September 5th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American avant-garde composer John Cage. He was responsible for introducing revolutionary compositional techniques to conventional western art music, as the foremost exponent of aleatoric (or chance) music. Cage was given the ancient Chinese text the I-Ching by one of his students, Christian Woolf (Woolf's father Kurt published the first English translation), and this text was a seminal influence on his creative output. Building on and re-defining the role of the composer and their relationship with their audience, his compositions often consulted the I-Ching using chance procedures to determine pitch, rhythm and sound production. Atlas Elipticalis (1961-2) has the star chart by Czech Astronomer Antonin Becvar (published 1958) as its basis (musical staves are superimposed over the star chart itself, and the stars help discover the pitches of the music).
Cage caused major controversy with his one of his most renowned compositions 4"33 (1952), a work in which the performers sit for its duration in silence, poised at the ready but not actually playing. While disconcerting to audiences and some critics alike, the piece raised interesting questions about the place of ambient and environmental sound in music, as well as the composer and performer voluntarily relinquishing their artistic control and desire to 'impose' their creative will on their audience. He said of the piece, "There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out". It epitomises his idea that any sounds constitute, or may constitute music.
He also pioneered the use of 'prepared piano' (using a variety of external objects applied to the piano's strings to alter the instrument's timbre), creating new sound-scapes for the instrument, as well as a new style of instrumental composition.
The Music and Dance Library contains an extensive collection of books about John Cage, as well as musical scores of compositions, and audio and visual recordings of performances.
Music and Dance Library