In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Cage

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Sources and Bibliography
  • Chronology
  • Collections of Essays
  • Performance Practice
  • Writings and Text Compositions
  • Social and Political Concerns
  • Critical Appraisal
  • Reception
  • Miscellaneous Criticism
  • Art
  • Aesthetics

Music John Cage
Rob Haskins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0027


In his teens and twenties, John Cage (b. 1912–d. 1992) was interested in music, visual art, and literature. Once he began focusing all his attention on music, he composed in a manner that demonstrated an interest in Arnold Schoenberg. A brief period of study under Schoenberg himself convinced Cage to move decisively away from pitch-based media to percussion, then an emerging medium offering new sonic possibilities. Writing for percussion, he began to think of compositional materials as gamuts—unordered sets of sounds—that would be realized as music through the application of various types of durational structures. Such structures might be articulated by the sounding materials themselves, or they might remain unheard as abstract schemas of compositional design. Around 1950, Cage embraced what he called “chance composition,” a method by which nearly all aspects of the planning and realization of a composition consisted of the identification of separate groups of possibilities for each aspect, with the actual choices for each made by recourse to a utility outside of his intention (usually the employment of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as a random number generator). In addition to music, Cage also made various kinds of texts and (mostly from the late 1970s) nearly 1,000 works of visual art. His ideas about art resonated powerfully with the countercultural turn during the 1960s, and they continue to inspire individuals from many backgrounds. Critical and scholarly writings concerning his work began to appear in the mid-1960s and began to intensify around 1987; in general, much of this work emphasizes the music made before 1980, with less attention paid to texts and visual art and very little detail on any work after 1980. This article emphasizes this later period of scholarship and the development, in recent years, of new approaches to his work, including the analysis of the sounds in completed works, performance practice, and reception.

General Overviews

Pritchett 1993 and Pritchett and Kuhn 2007–2012 are the best general introductions, particularly for the music before 1980; Pritchett’s approach remains extremely influential. Tomkins 1968 presents important biographical material for the first time, though without sufficient documentation. Silverman 2010 and Larson 2012 include valuable context and employ more comprehensive research methods. Nicholls 2007 and Haskins 2012 offer short, critical introductions that point the reader toward other important secondary literature. Erdmann 2000 is the most comprehensive encyclopedia-length treatment.

  • Erdmann, Martin. “John Cage.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Personenteil. 2d ed. Vol. 3. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1557–1575. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000.

    Particularly noteworthy for its list of works, which divides Cage’s output into genre types (categories include theater works, concert pieces with precise instrumentation, and installations); this approach clearly shows the areas in which Cage concentrated most of his energies, revealing both the extent and innovation of his oeuvre. Less attention is paid to works made after 1969.

  • Haskins, Rob. John Cage. Critical Lives. London: Reaktion, 2012.

    Part of Reaktion’s Critical Lives series, the book contextualizes Cage’s life by means of his works and ideas. Includes new insights on Cage’s acquaintance with Zen, commentaries on the sound (as opposed to the compositional method) of a number of compositions, and a critique of Taruskin 2010 (cited under Critical Appraisal). Includes good detail on compositions after 1980.

  • Larson, Kay. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. New York: Penguin, 2012.

    This biography focuses on Cage’s experience of Zen and includes considerable detail on the writings of D. T. Suzuki. Archival work attempts to clarify the chronology of Cage’s turn toward Zen, and discussions of visual artists contemporary with and following Cage help illuminate his general approach and influence.

  • Nicholls, David. John Cage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

    Part of a series of short volumes on American composers, Nicholls’s work contextualizes Cage’s life and work with respect to historical, environmental, and philosophical circumstances. Discussion of Cage’s work up to 1980 is particularly detailed.

  • Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    A survey of Cage’s music, with special attention given to his sketches and pre-compositional process; Pritchett is one of the earliest scholars to clarify Cage’s compositional process in detail. Very comprehensive coverage for works from 1946 to 1961. Includes some information on Cage’s life, writings, and visual art.

  • Pritchett, James, and Laura Kuhn. “Cage, John.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root, 2007–2012.

    The text for the article itself largely follows Pritchett 1993. It provides an excellent summary of Cage’s music up to 1960, and a more general survey afterward. Personal or contextual details of his biography do not appear. Includes a chronological work list and bibliography with items up to 2009. Available online by subscription.

  • Silverman, Kenneth. Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage. New York: Knopf, 2010.

    A thoroughly researched biography that documents little-known events in Cage’s life (such as difficulties in his personal relationship with the choreographer Merce Cunningham toward the end of his life), provides more information on people he knew, and elaborates well-known biographical facts (for instance, his work with mushrooms). Nontechnical discussions of music include links to audio excerpts.

  • Tomkins, Calvin. The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-garde. With a new introduction and expanded text. New York: Viking, 1968.

    Profiles of Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, and Cunningham originally written for The New Yorker. The Cage chapter (pp. 69–144) is one of the earliest biographical sketches; while it must be used with caution (the account of Cage’s work with Schoenberg, for instance, has been superseded by Hicks 1990, cited under Chronology), it contains the earliest reference to such important events as the premiere of The Perilous Night (1944).

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