John Cage


Born in 1912, John Cage was an experimental composer and pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and the non-standard use of musical instruments. Cage is frequently lauded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. At the same time he remains a controversial figure for challenging the very idea of what music is. [1]

There is some speculation as to when Cage’s association with the New School began, and it turns on when he moved to New York. Different sources put the year at either 1933 or 1934. [2] What all sources agree upon is who brought Cage to New York and the New School: a teacher who proved a lasting influence on his work, Henry Cowell. [3]

The story goes that Cage wrote to Cowell seeking feedback on his compositions. Cowell advised the young composer that he study with Arnold Schoenberg (who would become another important influence on his work). [4] However, Cowell also advised that Cage should first take some preliminary lessons in composition, and recommended Adolph Weiss, himself a former pupil of Schoenberg, who lived in New York. [5] It was on this advice that Cage moved to study traditional harmony and composition with Weiss. At that time he also took survey courses on contemporary and non-Western music with Cowell at the New School, and was his assistant for a time. [6] Of his time with Cowell, Cage would say:

That was very important to me, to hear through him music from all the various cultures; and they sounded different. Sound became important to me–and noise is so rich in terms of sound. [7]

Cowell, who himself was known for his radical innovations in music, delivered a number of lecture courses in both 1933 and 1934 which would have introduced young Cage to non-Western music practices: “The Place of Music in Society” (Spring 1933), “Contemporary American Music” (Fall 1933), “Music Systems of the World (Comparative Musicology)” (Fall 1933), “Primitive and Folk Origins of Music” (Fall 1934), and “Creative Music Today” (Fall 1934).

After some months in New York, Cage had improved enough to approach Schoenberg who agreed to tutor him for free. Cage would follow Schoenberg to California to continue his tutelage. [9].

Having proved himself as a composer, Cage returned to the New School in the 1950s, but this time as an instructor. From 1956 to 1961, Cage was a member of the New School’s faculty and taught five courses in music and mycology. His first – and most famous – course “Composition” continued over the five years, though was renamed “Experimental Composition” from 1958. According to the New School catalog, this was a course in:

musical composition with technological, musicological, and philosophical aspects, open to those with or without previous training. Whereas conventional theories of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form are based on the pitch and frequency components of sound, this course offers problems and solutions in the field of composition based on other components of sound: duration, timbre, amplitude, and morphology; the course also encourages inventiveness.

A full exposition of the contemporary musical scene in light of the work of Anton Webern, and present developments in music for magnetic tape (musique concrete: electronische musik).

“Experimental Composition” is regarded as an American source of Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers, and designers who engaged in experimental art performances which emphasized process over product. The majority of Cage’s students had little or no background in music. Most were artists and included Allan Kaprow who coined the term “happenings” to describe this process-driven work, and defined it as a genre. [10] Cage met Kaprow while on a mushroom hunt with artist George Segal and invited him to join his class.

In 1957, Cage introduced two new courses: “Virgil Thomson: The Evolution of a Composer” and “Erik Satie: The Evolution of a Composer”. These one-term courses were taught in the summer and fall, respectively. In 1958, Cage introduced a two-semester course, “Advanced Composition,” which he taught with Henry Cowell (his mentor and instructor) and Frank Wigglesworth. The class was scheduled for the fall of 1958 and spring of 1959, but was cancelled.

First advertised in fall 1959, Cage’s final course at the New School reflected his interest in mycology, “Mushroom Identification”. Cage taught with Guy Nearing, a fellow co-founder of the New York Mycological Society. The course description reveals very little:

Five field trips in the vicinity of New York City. Preliminary meeting for information on transportation, etc., Monday, June 22, 8:20 p.m.

Mr. Cage is an amateur mycologist and honorary member, Gruppo Micological “G. Bresadola,” Trent, Italy.

Mr. Nearing is a botanist and rhododendron breeder.

From Clara Mayer’s records, we learn something of Cage’s motivation for teaching and the benefit it brought to the School. In 1958, Mayer, the school’s Vice President, wrote:

You are one of the few people to whom money is really secondary, which makes me feel somewhat less unhappy about the size of the checks which you have been getting here. As teaching is at best a labor of love, perhaps it is of some relevance for me to tell you how much the association with you has meant to me personally as well as to the School.

There is no doubt that Cage, too, benefitted from the association. Indeed, this teaching period proved generative for his own work. Among his pieces completed in the late 1950s while at New School were Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58), a seminal work in the history of graphic notation, and Variations I (1958). His later Variations and other pieces produced in the 1960s also bore the stamp of his New School experience. These pieces are described as “happenings”, the art form developed by Cage and his “Experimental Composition” students, whereby performance events are not scripted and have no definite duration.

After his time at the New School, Cage continued to have both a successful and controversial music career. He died in Manhattan in 1992.

[1] Rodman, Michael. “Artist Biography”. All Music (available online).

[2] Miller, Leta E. 2006. “Henry Cowell and John Cage: Intersections and Influences, 1933-1941”. Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol 59, no. 1, p. 49.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage, 2nd ed. Routledge: New York, p. 61.

[5] Ibid, p. 7

[6] Ibid, p. 7.

[7] Ibid, p. 41.

[8] Ibid, p. 105.

[9] Pritchett, James et al. “John Cage”. Grove Music Online (subscription required).

[10] Cotter, Holland. “Allan Kaprow Creator of Artistic Happenings Dies at 78”. New York Times obituary (April 10, 2006).


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