Introductory Note

You should recall John Cage from the American Experimentalists topic.  His work from that earlier period (1930–1950) includes percussion music, the prepared piano, and the early piece Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (using records with sine waves).

After 1950, Cage's work changed dramatically, and that's what will be focused on here.


Do understand that Cage is among the most complex and challenging figures of Western musical history.  His ideas and work can sometimes seem confusing, contradictory, and even frustrating.  It is not important to agree with him or adopt his methods; What is important is to reserve judgment and opinions, and simply absorb and think about the material.  The assignment is designed to help with that.

Taking the effort to understand Cage's unique musical paradigm also presents a very valuable opportunity to profoundly change the way we approach sound and listening.    


California/New York

First Construction in Metal (1939)

John Cage

Percussion music is a transition to the 'all-sound' music of the future.  Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music.


  • A trained musician– studied composition with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg

  • Huge number of works in many different media, including electronic music

  • Important collaborator in dance, film, visual art, performance, video

  • Respected authority on eastern philosophy, macrobiotic cooking, wild mushroom collecting


  • Anti-romantic approach: Uninterested in the singularity of the 'artiste' or emotion-driven work
  • Suppression of the artist's ego & preferences
  • Awareness & openness of all sounds in an environment as belonging
  • Incorporates Buddhist thought & philosophy
  • A sense of 'play' in his work

Sound & Silence

In the 1950s, Cage had the opportunity to be inside an anechoic chamber.  This is very specialized room used for scientific study that has no reflections and is completely soundproof from outside noise.  Thus, they are common referred to as the 'quietest' rooms on Earth.  (If you ever get the chance to visit one, do it!  It is like no other experience.)


Cage entered the room and expected absolute silence, but still heard two distinct sounds:  A high-pitched whine, and a low rumble.  He asked why, if the room was supposed to be silent, he was still hearing these sounds.  The engineer replied that the high-pitched whine was the sound of his nervous system, and the low rumble was the sound of his blood!


It was at this point that he discovered there was no true silence in the world.

Tools and Techniques

  • Use of chance operations to generate randomness:

    • Rolling dice

    • Flipping coins

    • Using a computer to generate random numbers

    • Abstract graphics

    • Other non-musical sources of decision-making

  • Use of the I Ching ("Book of Changes"), an ancient Chinese book that presents a sort of system of philosophy and study of the universe. It introduces symbols and how they can be used.

  • Electronics were another set of tools that could be used to accomplish the goal of creating data using chance operations.

Part of the musical 'score' for Fontana Mix:  Sheets of clear plastic lines and dots are overlaid on each other.  The patterns they make are used to determine pitch, time, and volume.  Each sheet is separate, so they can be re-arranged differently for every performance  

Cage's piece Water Walk was featured on the game show I've Got a Secret (back when TV was live and took risks!).

Cage and Technology

  • Tape & Film
    allowed use of any sound/image outside their original context, and could be edited freely.

  • Amplification
    made familiar sounds unrecognizable, and made unfamiliar ones audible.

  • Radios
    provided a huge range unpredictable sounds.

  • Computers
    could generate true random numbers without involvement of the artist.

Technology provided a layer of 'insulation' to disconnect the artist's preferences from the sonic result.

  1. Read about it with the link above.
  2. Listen to it on the D2L topic page.
  3. View an excerpt of the 200+ page score on the next slide.  The 'score' is editing instructions (created with chance operations), without knowing what the recordings are. 

This film is crucial to beginning to understand Cage– View it at least once.

Elements of Composition

  1. Goal
    What is to be accomplished?  What should it sound like?
  2. Materials
    What is the general musical system and sonic raw material?
  3. Tools
    What technologies are best to shape the materials into the goal?
  4. Techniques
    How will the tools be used?  What specific operations? 
J.S. Bach Multiple parts creating a whole Tonal music, Church hymns Western instruments Rules of counterpoint
Nancarrow Advanced rhythm & tempo exploration Western scales, Jazz Player piano Mathematical formulas and ratios
Cage Music free of composer's decisions Any sound Tape, Radios,
Dice, Coins,
I Ching
Random number generation

John Cage & Indeterminacy

By Brian

John Cage & Indeterminacy

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