John Cage Defined in the 1950s
John Cage is considered by many to be the defining voice of avant-garde music throughout the 20th century. Fusing philosophy with composition, he reinvented the face of modern music, leading composer Arnold Schoenberg to declare, "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor -- of genius" (Kostelanetz 6). For Cage, the 1950s brought a series of critical events that both refined his message as a composer and brought him great fame, or infamy to some. His interest in Eastern Zen philosophy blossomed throughout the early part of the decade, a subject that is actively pursued and reinforced in all of his following musical works. The 1950s also brought the revelation for Cage that sound is inherently present in all of us when he entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. This manifested in his work as the famous "silent" piece 4'33". Cage's involvement at Black Mountain College during this period contributed remarkable development to his music and ideas that defined the rest of his works. The 1950s were the defining decade for the career of philosopher and composer, John Cage.
Cage was born into a Los Angeles middle class family in 1912. His father was a less than successful inventor -- dabbling in the areas of submarines, medicine, space travel, and electrical engineering -- who instilled in him the idea that "if someone says 'can't', that shows you what to do." (Cage, An Autobiographical Statement) Cage learned how to play the piano as a child and took a liking to Grieg, and even briefly considered becoming a concert pianist. However, when Cage went to college it was to become a writer. He was deeply disillusioned by the conformity he saw in the students:
I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. 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, An Autobiographical Statement).
Cage departed for Europe where he spent a year traveling and attempting to become a refined writer. It was here where he was first exposed to modern music and painting and had the idea that he could do these things just as well. He returned to California and began composing music with no formal training, lecturing on modern music and painting to housewives to earn money. When he needed a pianist to perform a Schoenberg piece that proved too technically difficult to perform himself, Cage attempted to enlist the help of concert pianist Richard Buhlig. Buhlig turned down the offer, yet offered to help the struggling Cage with his compositions. Buhlig, realizing his own composition skills were inadequate to assist Cage in any meaningful way, suggested to Cage that he go and study with Henry Cowell. Cowell, living in New York City, eventually led Cage back to...