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Embracing Uncertainty: John Cage

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As summer begins to wane, my thoughts drift to how this fall is far different from those we have experienced in the past. Usual routines of “back-to-school” have been disrupted, many are working in different scenarios than usual (both literally and metaphorically), and, overall, most of us have had to deal with more uncertainty about the future than usual.  With these thoughts going through my head, it was serendipitous that I began to think about a composer whose philosophy and compositional technique not only welcomed uncertainty, but embraced it—John Cage.

Many of us who have studied music have learned about John Cage—who would have celebrated his 108th birthday this Saturday—through his composition 4’ 33”. This piece asks the performer to sit at the piano (or any instrument or ensemble, the score does not specify) in silence for the aforementioned amount of time. And, although the performer is not making any music, the resulting sounds of the environment and atmosphere become the music of the performance. This piece makes audiences and musicians reexamine their assumptions about music, and while doing so, expands the idea of music itself.

Cage started his exploration into composing after returning from Europe, where he studied painting, poetry, and music (and before that, Theology when enrolled in Pomona College).  Inspired to become a composer after returning to the United States, Cage began studying composition more seriously with both Henry Cowell and Adolph Weiss in New York City. Later, after a few months of intense study, Cage studied for about two years with Arnold Schoenberg shortly after Schoenberg arrived in Southern California from Berlin to teach at USC and UCLA. Here is an early composition of Cage’s that is digitized in the Library’s collection. Although Cage’s and Schoenberg’s style of composition are quite different, they had a seemingly amicable, yet short, relationship.  Schoenberg is quoted by Michael Yates in Twentieth Century Music as saying that Cage “was not a composer, but an inventor—of genius.”

Roger Reynolds, Brian Ferneyhough, and John Cage in Warren Studio A, UCSD. Photograph by Bonnie Harkins, 1991.
Roger Reynolds, Brian Ferneyhough, and John Cage in Warren Studio A, UCSD. Photograph by Bonnie Harkins, 1991.

Along with music for prepared piano (or other “prepared” objects), John Cage is also known for his compositions that embrace indeterminacy, where aspects of his composition are left to chance. He began integrating Eastern philosophy, such as Zen Buddhism, into his compositional style, and famously used the I Ching, a Chinese text used to identify order in chance events, to aid in his composing. For much of the rest of his compositional career, John Cage would create music that is considered “indeterminate” or “aleatory.”

One of Cage’s pieces—Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible)—will be making the news this weekend, on Cage’s birthday, September 5. Originally written by Cage in 1987, this piece contains the tempo marking “As Slow as Possible,” and has had many performances that last well over 10 hours. One performance in particular has been ongoing since 2001, and is planned to continue for 639 years! A special organ (The Cage organ) was built for the project in Halberstadt Germany. This weekend will be the first sound change since 2013, and the next one will not be until 2022!

So as we are all faced with uncertainty during these times, I hope that John Cage’s philosophy inspires you to embrace uncertainty and the lessons we may learn by doing so.

Here are items by or about John Cage in the NLS Music Collection:

Talking Books

John Cage and Burl Ives (DBM01516)

Merce Cunningham and John Cage (DBM00124). Two artists discuss their innovations in music and choreography and describe their collaboration.

The narrated life history of Schoenberg, Elgar, Scriabin, Hindemith, Messiaen, Britten, Arnold, Gorecki, Cage and Nyman (DBM03412). Brief surveys of the life and music of Arnold Schoenberg, Edward Elgar, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Scriabin, Paul Hindemith, Oliver Messiaen, Benjamin Britten, Malcom Arnold, Henryk Górecki, John Cage, and Michael Nyman. Includes background music by these composers.


Music of changes (BRM36000). This is a piece for solo piano that is comprised of four “books” of music. Cage used the I Ching to aid in applying compositional decisions. Line by line and bar over bar formats.

Amores. No. 1: for prepared piano (BRM34675). Bar over bar format.

Winter music (BRM29848). This piece is “to be performed, in whole or in part, by 1 to 20 pianists.” Bar over bar format.

Five Songs for Contralto (BRM26505): One of Cage’s earlier compositions (1938). This work is set to texts by E.E. Cummings. Line by line and bar over bar formats.

If you’d like to order hard copies of this material for loan, would like to download the materials from BARD and need some guidance, or if you would like to explore more materials of the NLS Music Collection and learn about our service, please email us at [email protected], or give us a phone call at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2. We are happy to help and look forward to hearing from you.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article and reminder of John Cage’s music and philosophy. Embracing uncertainty and finding the art and gift of that .

  2. Very nice piece about Cage. Thank you.

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