John Cage: Writer by Chance

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biography

3. Chance Operations
3.1 The experiment
3.2 The Diary

4. Conclusions

5. References

1. Introduction

Over the last decades, John Milton Cage has become one of the most interesting and influencing persons in music as well as in writing. His extraordinary compositions and unconventional approaches to art in general gave way to a new era of thought. With respect to his restless development of new ideas and innovative views unto art, people, and life, he may most of all be called a philosopher.

This thesis does not only present John Cage as a writer, it does especially place emphasis on his ideas about art which are inseparably connected to his writings, as will be shown.

Following this introductory chapter, the second chapter presents a brief biographical record of Cage’s life and work, with special regard to his main artistic achievements. Chapter three is concerned with the most important method Cage used while composing music as well as writing: the use of the so-called chance operations. This method is introduced with the help of a short experiment (section 3.1). Subsection 3.2 presents an analysis of Cage’s work Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) with consideration of his use of chance operations. This thesis closes in chapter 4 giving some conclusions derived from the analysis, both introducing Cage’s accomplishments and examining his approaches critically.

2. Biography

When I wish as now to tell of critical incidents, persons, and events that have influenced my life and work, the true answer is all of the incidents were critical, all of the people influenced me, everything that happened and that is still happening influences me.

John Cage, An Autobiographical Statement.[1]

John Milton Cage is born September 5th, 1912 in Los Angeles, California. His father is an inventor, remembered by Cage as giving him the advice that “if someone says ‘can’t’ that shows you what to do.”[2] His mother, a housewife, Cage describes as never being happy, although being a woman of a fulfilled social life.[3]

In 1930, John Cage travels through Europe and starts studying architecture and piano in Paris. During his travels through Spain, he produces his first compositions. Going back to the USA, Cage is taught composition, harmony, and rhythm by teachers such as Richard Buhlig, Adolph Weiss, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schönberg during the next couple of years. Additionally, he studies with Josef Albers. He marries Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff in 1935, with this marriage being divorced ten years later. The first piece for prepared piano, Bacchanale, is composed in 1938. From 1941 to 1942 Cage teaches experimental music at the Chicago School of Design. He becomes musical director of the innovative ensemble around choreograph and dancer Merce Cunningham in 1947, and studies Eastern philosophy with Dr. Suzuki at Columbia University. In the summer of 1948, Cage gives lectures at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he organises a Satie festival.

In 1949, Cage gives the well-known “Lecture on Nothing” and “Lecture on Something”. The first experiments with chance operations start in 1950, influenced by the concept of I-Ching.[4] Back at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952, the first so called Happening[5] takes place, together with Tudor, Olson, Richards, Rauschenberg, and Cunningham.

By composing 4’33’’, Cage produces a completely open piece of music which exists only of silence.[6] In the following two years, Cage takes many tours with the Cunningham group visiting different colleges and universities throughout the United States. Afterwards, he goes on a concert tour with Tudor performing in some major cities in Europe in 1954 and again in 1958. He teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York between 1955 and 1960, where he holds lectures about mushrooms, music, and experimental composition. His book Silence[7] is completed and published in 1961. About two years later, he starts the New York Mycological Society. In autumn of 1962, he goes on a concert tour in Japan, again with Tudor. He becomes ‘composer in residence’ at the University of Cincinnati in 1967, and his writings, collected since 1961, are published in A Year from Monday[8]. In 1969, his mother dies; the same year, he becomes ‘artist in residence’ at UC Davis and develops a computer simulation of the I-Ching. Because of health problems, he follows the advice of Shizuko Yamamoto, recommended by Yoko Ono, and tries curing himself with a macrobiotic diet; within a week, the former chain smoker is pain-free. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, concerts, exhibitions, and parties are held all over the world. Again with Tudor, Cage goes on a concert tour through Europe in 1971.

Between 1986 and 1988, Cage becomes honorary doctor at the Institute of the Arts in California and then occupies the Charles-Elliot-Norton professorship at Harvard University for two years.

Due to the results of a stroke, John Cage dies in New York on August 12, 1992.

During his lifetime, John Cage influences various art movements such as musique concrete, minimal music, conceptual art, action art, pop art, art pauvre, Fluxus, or minimal art. Being himself strongly influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of Zen, he uses silence as a rhythmic element in alternating sequences with sounds. His musical experiments include rather unusual material such as nails, watches, and tape. In his pieces for prepared piano, such as Music for Piano I (1952), these elements are added to the strings of a piano in order to produce distortion of sound.

In composition, Cage experiments mainly with chance – in this way, every single performance becomes an unrepeatable event.

In so-called Happenings, which consist of “a number of simultaneous but unrelated and independent events”[9], Cage aims at dissolving the borders between music, dance, literature, and art. In collaboration with Cage, various artists participate, trying to explore the principle of spontaneity. Intensive examinations with Marcel Duchamp, Eric Satie, and James Joyce are further examples for Cage’s attempts of dissolving borders between the arts.

Cage’s theoretic writings include works such as Silence (1961), Empty Words (1983), and A Year from Monday (1967).

3. Chance Operations

An important part of Cage’s work both as composer and writer are experiments with chance operations. When studying Zen, Cage came across the principle of the Chinese oracle I-Ching which operates on the basis of chance, relying upon tossed coins. After applying simple chance methods based on the I-Ching ’s method of tossing coins in the beginning, Cage finally invented a computerized program operating chance methods.

Cage main concept behind the use of chance operation in his works is that he searches for an approach by which any artist and recipient would be able to free himself of his own will in order to accept a somewhat natural development of sounds and words. He aims at a “purposeless play”[10] of the material, which implies that the will of the artist has to become secondary to the material being employed,[11] so that recipients can fully focus on sounds and words, i.e. on what is actually happening: “[T]hese I-Ching prognostications displace the guiding hand of structure in such a way that Cage’s texts can do nothing other than simply enact a play of surfaces.”[12] This is not to be mistaken as a destruction of language; Cage merely tries to withdraw language from its purpose “…so that it can become what it really is: sound and freedom”[13]. His contributions are, as Mac Low notes, that

his development of methods that […] diminished the ego’s dominance did indeed conduce to ‘letting in the rest of creation’ and to certain hearers’, viewers’, and performers’ giving ‘bare attention’ to the audible, visible, and intelligible elements his works comprise.[14]


[1] John Cage, “An Autobiographical Statement”, http://www.newalbion.com/cagej/autobiog.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cf. ibid.

[4] According to oral tradition, the I-Ching is a book of oracles which operates on the basis of chance and relies upon tossed coins. It is supposed to show how to become part of the world’s energy’s flow in order to live in harmony. Cage uses the I-Ching to create chance operations for his music (determination of process and duration) and his writings (location and distribution of source material).

[5] Al Hansen offers a simple definition: “The Happening is a collage of situations and events occurring over a period of time in space.” Kathan Brown, “Changing art: a chronicle centred on John Cage”, A John Cage Reader – In Celebration of his 70th Birthday, eds. J. Brent, P. Gena D. Gillespie (New York: C. F. Corporation, 1982) 129.

[6] In this piece, the musicians sit with their instruments without playing a single sound: The actual music consists of the (natural) sounds of the surrounding. In this way, Cage tries to let the listener become part of the piece.

[7] John Cage, Silence: lectures and writings by John Cage (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1961).

[8] John Cage, A Year from Monday (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).

[9] Kathan Brown, “Changing art: a chronicle centred on John Cage“, A John Cage Reader, 130.

[10] John Cage in M. J. O’Driscoll, “Silent Texts and Empty Words – Structure and Intention in the Writings of John Cage”, Contemporary Literature 38, 4 (University of Wisconsin, 1997) 623.

[11] Cf. Stefan Jürging, “Die Tradition des Traditionsbruches: John Cages amerikanische Ästhetik“, Beiträge aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 11 (Frankfurt a. M.: Lang, 2002) 111.

[12] O’Driscoll, 624.

[13] Dieter Mersch, “Jenseits des Zeichens. Einige sprachphilosophische Reflexionen zu John Cages Textkompositionen“, Musik – Texte 15 (1986) 18.

[14] Jackson Mac Low, “Cage’s Writings up to the Late 1980s”, Writings through John Cage’s music, poetry, and art, eds. David W. Bernstein, Christopher Hatch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001) 232.


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John Cage Writer Chance Poets Artists Performers Black Mountain College




Title: John Cage: Writer by Chance