margaret Jansen, Lenore Thayer, will present compositions of Contemporary Composers including: William Russell, Lou Harrison, Johanna Beyer, John Cage, and Henry Cowell" (Cornish concert program, May-June, 1939).

"Seattle Man Music Pioneer" is how one local newspaper headlined a piece about that gig which stated: "Leading the way in opening a new and unusual form of modern musical expression, John Cage ... will present one of the first all-percussion concerts ever heard here at Cornish School. ... To him, drums are adequate in themselves for musical interpretation, rather than merely as a background for orchestration. He has written a solo for drums, bamboo sticks and woodblocks which will be one of those presented (Seattle Star, May 12, 1939). That particular composition was titled "Trio" -- and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted that Cage's belief was that "music is 'organized sound, which permits free use of percussion instruments but also bottles and automobile brake drums" (May 18, 1939).

Deja View

In the summer of 1939, Cage -- employed at the Demonstration School in Berkeley, California -- was already planning his percussion orchestra's concerts for fall quarter at Cornish. He had hopes of utilizing Lora Deja's instruments once again, but then word came that she'd set her sights on New York City and moved there to further her career. On September 1, Cornish wrote Cage, informing him that: "I regret to say that Miss Deja has asked me to forward her things; and, therefore, the primitive instruments will not be available this season."

Cage responded to the news by sending out many letters to well-off locals, seeking financial sponsorship to buy replacement instruments. He wrote to those potential patrons that: "During past year I presented in Seattle ... two concerts of modern American percussion music. The group of players which I direct is the only group of its kind in the country." Also noting that "[t]he concerts here were of such importance musically," Cage explained that Deja's "instruments which I had used last year would not be available this coming year ... . In order to have the proper materials I have heretofor borrowed, constructed and invented instruments to supplement Miss Deja's collection. It is not, however, possible to replace her instruments in any other way that buying them. So ... it now becomes necessary in continuing this work to ask for sponsorship." Seeking an acquisition budget of $150, Cage also noted that both the Seattle Art Museum's founder and director, Dr. Richard Fuller (1897-1976), and Emma Stimson (Northwest School arts patron and widow of Thomas Stimson of the Ballard-based lumber mill dynasty) has already each donated $25 to the cause.

By December Cage would note that he successfully raised $205 "plus the use and gift of many instruments" (Cage, handwritten notes on fundraising letter, September, 1939). Even Seattle's venerable music shop, Sherman & Clay (1624 4th Avenue) generously loaned Cage a few instruments. On January 8, 1940, the percussion orchestra performed at the University of Idaho, on February 14 at Reed College in Portland, and then at a few other Northwest schools in a series that became known as the "Drums Along the Pacific Tour."

A Well-Prepared Piano

The Repertory Playhouse (4045 University Way NE) was the site of a recital on Sunday April 28, 1940, by Cornish's first African American student, and one of Bonnie Bird's prime proteges, Syvilla Fort (1917-1975), who would go on to wide acclaim as a creator of "Afro-Modern" dance techniques. A Seattle native and Roosevelt High School grad, Fort would perform several numbers including two by one of her accompanists, Cage: "Spiritual" and "Bacchanale." The latter, a six-minute song – Cage's first to feature his latest invention, the "prepared piano" -- was described at the time as "breathtaking in its speed and rhythm as well as unusual in its piano accompaniment" (The Seattle Daily Times, April 28, 1940). A review the following week heaped praise upon Fort and also mentioned that Cage's "fascinating music for Bacchanale and his moving Spiritual  composition were intensely interesting in their own right" (The Northwest Enterprise).

Fascinating indeed. What Cage had done was to insert a crazy array of objects as dampers between the many strings of a standard acoustic piano. The effect of playing a piano altered by those added items -- "nine screws, eight bolts, two nuts and three strips of leather, acting as mutes" (Dunn) -- was a form of atonal (or "indeterminate") music without precise pitch. Cage went on to score additional songs for the instrument, which he also continued to augment with different items, including a doll's arm, an aspirin box, a wooden spoon, a clothespin, bits of felt cloth, rubber weather-stripping, thumbtacks, and plastic -- and he ultimately won a $1,000 prize (in 1949) from the National Academy of Arts and Letters for inventing his "prepared piano."

Electronica: The Future of Music

It was probably in 1938 (though the year 1937 has often been cited) that Cage made an electrifying pronouncement during a lecture in Seattle: "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments" (Cage, "The Future of Music: Credo"). Months later, Cage stumbled upon his next great discovery, which he used in composing a piece -- "Imaginary landscape No. 1" -- for a new Bonnie Bird dance. Her husband, Ralph H. Gundlach, was a controversial psychology professor at the University of Washington who had  some single-frequency test-tone records he'd used in experimental research on human musical perception. When that work was completed, he gave the discs to Cage, who took them to Cornish's radio studio and began playing them while altering the turntable speed from 16 rpms to 78 rpms.

The result -- which was debuted at a recital on March 24 and 25, 1939 -- was a recorded musical score that included eerie, and previously unheard, sliding electronic tones. "It would prove to be but the first of many instances in which he applied emerging technological developments to imaginative aesthetic ends" (Nicholls). Months later, Cage wrote that "Since this work is new and experimental I may take the liberty of describing it as the exploration of sound and rhythm. It will, I believe, be thought of in the future as a transition from the restricted music of the past to the unlimited electronic music of the future" (Cage fundraising letter, September 1939).

The Elimination of Harmony

In 1941 the Cages moved to Chicago (where he taught at the Chicago School of Design), and then to New York City in 1942. In time his circle of friends grew to include such stellar thinkers as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, and Cage thrived in the company of celebrated artists including Salvatore Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jackson Pollock. While in New York, Cage reconnected with Cunningham -- and with his marriage crumbling (and headed towards divorce), the two men began a half-century long romantic partnership and artistic collaboration. 

In 1943 Cage and his ensemble debuted a new work -- which featured such unorthodox instruments as flowerpots, automobile hoods, and electric buzzers -- at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and not long after, he informed PM magazine that his major contribution to the world of music had been "the elimination of harmony" (Russcol, 138). The year 1951 saw Cage shock witnesses at Columbia University with his "Imaginary Landscape No. 4" -- a "composition" that was performed with a dozen radios, each manned by a duo who adjusted the channel-selector dial and the volume control. The result was four minutes of nearly random signals from a variety of stations broadcasting simultaneously, the whole cacophonous din being spiced with bits of hissing static. The audience was dumbfounded. The critics were aghast. Cage was delighted.

The Sounds of Silence

Cage's radical innovations continued: 1952 saw a public performance of his "Imaginary Landscape No. 5," which utilized the new technology of a magnetic tape recorder that had captured the sounds of portions of 42 randomly selected phonograph records overlaid on each other. Cage also experimented with audio collages of "found sounds" and sought to assemble unpredictable compositions without conscious pattern.

It was on August 29, 1952, in Woodstock, New York, that Cage debuted 4'33" -- his most infamous, and celebrated, piece. It amounted to having a concert pianist (David Tudor) enter the performance hall, sit at a piano (with a stopwatch at hand), and remain motionless for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. As the clock ticked the audience shuffled their shoes, coughed, rustled their clothes, creaked their theater seats, and -- no doubt, impatiently -- waited for the music to begin. But with the performance reaching its inevitable conclusion, Tudor rose, bowed, and left the stage. The crowd was understandably stunned. In hindsight some would come to understand that Cage's intent was to present the idea that unprogrammed sounds were every bit as valid as traditionally arranged sounds. In the process he destroyed the commonly understood definition of what music could be. And the uproar that followed actually cost Cage some musician friends – even his own mother reportedly questioned whether her son had finally gone too far.  True to form, Cage himself would later come to discount 4'33'' -- because its determined length made it too structured for his current tastes!

In 1953 Cage and Cunningham were both instructors at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where they helped pioneer improvised, mixed-media, performances, which were later (during the mid-1960's counterculture revolution) credited with inspiring light-show-fueled Trips Festivals and Acid Test events: "Such diverse manifestations as happenings, environments, participatory theater, mixed- and multi-media can trace many of their origins to the work, thought, and activity of John Cage" (Salzman). Cage and Cunningham also inspired and influenced each other's work: some of their dance/music collaborations had random chance built into the them via a coin toss that determined which dance moves (or musical passages) were performed in which order.

Beginning in 1956 (and up to 1961) Cage taught experimental composition at the The New School -- and he also saw five books published, including the most popular, Silence: Lectures and Writings. In the summer of 1977 Cage and Cunningham -- "two of the great pioneers in modern dance and music" (Beers) -- returned to Seattle for a residency to conduct a series of homecoming events at Cornish. Then in 1983, Cage -- "one of the seminal forces in New Music ... the father of modern music" (Kurtz) -- came back again for a week (December 5 through 11) of seminars and concerts performed by Cage and Cornish's Percussion  Ensemble and New Performance Group.

A Moment of Silence

As the decades flew by, Cage experienced heath problems -- he'd suffered from arthritis since 1960 -- and his final public performance was of Cheap Imitation in the 1970s. By his 80s, he had numerous additional physical problems, including a broken arm and a stroke. Finally, in August 1992, Cage -- who was preparing an evening pot of tea to share with Cunningham -- suffered a second stroke. He passed away at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital the following morning, on August 12, 1992.

But John Cage's legacy lives on. As critic Gavin Borchert noted, "Very few composers can claim credit for even one landmark innovation over their career, but Cage managed three at Cornish alone: his percussion ensemble, his radio/electronic pieces, and his prepared piano. His presence established Cornish's tradition of encouraging musical exploration, and his influence endures." Even by the early-1970s, Cage was already deemed "perhaps the most famous and controversial American composer to emerge since World War II," and furthermore, "it can be argued that he has been one of the most influential figures in the arts for the last twenty years" (Russcol, 135).  More recently, it has been acknowledged that Cage "defined such a radical practice of musical composition that he changed the course of modern music in the last century and shaped a new conceptual horizon for post-war art" (Robinson). In addition to having directly influenced some of his fellow "serious" composers -- including Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), and many others -- his writings and recordings (for labels including Everest, Nonesuch, and Folkways Records) had a keen impact on other significant musicians.

Indeed, over the decades generations of musicians and record producers would glean powerful lessons from Cage's work. His ideas would help spark the rise of the New Wave, No-Wave, hip-hop (sampling), ambient, and electronica movements. And thus, in 1975 British ambient music pioneer Brian Eno first released some of Cage's work on his Obscure Records label. In 1978 Seattle's Pink Chunk released "Kitchen Cantata," a song performed with culinary appliances and implements, which thus shares some musical DNA with Cage's work. In 1999 New York's noise-rockers, Sonic Youth, recorded versions of Cage's Four8 and Six. Grunge-era pop phenom Beck -- who scored huge hits with rockin' tunes that often featured noise and/or mindboggling samples -- is the grandson of Cage's one-time pupil, Al Hansen. Cage himself was name-checked in songs ranging from percussionist Mickey Hart's "John Cage Is Dead," to British alt-rock band, Stereolab's "John Cage Bubblegum," to Canadian rockers, the Tragically Hip's "Tiger The Lion," to "La Vie Bohème" from the musical, Rent

Meanwhile, British electronica musician, Aphex Twin, used a "prepared piano" prominently on his 2001 album, Drukqs, and the gifted pianist Margaret Leng Tan has built a career interpreting Cage's original compositions. Back at Cornish in Seattle, the local Pacific Rims Percussion Ensemble (which formed in 1996) participated in a four-day Drums Along the Pacific festival in 2009 to salute the music of Cage, Harrison, and Cowell. Then in 2009 (and again in 2010) the group embarked on a tour replicating Cage's group's trail-blazing 1940 road trip, presenting concerts at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Reed College in Portland, the University of Idaho in Moscow, and Montana State University in Missoula. Meanwhile, from 2009 into 2010, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona mounted an ambitious retrospective exhibit titled John Cage and Experimental Art: The Anarchy of Silence.

Sources: John Cage, "The Future of Music: Credo" lecture, 1938, in Herbert Russcol, The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music (Prentiss Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ) 1972, 139-140; Julia Robinson, John Cage and Experimental Art: The Anarchy of Silence, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, website accessed on April 15, 2010 (; John Cage, letter to Nellie Cornish, August 22, 1938, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Nellie Cornish, letter to John Cage, August 25, 1938, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; John Cage, letter to Nellie Cornish, September 2, 1938,  Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Nellie Cornish, letter to John Cage, September 5, 1938, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Cornish School employment contract with John Cage, September 7, 1938, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Nellie Cornish, letter to John Cage, September 1, 1939, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; John Cage, fundraising solicitation letter, September 1939, and Nellie Cornish to John Cage, September 5, 1938, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; John Cage, unaddressed résumé letter, undated, Folder 21, Box 2, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; "Mountaineers Score Highly In 'Pirates Of Penzance,'" The Seattle Times, December 9, 1938, p. 28; "Seattle Man Music Pioneer," Seattle Star, May 12, 1939, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; "Reception," Seattle Post-Intelligencer May 18, 1939, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; "2nd Percussion Concert," Cornish School concert program, May 19, 1939, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections;  Joan Pesyer, 1976 interview with John Cage, via Richard Kostelanetz, Conversations with Cage (Limelight Editions, NYC) 1988 [via JSTOR Computer Music Journal website, accessed on April 12, 2010 (; Cornish School, events calendar, April-May, 1939, Cornish Scrapbooks, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Cornish School, events calendar, May-June 1939, Cornish Scrapbooks, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; "Dancer to Give Concert Tonight," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 1940, p. 12; "Negro Dancer To Appear Sunday: Sevilla Fort in Solo Recital at Playhouse," U District Herald, April 26, 1940, p. 7; "Young Dancer To Give Debut Recital Tonight," The Seattle Daily Times, April 28, 1940, p. 8; "Syvilla Fort Solo Concert Brilliant," The Northwest Enterprise, May 26, 1940 [sic, misprint, actually May 3, 1943]; Cornish School, summer session events calendar, June 1940, undated, Cornish Scrapbooks, Reel 8, Cornish School of Allied Arts records, UW Libraries, Special Collections; Robert Dunn, John Cage (New York: Henmar Press, 1962), 15, 36; Herbert Russcol, The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 1972),  135-143; "Gavin Borchert, John Cage's Pioneering Drumbeats: An avant-gardist's Innovations Resound at Cornish to This Say," Seattle Weekly, February 18, 2009, website accessed on April 13, 1020 (; The Cambridge Companion to John Cage ed. by David Nicholls (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 152-153; Carole Beers, "Famed Pioneers of Dance, Music Return to Seattle," The Seattle Times, January 8, 1977, p. B-4; S. J. Kurtz, "John Cage at Cornish," UW Daily, December 2, 1983, p. 18; Michael Upchurch, "Cornish College Musicians Re-create Historic John Cage, Lou Harrison Performances," The Seattle Times, March 22, 2009 (
Note: This essay was updated on February 22, 2016.

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