John Cage (1912-1993) is one of the fathers of 20th Century eclectic and experimental music. He changed in many ways how music was perceived and performed...his work in the 1950's using collages of taped sounds as a method of composing makes him a pivotal figure in the development of electronic music and sampling.
country of origin:
Classical avant-garde, world music, experimental, modern classical
1930's - 1990's
some essential releases:
- Works For Piano & Prepared Piano Vol. 1 [performer: Joshua Piece] (1994, Wergo)
- In A Landscape [performer: Stephan Drury] (1995, BMG)
Reviewed by Mike G
"New music. New listening. Just an attention to the activity of sounds."
"Invade areas where nothing is definite."
These are manifestos of the late John Cage (1912-1993), one of the fathers of 20th Century eclectic and experimental music.
While dissonance, discordant progressions and general contrariness defined a good deal of 20th century classical music - often called Serialism - John Cage's musical rebellions were quite different. He changed in many ways how music was perceived and performed. Using ideas from Zen Buddhism, for example, he introduced the notion of randomness into musical composition where the opposite had for so long been cherished. He was also one of the first Western musicians to work extensively with sounds from Africa and the East. He asked us to consider the power of silence and ambience in his infamous piece "4'33". Perhaps most importantly, with his 1950's work using collages of taped sounds as a method of composing, he was a pivotal figure in the development of electronic music and sampling. It is not too difficult, then, to see the extent of his influence into the eclectic world of modern ambient, experimental and downtempo.
A complete dissection of this American composer's work is best left to books on the classical avant-garde. For now, here are a couple of his more accessible albums to get you acquainted.
Cage himself usually doesn't appear on his albums; instead as per the classical tradition his pieces are performed by others. Works For Piano & Prepared Piano Vol. 1 (1994) and In A Landscape (1995) are both relatively recent recordings of various Cage pieces for piano, prepared piano, organ and toy piano. The prepared piano was a Cage innovation, which consists of a grand piano with bits of wood, metal and other objects stuck in the strings, transforming it from a purely tonal instrument into a more percussive one. By transforming the piano into a one-man percussion orchestra Cage was able to produce striking and exotic non-Western sounds, as on the Indonesian gamelan-flavoured pieces "A Room" and "A Valentine Out Of Season".
His pieces for conventional piano on these albums are also revelatory. The haunting and spacious "In A Landscape" as well as "Music For Marcel Duchamp" explore drifting melodic phrases not unlike the music of modern ambient pianists Harold Budd and Tim Story.
Cage's music demands serious attention and can be difficult in the extreme - particularly his post-1940's work - but these albums are both enjoyable and enlightening.