by Francesca Panseri

In 1942 Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst welcomed John Cage (1912–92) and his wife Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff in their New York home. The time they spent together was intense, though short-lived, and filled with art, music, and parties. When Cage refused Guggenheim’s invitation to hold a concert in her museum-gallery, Art of This Century, due to a previous engagement with the Museum of Modern Art, she severed the relationship. However, they eventually reconciled.

In 1960 they were together in Venice and Japan. According to Guggenheim:

That same year, I went to Japan with John Cage. He was invited by the Master of Flowers to give concerts in different cities. I followed him everywhere. I can’t say I like his music, but I went to every concert. Yoko Ono was our guide and translator and also took part in one of the performances. She was terribly efficient and nice and we became great friends. […] What I liked best in Japan was Kyoto, but I never managed to see enough temples as John Cage was not interested in sightseeing and would not let us out of his sight. He spent a whole afternoon looking for a special tie he had had made in Japan years before. Everything we saw we had to do by stealing away from him.

Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979) p. 365–66.

Yoko Ono, John Cage, and Peggy Guggenheim in Japan, 1960. Courtesy Sogetsu Foundation, Tokyo

Who is John Cage?
“A philosopher-composer who proposed a utopian idea about the pairing of art and life (and in general of human activities and life) [...] and presented a study in salvation for the contemporary man.” (Giacomo Fronzi, “Tra estetica e politica. La funzione sociale della musica a partire da John Cage,” in Il rasoio di Occam, May 24, 2013.)

John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and studied piano from an early age. When he was eighteen years old, he left college to travel to Europe. On this trip he was introduced to Johann Sebastian Bach and the artistic avant-garde, Igor Stravinsky and especially Erik Satie. Upon his return to California in 1931 he decided to devote himself to music and began studying initially with Henry Cowell and then with Arnold Schönberg, author of the twelve-tone technique. In 1936 he worked as a composer at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and began to experiment with percussion music. A few years later, in 1939, he composed First Construction (In Metal) based on unorthodox percussion instruments, such as cups, wheel rims, and tin containers. He also composed Imaginary Landscape No. 1, one of the first works to include recorded music. During those years he met choreographer Merce Cunningham, their artistic and romantic partnership lasted for the rest of their lives.

In 1940 Cage developed the prepared piano, altering the sound of a traditional piano by placing objects between or on its strings or hammers, making it impossible for the player to fully control its sound. This marked an important moment in his career, as he sought to eliminate the notion of authorship of a work of art. The public was shocked to hear what sounded more like a percussion orchestra than a piano. Sonatas and Interludes (1946–49) is his most highly acclaimed work using the prepared piano. His studies of Eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism, and a profound understanding of Marcel Duchamp’s work marked a turning point in Cage’s artistic production in the mid-1940s. His notion of the experience of music was revolutionary. Cage pushed boundaries by utilizing indeterminacy techniques and seeking unknown outcomes. No distinction was made between sounds and noises, and all the perceived sounds of life and the city were freed from superfluous historical, aesthetic, mnemonic, and emotional elements. For Cage these sounds required nothing more than their own existence: they occupy the soundscape as men occupy the earth and the stars the sky. If sounds do not need to be organized, harmonious or communicative, the composer's only role is to create the conditions for them to be listened to and accepted. This was an ethical and political endevour on Cage’s part. The epitome of his belief that any sound may constitute music is found in 4’33” (1952), his most important and controversial work. The keyboard cover rises, 4 minutes and thirty-tree seconds pass, then the keyboard cover is lowered: 4’33” consists of the sounds that occur in the concert hall while the performer does nothing but sit.

In the following years Cage worked on the anti-dogmatic and anarchist potential of 4’33”, and ventured into works based on a combination of music, dance, poetry, theater, visual arts, audience participation and chance. As he had done with his music, he relinquished control, authorship, and determination in favor of a spontaneous and unpredictable display of creativity from all involved. Cage believed that art is the way in which life speaks of itself, that art infiltrates life and the two cannot be separated.

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