From his use of chance operations to the integration of noise and silence into music, few people influenced the course of 20th-century artistic thought

From his use of chance operations to the integration of noise and silence into music, few people influenced the course of 20th-century artistic thought as much as John Cage (1912-1992). Throughout his career, Cage redefined what could be termed musical, and his innovative concepts in the arts led to radical interdisciplinary inventions such as happenings and the Fluxus movement.

Although he studied composition with the Austrian serialist Arnold Schoenberg, Cage's earliest works use rhythm and time as structural elements rather than pitch. He first gained notoriety with his pieces for percussion ensemble, in which he combined found objects, such as tin cans and brake drums, with traditional instruments.

In 1940, Cage went a step further by creating the prepared piano, which allowed a single performer to imitate the sounds of a whole percussion ensemble. To prepare a piano, Cage added everyday objects to the strings — erasers, nuts, bolts, clothespins — that greatly expanded the timbral palette of the instrument. Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) is one of his best-known works for prepared piano, and Big Fish Audio recently released a sample set using the preparations required for the piece.

Cage's study of Zen Buddhism led to the incorporation of chance operations and indeterminate elements in his work. Consulting the I-Ching and using random-number tables allowed Cage to remove intent from the compositional process. His interest in “the enjoyment of things as they come, as they happen, rather than as they are possessed” led to his pioneering concept of the multimedia event, in which the individual elements — sounds, visuals, movement — were determined independently by the performers. No two performances of such works are alike, making it difficult to judge many of his pieces by two-dimensional documentation, such as recordings or film.

Cage — whose contemporary followers include Oval and the Olivia Tremor Control — claimed that he didn't own any records and never listened to recorded music unless it was part of a piece. In fact, his Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) was the first musical composition to include recordings as one of the primary sound sources. The work predates the musique concrète of French composer Pierre Schaeffer by nearly a decade.

One of his most important contributions is the concept that silence does not exist. Cage's observation is based on his experience in an anechoic chamber — a room devoid of sound and reverberation — where he noted that, even in an absolutely quiet room, he could still hear something: a high sound and a low sound. Those were the sounds of his nervous and circulatory systems, respectively. As simple as this concept was, it had a profound effect on the post-War arts.

Cage's most notorious work, 4'33" (1952), which was written in response to the all-white canvases of painter Robert Rauschenberg, explores the concept of silence in musical terms. The score indicates timings for three movements and offers a single instruction — tacet — for each: The performer sits silently for the duration of each movement. As a result, the listener's focus moves from the performer to the sounds that appear unintentionally in the surrounding environment.

Cage was also a pioneer in the field of tape-music composition (collaborating with Louis and Bebe Barron, who later scored the first feature film with an entirely electronic soundtrack, Forbidden Planet) and live electronic music (with David Tudor and Gordon Mumma). He noted that the tape medium allowed a composer to measure time in terms of space and distance because a specific length of tape equaled a specific number of seconds.

Besides his music work, Cage was a respected painter and mycologist, as well as a prolific writer. His musings are best experienced in the first person. Silence (1961), a collection of lectures and stories, makes a great introduction to the remarkable world of John Cage.