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Musical Space: John Cage

John Cage, one of the most influential and revolutionary composers of the 20th Century, was born almost exactly 100 years ago. He was very well schooled as a composer, but it seems as though his mission was to reject nearly every compositional technique he was taught, and instead push the boundaries, even the very definition of music. His results were, to say the least, interesting.

Cage’s earliest work was organized using arbitrary sequences of numbers and simple mathematical processes. In 1940 he began writing for what he called the “prepared piano”: nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber were attached to strings of a grand piano, vastly expanding the tonal range of the instrument but rendering it nearly unidentifiable.

By the 1950s Cage began using chance operations; compositional choices were left to the I Ching, star charts, and other random number generators. Sometimes his scores used invented notation systems, for instance, lines drawn on a coordinate graph. Other works consisted of pieces of recording tape spliced together in random ways. His piece, “As Slow as Possible,” is being performed right now on an organ in a church in Germany. The performance is scheduled to last 639 years.

All of these things contributed to Cage’s notoriety, but the truly revolutionary thing about his music was not so much how it was made, but how it was designed to be listened to. His music was heavily influenced by his study of eastern philosophy, and it seems his desire was for his audience to listen carefully and without judgment--to achieve a meditative state of mind where nothing is expected, everything is heard as though it was for the first time.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.