There is much that can be said about a person that is so passionate about playing as he is about talking about music, John Cage manages to bring so much to the table from experimental music, great prowess as a pianist and a unique knowledge that practicaly makes him one of the most interesting philosphers of our time.

In this article we will be focusing on some of Cage’s most important topics so that by the end we have a better understanding of his point of view and music in general.

John Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912, he studied at Pamona College, and later at UCLA with famous composer Arthur Schoenberg. After his time as a student he came to the conclusin that the music he wanted to make was very different from the music of his time, or any music by that matter, he said “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg responded with ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ only to make Cage determined to say, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’”

Experimental Music

Cage said:

One does not make just any experiment but does what must be done. By this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at money but does what must be done; by this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at fame (success) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to arrive at the establishing of a school (truth) but does what must be done

John Cage, “Writing’s through John Cage’s Music, Poetry + Art”.

In a way, a musician arrives to a complete musical work because it is some sort of second nature, or as if it’s every musician’s personal duty. This is an important thing to have in mind when thinking about experimental music and how the approach can be a success or utter failure.

In the 1930s Cage began experimenting with new ways to play and compose.

Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance
and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise
and so-called musical sounds. The present methods of writing music,
principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular
steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will
be faced with the entire field of sound. New methods will be discovered,
bearing a definite relation to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system and present
methods of writing percussion music and any other methods which
are free from the concept of a fundamental tone.

John Cage, “Writing’s through John Cage’s Music, Poetry + Art”

Cage’s view on the world had a part in the making of post modern music, while understanding that post modernism is a continuation of sorts of the modern era, thus, we are looking at music that follows some patterns of modern music with some other elements. Cage understood this, and many of his works in the 1950s were already considered post modern by critics.

Philosophy of John Cage


During the late 1940s, Cage began studying asian culture and ideas through zen and indian philosophy in his words:

It was also at the Cornish School that I became aware of Zen Buddhism, which later, as part of oriental philosophy, took the place for me of psychoanalysis. I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.

This last phrase says a lot about Cage’s state of mind during his compositions. With these influences and the avant garde context that he was in, including his admiration for Marcel Duchamp and other dadaist propositions, it became clear that his mind as a musician was going towards a new idea of music, one that relied on something more simple, just sounds and silence, while understanding that silence doesn’t exist and that sounds are more present than we think, it doesn’t have to be a perfect melody in order to feel the peace of meditation through the sounds of silence.

Some consider that he is one of the greatest musicians in the world, others believe he wasn’t really a genius but the truth is that his ideas rang a bell inside many people’s heads and to this day, his compositions receive high praise around the world

My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard.  I don’t hear the music I write.  I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.

John Cage

John Cage’s famous 4’33
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These days we’ve come to understand and learn how to play instruments that have been around for many years, some as old as flutes and drums, others a bit more new like the violin and the piano, to the more modern ones such as electric guitars, synthesizers and computers.

The origin of how every instrument came to be is always fascinating, to think that people eventually found out that wind could make sounds that were as pleasing as a bird singing, or that tensing strings could allow for new melodies and sounds when you strum and press the strings in different ways, or even the endless possibilities of computer algorithms and samples in the digital domain.

After thinking a little about the history of certain musical instruments, one starts to wonder, where do we go from here? well we are going somewhere and there are already strange ideas being put to the test by musicians, luthiers, producers, engineers and pretty much everyone interested in music that wishes to expand the possbilites of the existing instruments or even create new ones.

Experimental Frankensteins

One of the most fun things to see and listen is how some musicians take it a step further with their instruments, allowing for combinations that blow our minds in new ways.

One of the most famous experimental instruments is the American Fotoplayer, used for circus music and classic cartoons.

Joe Rinaudo performing at the American Fotoplayer “Entry of the Gladiators” By Julius Fu?ík (1897)

Another good example to get a grip on this idea of a “Frankenstein musical instrument” is Muse’s Matt Bellamy’s Manson guitar, which has been outfitted with a kaoss pad to extend the range of sound manipulation on his guitar.

Now it’s important to know what is a kaoss pad, and why is it so special when it’s combined with an electric guitar. The Korg Kaoss pad is an audio effects interface with a touch pad that allows the manipulation of sound including pitch, loops, distortion, delay and many other sounds.

Many of these ideas come from strange combinations, and some take it further like Jon Rose’s “El Lubricato”, which is not very popular by any means but it gives an interesting insight to what “Experimental” in musical instruments development could mean.

He says:

I found the Ikea table on the street, cut it in half (as one should) and added an ex-oil drum as a resonator (gift of Paul Bryant). The course of strings in the lower half of the instrument were added later after some experimentation with bowed rods proved unsuccessful. The powered bow wheels are inspired by ancient hurdy gurdy technology, and were cut by local violin maker Harry Vatiliots. Sound is from the camera microphone, there are no electronic effects.

There are also minor experimentations with unusual materials such as using carbon fiber for the guitar body or basic modifications to instruments.

New Instruments

When it comes to new instruments, the most recently recognized musical instrument is the turntable, which was invented around the late 20th century going through a fase of experimentation since the 1930s until it was really established in the 1990s. This came to be a big step in music as it relied on sound manipulation rather than producing it. This became a big staple of hip hop and electronic music which then led to sampling with computers and a greater range of sound manipulation.

However while most instruments today involve some sort of digital or electronic device, there also some that don’t.

One of them is the steel pan, which is fairly recent and has gotten very popular the last few decades, due to how accessible it is, versatile and melodic, despite being a drum.

The Eigenharp is also a new instrument that is getting some popularity these days. This is a strange instrument that combines synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers in an a single musical instrument that can be played like a guitar, keyboard, a wind instrument. While it does need to be plugged in, it’s an interesting hybrid and a good idea for the future of music.

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