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John Cage
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5 multiples, 1 edition prints/proof, 10 books, 3 drawings, 2

essay John Cage, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

The enduring legacy of John Cage is one of visionary scope and joyous exploration. His wide-ranging artistic interests encompassed music, poetry, painting, dance, and other creative realms. His private and intellectual pursuits were many; he was also a philosopher, amateur mycologist, student of mathematics, and lover of botany. Throughout his remarkable life, he sought integration of the myriad worlds he touched, both public and personal.

Cage created his own instrumentation to fit the precise needs of his compositions, including what he called the “prepared piano,”1 for which he would write numerous works. He viewed all sounds as legitimate musical territory, an attitude that, when put into practice, elicited both negative and ecstatic reactions from an audience. In his quest to locate a music that held no fixed meaning but would elucidate the oneness of everyday life and art, he embraced the use of silence as sound in formal composition (as in his classic 4’ 33”).2 Free of cultural or philosophical associations, the work demanded active listening on the part of the audience and suggested a sculptural quality that allowed ambient noise to become almost a visualization of the building blocks of sound.

Another groundbreaking development was Cage’s compositional theory of indeterminate notation. Based on his interest in chance, the method brought together two disparate factions: notation as a controlled variable and live performance, in which notes could be repeated yet never exactly replicated. By the time of his first headline visit to the Walker Art Center in 1964,3 Cage was employing these and other innovations in relation to dance,4 primarily with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Both believed the two disciplines, though independent formations, could work collaboratively. They would return to the Walker many times over the next twenty-five years, in a variety of incarnations, including a memorable split evening in 1974 during which Cage recited Empty Words (1974), a nonsyntactical mix of phrases, words, syllables, and letters written by subjecting Henry David Thoreau’s journal to I Ching (Book of Changes) chance operations.

Cage also performed at the Walker numerous times as a solo artist. In 1970, he orchestrated Musicircus (1967), a wild, Happening-like event with a colorful array of performers at Macalester College in St. Paul.5 In the following decade, he wrote Music for Five6 (1985) for Zeitgeist, the Twin Cities–based new music ensemble that performed its U.S. premiere.

Cage lived as he composed his musical works, with an eye toward questions rather than answers. His appreciation for the complexities and paradoxes contained in modern life allowed him to imagine limitless possibilities in music and other endeavors. The impact of his contributions continues to reverberate today, not only in the tradition of the avant-garde, but as part of the mainstream culture, a testament to the veracity of his work and the beauty of his life.

  1. Cage would hang a variety of nuts, bolts, screws, and industrial materials on the interior strings of a standard piano, resulting in the desired timbre and sound range of a percussion orchestra.

  2. For a discussion of this piece, see David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992), 165–166. The piece 4’ 33” was first performed on August 29, 1952, by Cage’s longtime pianist, David Tudor. One audience member stood and declaimed, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.”

  3. He appeared with Merce Cunningham Dance Company (including Steve Paxton and Viola Farber), Robert Rauschenberg, and David Tudor. Cage served as the dance company’s musical advisor from 1953 to 1992.

  4. Revill, Roaring Silence, 75. Cage wrote music for choreography as early as 1940, including pieces for Gertrude Lippincott, a Walker benefactor and organizer of the institution’s first dance concert.

  5. Performers included gymnasts, Swedish folk dancers, a “soul” choir, ballroom dancers, bagpipe players, rock bands, harpsichordists, kazooists, barking dogs, flautists, and many others.

  6. Formally annotated as Music for, the title changes according to the number of players.

Kim, Diana. “John Cage.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center