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1912 - 1992 John Cage

John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist, printmaker, and amateur mycologist and mushroom collector. A pioneer of chance music, electronic music and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage's romantic partner for most of their lives.

Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, the three movements of which are performed without a single note being played. The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, and the piece became one of the most controversial compositions of the twentieth century. Another famous creation of Cage's is the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by placing various objects in the strings), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces, the best known of which is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).

His teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage's major influences lay in various Eastern cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage's standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as "a purposeless play" which is "an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living".


Lawrence Totaro noted some references to Chess and composer/artist John Cage within the book, Conversing with Cage

Conversing with Cage. Contributors: Richard Kostelanetz - author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2003.

Page 5

Schoenberg was approaching sixty when I became one of his students in 1933. At the time what one did was to choose between Stravinsky and Schoenberg. So, after studying for two years with his first American student, Adolph Weiss, I went to see him in Los Angeles. He said, “You probably can’t afford my price, ” and I said, “You don’t need to mention it because I don’t have any money. ” So he said, “Will you devote your life to music?” and I said I would. And though people might feel, because I know my work is controversial, that I have not devoted myself to music utterly, that I have spent too much time with chess, or with mushrooms, or writing, I still think I’ve remained faithful. You can stay with music while you’re hunting mushrooms. It’s a curious idea perhaps, but a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time. —Jeff Goldberg (1976)

Page 12

To continue with Duchamp a bit: Was he a good chess teacher?

I was using chess as a pretext to be with him. I didn’t learn, unfortunately, while he was alive to play well. I play better now, although I still don’t play very well. But I play well enough now that he would be pleased, if he knew that I was playing better. So that when he would instruct me in chess, rather than thinking about it in terms of chess, I thought about it in terms of Oriental thought. Also he said, for instance, don’t just play your side of the game, play both sides. That’s a brilliant remark and something people spend their lives trying to learn—not just in chess, but everything. —Paul Cummings (1974)

Page 18

Why do you have such a strong interest in chess, which is a rigid, closed system?
In order to let it act as a balance to my interest in chance. I think the same thing is true of Marcel Duchamp. Because when he gave me his book on chess, I asked him to write something in it, and he wrote in French : “Dear John, Look out, still one more poisonous mushroom. ” Because both mushrooms and chess, you see, are the opposite of chance operations. —Art Lange (1977)
[Chess] is pretty directed then?
Yes. On the other hand, I like games anyway. I even like poker. I don’t play it very often. Sometimes if you get in residence at a university you have to play games with the teachers. Poker is very popular at universities. —Mark Bloch (1987)
I spend most of the day working. Sometimes I interrupt my work to go mushroom hunting or to play chess, which I don’t have a gift for. Marcel Duchamp once watched me playing and became indignant when I didn’t win. He accused me of not wanting to win. You must have an extraordinary aggressiveness to play well. —Jeff Goldberg (1976)

Page 32

So you don’t have any real secrets about how you manage all this?
Well, you begin by watering the plants, and you end the day by playing chess. And I have to do my exercises. And I shop, generally, though I didn’t do that today.
So by having a game of chess at the end of the day…

I’m making a balance with my use of chance operations. Because if I make a wrong move with my knight, I lose. Games are very serious success-and-failure situations, whereas the use of chance operations is very free of concern. It’s like being enlightened. —Kathleen Burch et al. (1986)

Page 185

Later, it must have been in the early sixties, it just happened that one holiday season between Christmas and New Year’s, when there are so many parties in New York, we happened to be invited to the same parties. Suddenly, I saw him every night, four nights in a row; and I noticed there was a beauty about his face that one associates, say, with coming death or, say, with a Velásquez painting. And I realized suddenly that I was foolish not to be with him, and that there was little time left. And so I said to Teeny [Mme. Duchamp], “Do you think Marcel would be willing to teach me to play chess?” Because I knew that that would be a way to be with him without asking him questions; or if I asked him questions, they would be ones it would be useful to know the answers to. And so she said, “Why don’t you ask him yourself. ” So I went up to him and said, “Would you teach me chess?” And he said, “Do you know the moves; do you know how the pieces move?” And I said, “Yes, I know that”; and he said yes. And so we made an appointment, then, for me to go to his house; and after that, we were together as often as possible, at least once a week when they were in New York, or sometimes twice a week. —Alain Jouffroy and Robert Cordier (1974)

Page 214-215

My two closest friends among [visual] artists are [Robert] Rauschenberg and [Jasper] Johns. And I knew many of the other painters, but my kind of family attachment is to Rauschenberg and Johns. And then I always admired Duchamp so much that I couldn’t speak straight and about four or five years ago, I asked him to teach me chess, so I often was with him in his last years, and I love his work very much. Originally, I had liked abstract painting, and particularly Mondrian. And then it was Rauschenberg who opened my eyes to the possibility of something that wasn’t abstract and then it’s been so interesting because it was then Johns. I see Johns now more than any of the others. I like, let’s see, of the ones since then, I think Claes Oldenburg. —Don Finegan et al. (1969)

Page 219

[The conceptual artist William Anastasi, whose career began in the early 60s, is probably best known for playing chess with John Cage everyday in the late 70's.]

We play chess every day. We’re going to play today, and he’ll either drive down or he’ll take the subway. If he comes down the subway, he’ll bring headphones without music, and papers and a board to draw on, and pencils and so forth; and he’ll make a drawing with his eyes closed, and his arms responding to the movement of the subway car. —Richard Kostelanetz (1991)

What can you say about John Cage?

A revolutionary composer, just as his friend Marcel Duchamp was a revolutionary artist, he was also, like Duchamp, an artist and a chess-player. It's difficult to explore Cage's chess connection without including Duchamp.

Chessbase featured an interview with Prof. Enrique Irazoqui, "An economist and a professor of literature, he is also an expert in information technology and artificial intelligence. For many years he edited a magazine on computer chess – in the end in electronic form. He always loved chess and has played against Marcel Duchamp, who was a master class chess player." Prof. Irazoqui lives in Cadaqués, which was also the home to famous artists, writers and intellectuals such as Picasso, Miro, Duchamp, Cage and Dalí, who "during all this time, in the cafes next to the sea, they played chess."
When asked about his chess associations with Duchamp and Cage, he responded:

How was it to play with Duchamp?

For me it was a pleasure but I am not sure it did him very well. He usually finished being very upset. Teeny, his wife, asked me not to play him any more because he would not sleep after that. It was tender, on a way, very fragile. After that I mainly played with Teeny.

And John Cage?

He used to ask Raymond Keene to teach him how to defeat Duchamp, but he never made it. I remember one day we were playing as usual, in the Café, and he placed a pentagram of thin translucent paper on the windows. He drew one note on top of each star and composed a melody of the night. Fortunately I never heard it, but this gives you an idea of how were these people and these days

The PBS American Masters Series claimed:

Many of Cage's ideas about what music could be were inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who revolutionized twentieth-century art by presenting everyday, unadulterated objects in museum settings as finished works of art, which were called "found art," or ready-mades by later scholars. Like Duchamp, Cage found music around him and did not necessarily rely on expressing something from within.

Marcel Duchamp and John Cage appear in a 1972 movie by that name. The linked page offers this description:

"Marcel Duchamp and John Cage" is both a document of a chess game and an unusual theory on the nature of art. While Duchamp and Cage play chess, Duchamp is filming the match according to a semi-random program of camera placement, focus setting, and length of shot. The film is constructed like one of Cage's musical compositions, and he talks at length about his esthetic philosophies as well. ~ John Voorhees, All Movie Guide

In 1944, Cage created a painting titled Chess Pieces that contains a music. John Cage had been invited to participate in The Imagery of Chess exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City ( along with such artists as Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Dorothea Tanning)

The music, interpreted by Margaret Leng Tan, is available on the album, John Cage: The Works for Piano 7

Margaret Leng Tan, who worked with Cage for 12 years and who performed the piano music on the album wrote, "There are 22 systems of music, each 12 bars long and self-contained. So what you have are 22 little 'chess pieces,"


Somewhere between Dream and Reality by Ya-Ling Chin explains:

Performed at Ryerson Theatre of Ryerson Polytechnic, Toronto, on March 5, 1968, Reunion was organized by John Cage and included the musicians David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman and a wired-up chessboard designed by Lowell Cross (Fig. 3). When Teeny and Marcel Duchamp took turns playing chess with Cage on the stage, the pre-modulated photoreceptors served as a gating mechanism to receive messages of movements and to transmit sound and light. Depending on the moves of the chess pieces, the sound was cut off or rerouted to generate a kind of random music by means of the pre-configured chance operation of two "intellectual minds."

Lowell Crass had constructed a chess board with circuits; moves on the board transmitted or cut off sound produced by several musicians.

From John Cage - An Autobiographical Statement :

I was invited by Irwin Hollander to make lithographs. Actually it was an idea Alice Weston had (Duchamp had died. I had been asked to say something about him. Jasper Johns was also asked to do this. He said, "I don't want to say anything about Marcel." I made Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel: eight plexigrams and two lithographs. Whether this brought about the invitation or not, I do not know.

From Painting a picture of a creative partnership by Susan Mansfield :

Cage would say later that he had enjoyed both music and visual art as a student, but that Schoenberg, under whom he studied in LA, forced him to choose between them. "He said that if he wanted to be a composer, he had to choose only music, which he did," says Miguel. "He didn't make visual work for about 30 years."
However, in 1969, he made Not Wanting To Say Anything About Marcel, a work using Plexiglas, as a response to the death of Marcel Duchamp. "He was in a taxi with Jasper Johns and they were both asked to say something about Duchamp, who had just died," says Miguel. "Neither of them wanted to say anything, because nothing would have been enough.

Not Wanting To Say Anything About Marcel, I, 1969

Not Wanting To Say Anything About Marcel, II, 1969

"Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel", 1969, "Lithograph B"

From The Page is Not a Neutral Surface by poetess Jessica Smith :

John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel. A stack of page-like glass rectangles, Not Wanting allows words to fragment and accumulate in turn—depending, in some cases, on the reader’s physical relation to the stack—and never allows one to take for granted any unit of meaning. No phrases exist. Words fracture. Partial letters slip into the murk of transparency. In the flatness of the pictures included in the Poetry Plastique exhibition catalog (Granary Press), one can see or imagine the three-dimensionality of the object, which itself takes advantage of all three dimensions to allow words to hide behind each other or escape from their strata depending on the viewpoint of the

After all, what can you say about John Cage?

Chess Pieces by John Cage

The pieces can also be heard at

Chess Pieces by John Cage

The music, as performed by Margaret Leng Tan, can also be found on this album
The Works for Piano 7

"Also on this disk are one of Cage's most impressive prepared piano pieces, Sonatas and Interludes, and the only other score contributed to the original exhibit, Vittorio Rieli's Chess Serenade."