John Cage was born September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles. He is today regarded as one of the central figures in the music history of our century. The extent of his influence and the far-reaching effect of his ideas is immeasurable. In Europe his work began to be recognized during the fifties, thereby strengthening his position in the USA considerably. Since the thirties Cage has been composing continually for all available media. Above all, his inclusion of chance operations for compositional decisions became famous - a procedure based on a totally new understanding of what music is, what art is. Frequently Cage provides no more than a framework or situation, the content of which can always be filled anew by the musicians and which varies with every repetition. Occasionally, however, Cage also records the results of these chance operations in precise notation, resulting in a fixed text for the interpretation he did so for the first time in 1951 for his Music of Changes and the Imaginairy Landscape No.4. Since then, decisions based on chance and made with the help of the ancient Chinese book of oracles I Ching become a central component of his working method. Up to the present Cage has written over 150 compositions and published several volumes of his collected writings, a majority of which can be regarded as musical compositions.
Music of Changes
John Cage's Music of Changes consists of four parts, all of which were composed in 1951 in New York City. They are dated at the end of each part as follows: I, May 16, 1951 ; II, August 2, 1951 ; III, October 1 8, 1951 ; IV, December 13, 1951.
This cycle of piano music is dedicated to David Tudor and within Cage's works clearly represents, together with the Imaginairy Landscape No.4 for twelve radios (1951), a turning point - not, however, in the sense of a reorientation, even less a turning back, but a radical overhaul of his compositional technique and a fundamental renewal of his artistic self-awareness.
What caused Cage's Music of Changes to become a key work in the music of the twentieth century is the new use of chance operations in making important compositional decisions.
Cage starts work on the composition of Music of Changes by preparing charts of square numbers for tempi, dynamics, sounds or rests, durations and overlapping. Chance, which he consults by means of tossing coins (the shortened version of the yarrow stalk oracle), decides which of the given materials are to be combined. The result is written down in a comparatively conventional manner according to a pattern of previously devised bars so that the sequence is now definitely determined and the individual sound event in every parameter occurs with the greatest possible precision. The category of chance therefore only plays a part at the moment of composition, but not at the moment of interpretation during the performance. The performer has to adhere strictly to a text of almost unprecedented exactness of notation. Its origin from chance operations is only evident in those places, where the juxtaposition of certain instructions make it manually impossible to play. In such Cage, who is aware of the occasional irrationallity of his notation, leaves the solution of the contradiction to the performer. In addition to the sound material mentioned are sounds without determined pitch, i.e. noises (slamming the lid over the keys, audible depression of a pedal, striking below the keyboard, etc.). The distribution of these noises is free and was undertaken spontaneously by the composer.
It is in the nature of Cage's procedures not to make any demands whatever regarding the resulting sound, since the aim is not a predictable experience and since the unexpected is its elixir. Thus the impressiun of chaos or anarchy feIt by some while listening to the music of Cage says as much about this listener's aesthetic expectation, his/her musical desires, his/her needs for harmony, continuity and order, as it says nothing about the worth or worthlessness of Cage's effort. At least the fact that this music helps to define our cultural position more clearly than any theoretical discussion weighs heavily in its estimation.