John Cage

born in 1912 in Los Angeles; died in 1992 in New York


1930–1932: Trip to Europe

1932–1937: Studies piano in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Paris and composition with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schönberg

1934: Marries Xenia A. Kashevaroff (divorce 1946)

1939: Teaches at the Cornish School in Seattle

1941: Professor at the Chicago School of Design

1942: Moves to New York and teaches at various colleges

1940s: Has contact with representatives of the New York School, a circle of American painters and poets who also influenced Cage; engages with abstract expressionism, as well as with Erik Satie, Far Eastern philosophy, and Zen Buddhism and the writings of Meister Eckehart, Henry David Thoreau, and James Joyce

1948 and 1952: Teaches at Black Mountain College, first multimedia happening there in 1952

1953: Foundation and musical director of Merce Cunningham Dance Company with his partner, dancer, and choreographer Merce Cunningham

1956: Teaches at the New School of Social Research, New York

1954–1969: Lives in an anarchist-pacifist cooperative in Stony Point, New York; since that period, intensive engagement with mycology, the study of mushrooms

1962: Co-founder of the Mycological Society in New York

Visual Arts

Visual Arts

Cage explored abstract modernism during a trip to Europe and maintained very close contacts with visual artists in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. His intensive engagement with abstract expressionism and with Eastern philosophies and spiritual wisdom led him to experiment musically and artistically with chance as an open-ended method. On this basis, he created what are known as the Ryoanji drawings and watercolors from 1983 to 1992; this group of around 170 pieces forms his principal graphic work.


Beginning in 1930, John Cage spent a year and a half in Europe, where, among other things, he engaged with abstract art and briefly tried his hand at painting. He found both surrealism—which was just emerging at the time—and psychoanalysis uninspiring, preferring Dadaism. His involvement with abstract expressionism, as well as conversations with Marc Tobey and especially the latter’s White Writing works, fundamentally altered Cage’s perspective. Looking at the broad, centerless pavement, he was struck by the philosophical realization that no brushstroke can be painted in the same white and that the composition, as with Mondrian, points beyond the frame. Drawing on this insight, he concluded that musical compositions do not need to rise to a climax, adopting a stance that negated divisions between art and life and subsequently led him to become involved with Zen Buddhism.

In 1962, Cage visited the famous meditation garden of the Ryoanji Zen Temple in Kyoto, which dates from around 1500. The garden’s arrangement of fifteen stones on mossy islands amidst an area of finely raked white gravel intrigued him. It cannot be logically explained but only experienced, for no vantage point allows viewers to see all the stones at the same time. Cage was convinced that chance underpinned the garden’s creation and transposed his impressions into his work, initially in music and only later in drawings, for his teacher, Arnold Schönberg, had made him promise to devote his life exclusively to music.

Cage’s first known visual artwork, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, an object composed of plexiglass discs with letters and word fragments in various fonts, dates from 1969. In the late 1970s, he began making prints. From 1983 to 1992, he created the group of Ryoanji drawings, which are rooted in a chance-based method. Cage consulted the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, in order to determine the positioning of fifteen different stones on paper or etching plates and the hardness of the pencils he used to circle repeatedly around the stones. Ryoanji watercolors followed in 1988. In 1992, he created his last graphic work, Without Horizon. Cage developed a hanging system, also based on random operations, to present his two-dimensional works.

Author: Doris Leutgeb



John Cage is one of the twentieth-century’s most influential composers of experimental music. In contrast to most European avant-garde artists’ methodology and rule-bound approach, he adopted an open, process-oriented approach in which chance or automated and interactive operations play an essential role. However, by stipulating the parameters for these operations, he always remains the creative originator of each composition.

Cage saw tones, sounds and noises as being of equal value and from 1938 on expanded the auditory spectrum of his work, preparing pianos by installing various objects within them and subsequently incorporating sounds and noises generated by everyday objects into his compositions. In addition, silence, which in practice can never be complete, was for him not an element constituting a pause but rather an active auditory event.

Cage was a friend of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1913 had already written compositions based on chance operations, although still for traditional instruments. Cage’s music and teaching activities have made him a seminal influence on numerous artists, especially representatives of the Fluxus movement, including Nam June Paik. Cage wrote a Hommage à Duchamp and Paik wrote a Hommage à John Cage.


In the 1930s, Cage founded his own percussion ensemble, which at times included Merce Cunningham and László Moholy-Nagy. In 1938, he made his first prepared piano, clamping various objects between the strings to alter the sounds produced. Between 1946 and 1948, he wrote Sonatas and Interludes to be played on such a prepared piano. His compositions include works for piano, chamber music, percussion pieces, vocal music, and ballets.

From the 1950s onward, influenced by Far Eastern philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Eastern spiritual wisdom like the I Ching, he expanded traditional compositional techniques by incorporating chance as a phenomenon of unpredictability. This principle is also reflected in one of his most famous pieces, 4'33"<k> (1952), whose title references the duration of a period of silence. At the world premiere, pianist David Tudor marked the three movements (instruction: tacet) solely by opening and closing the piano lid. Silence de facto never emerges. The piece is created by the noises in the room that occur during every performance.

In the 1960s, Cage experimented with computers (HPSCHD, 1967–1969). In conjunction with Marcel Duchamp, he organized a chess game with the title Reunion in Toronto on March 5, 1968. With every move, hidden sensors in the chessboard trigger tone sequences. For Child of Tree in 1975 Cage even used plant material to generate sounds. From 1987 he wrote the five-part opera series Europeras, probably his most radical work for music theater. In the last years of his life, Cage composed Number Pieces, in which the numbers correspond to the number of musicians.

Cage often scored his compositions graphically. In the 1950s, for example, he rendered the unevenness of woody paper visible, subsequently using it to shape the pitch of a composition, as well as deploying series of numbers, maps, and astronomical charts.

Author: Doris Leutgeb

In the Exhibition

In the Exhibition

Water Walk, 1959

CBS TV Show I’ve Got a Secret with John Cage, 1960, 4:32 min.

John Cage Trust

In 1960, John Cage performed his Water Walk on the popular TV show I’ve Got a Secret, where it was recorded. The moderator emphasized that the sequence of sounds was by no means random, instead proceeding with mathematical precision and with controlled timing. Objects on the stage included a tape recorder, a bath full of water, tables, a boiling pressure cooker, a water jug, four radios, and an open grand piano. Cage explained that the title of this piece refers to the water in the bathtub, as well as to the motion of his walking back and forth during the performance.


Unfazed by laughter that began to spread through the audience, Cage first switched on a tape recorder and then generated sounds in various ways, constantly looking at a stopwatch and striking, with increasing vigor, four radios, which for legal reasons he could not switch on. He did all this with an extremely serious air, while laughter rippled through the audience, rising to a crescendo when the artist pushed the radios off the tables one by one, so that they crashed down onto the floor. He explained that he had to change the score because he was not allowed to turn on the radios and therefore could not turn them off. In the end, he switched off the tape recorder and concluded the piece by placing the valve on the bubbling pressure cooker. The laughter became part of the musical performance.

Author: Doris Leutgeb



Doris Leutgeb