Questions about John Cage

Wednesday will count as his 100th birthday.  Here are a few of my views:

1. Is it actually good music?

Much of it is, once you get past the gimmicks.  For direct musical listening (skip 4’33”) I recommend the piano music, most of all by Herbert Henck or David Tudor or Stephen Drury.  The important pieces have held up very well, and even the lesser pieces still are worth hearing at least once.

2. If I wish to try one important piece?

Perhaps “In a Landscape,” on this CD.

3. What if I am looking for a good sampler to reflect his diverse contributions?

Try the Barton Workshop grab bag.

4. Are you pulling my leg?


5. Is aleatory music interesting?

To me, no.

Here is Wikipedia on John Cage.  Here is John Cage on a 1960 game show, being thwarted by a union dispute.  Here is good commentary on that clip.  Here is TNR commentary on that clip.  Cage was also an expert mycologist.  Here are the Italian prizes he won for mushroom identification.  Here is the iTunes prepared piano app.

Here are good quotations from John Cage.


As a composer I would say that most of Cage's music is worthless, but there is a charming Satie-like piano piece called "Dream."

I'm curious as to how you, "as a composer", quantify the "worth" of other composers' works.

Does it have anything to do with the ease of "borrowing"?

No, it doesn't. It's just my personal opinion based on a lifetime of knowledge and experience, but others may disagree.

Is Cage's music any good? is a valid question. But maybe his most important point was philosophical - giving us permission and awareness to really listen and consider music in a different way. This article describes it beautifully:

Ive often thought of Cage not as a composer but as a philosopher whose medium is sound.

Thanks for the recommending "In A Landscape," which is available on Youtube (

The Wikipedia link is broken

I think this does a good job of focusing on the pleasure of John Cage's music, which sometimes gets lost amidst his writing and philosophizing and especially his gimmickry. Was Cage too smart for his own good?

Reminds me of the Emperor's new clothes.....

Care to elaborate?

I remember finding his book SILENCE very stimulating, but it has been 30 years since I read it. I never listened much to his music, though.

I rather like some of his early percussion works. Here's a good example:

4'33" was but one work in a career that spanned 60 years, and should not be the only basis of judgement.

One of the most brilliant things about Cage was that he refused to stand still. He would work in one compositional style for 3-5 years, and then completely abandon it for something new. Very few of us have the guts to do that.

Some of the aleatory stuff works, some doesn't. Ryoanji is beautiful (especially the Hildegard Kleeb - Roland Dahinden version). A lot of the prepared piano work recorded by Margaret Leng Tan is also brilliant, right up there with Ligeti's best work.

You also have to remember that Cage was an artist, and absolutely not an entertainer. He did things for himself, not for an audience. He did what he did because he felt like he HAD to do it, not because somebody else wanted him to, and he was actually pretty adamantly opposed to having his work recorded early on in his career. In other words, he did not care if you or I liked his work, that was largely irrelevant to him.

For a different - but obviously very legitimate - voice, try Woody Guthrie:

The two Naxos discs of prepared piano music are terrific.

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