John Cage

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John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912August 12, 1992) was an American composer. A pioneer of chance music, electronic music and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde and, in the opinion of many, the most influential American composer of the 20th century.


  • A finished work is exactly that, requires resurrection.
    • Forerunners of Modern Music (1949), first published in the New York journal A Tiger's Eye, later collected in Silence.
    • Notes: many of Cage's works are "unfinished" in the traditional sense, only becoming complete when performed (often as a result of leaving certain elements to chance).
  • Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
    • "Communication", the third of the Composition as a Process lectures given in Darmstadt in 1958 and published in Silence.
    • Notes: many of Cage's works use sounds traditionally regarded as unmusical (radios not tuned to any particular station, for instance): he really did believe that the sound of a truck and the sounds made in a factory had just as much musical worth as the sounds made in a music school. There is also a suggestion expressed in the quote that in order to determine the artistic worth of something, it is necessary to examine the context in which it exists.
  • A sound does not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing another sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has not time for any consideration--it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.
    • 1955, quoted in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, ISBN 0028645812
  • I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I'm changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically uniquely themselves. This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is but what it actually is in all of its acoustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.
    • 1952, quoted in Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, ISBN 0028645812
  • I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.' So I said, 'I'll beat my head against that wall'.
    • Notes: This statement had a double meaning: Cage was stating his displeasure in his musical predicament, but also, by "beating" his head against that wall, he was alluding to the genre of music he would go on to compose, which was largely percussive.
  • “What I'm proposing, to myself and other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before. So that you're not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before.”
  • "Art's purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens."
    • 1982, quoted in "John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind", ISBN 1891300164

About Cage

  • Cage's Music of Changes was a further indication that the arts in general were beginning to consciously deal with the "given" material and, to varying degrees, liberating them from the inherited, functional concepts of control.


  • We need not destroy the past. It is gone.
  • I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.
  • If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical, it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.
  • Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
  • I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.
  • I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson. And so we make our lives by what we love.
  • The living, for the first time in history, now outnumber the dead
  • In Zen, it is said, if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.
  • The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.
  • As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency.

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See also

See: list of people by name