For someone who seems to be born to disrupt and revolutionize, John Cage was often described as a man who lived peacefully. In “John Cage, inventeur d’une musique inouïe (1912-1992)”, we hear through Perrine Kervran’s voice and Anne Perez-Franchini’s direction a series of extracts looking to paint the picture — or rather compose the sounds — of who was the artist of silence.
It is perhaps the ending of the documentary podcast that seems to carry the most representative essence of who John Cage was. “I think that [John Cage] died peacefully at the age of 80 years old. I think he has always done things very gently, and I think he died gently […] for him, life and death were the same thing.” This idea of a man who lives his life in acceptance may sound like the path usually associated with a monk or any sort of spiritual leader — but it was John Cage, a revolutionary of sounds, who propagated the importance of one’s presence to walk through life.
The son of an inventor and a journalist, Cage was born in 1912 in Los Angeles, California. One can say that two great pillars of his career were given by his mother’s inclination towards writing (Lucretia “Crete” Harvey (1881–1968) wrote intermittently for the Los Angeles Times) and his father’s craft as an inventor. Cage has always carried the non-conformist bone necessary for such professions, and it is safe to say that he became one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century.
Another representative quote highlighted in the documentary is the triumph of a smile over tears. The graphic paradoxes of a man who is “serious, but never takes himself seriously” piece together a rather charismatic portrait;
“In the photos, he laughs out loud or he smiles and his gaze is benevolent. Tall, slim, often in a suit and tie, he sometimes holds an elegant cigarette holder. He is truly a pre-war man. In no image, we do not surprise him in sandals or in a colorful tunic, even if he sometimes sports, older, an unruly beard, a denim shirt, or an enormous ribbed sweater.”
It is true that a peaceful gaze — sometimes reflective and sometimes joyful — is a constant when going through Cage’s photographs. IN 1928, this carefree nature together with a sense of “greater purpose” drove him to start his University studies in Theology, but to also drop the course after two years. Cage reportedly realized that his desire to become a writer would only be rightfully met outside of the institution and the norms of education at his time.
It was then that the artist decided to carry his studies independently by going to Europe in 1930. He started his tour through France — most notably Paris, where he experimented with a variety of mediums; painting, poetry, and even architecture. It wasn’t until he reached the surroundings of Spain, however, that he decided to take his father’s teachings by heart, and pushed to create something entirely new through his compositions. Shaken by the works of contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Philip Glass, Cage saw the opportunity to push for something new in the world and deepened his studies in music. He returned to the US with this newly discovered thirst and found himself stimulated by avant-garde composer and new tutor Arnold Schoenberg.
“After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case, I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'”
By showing this impulse to defy the existing paradigms of music, Cage continued moving through the art universe using innovation as a natural propulsor. In 1946, Cage decided to explore applying his spiritual explorations in his compositions. He attended several lectures by D.T. Suzuki, a famous Zen Buddhist, who became a great influencer for his new ideas. Together with the teachings of the ancient Chinese book I-Ching, Cage found himself fascinated with the idea of “order in chance”. The artist embraced the creative use of chance almost as an intuitive expression of his inner acceptance; the famous peace found in his gaze finally had a theory, a basis to which he could lean on.
It was in 1952 that Cage found an academic institution ready to provide room for his new ideas; Along with Merce Cunningham, a long-life romantic and creative partner, Cage explored what they called the “Neo-Dada” movement, which ultimately paved the way for his most famously ground-breaking works (most notably the 1952 composition entitled “4’33”).
With his exploration of silence and chance in music, John Cage became a symbol of experimental art; In the end, the holistic aspect of his work could tell stories about life and death as “the same thing” in a variety of ways, from incorporating the unexpected into an artwork to stating that “everything we do is music”.
“Because in fact, the definition of experimental in Cage is: music is experimental — in that you don’t know what it will become when you play it.”
Cover Photograph by Vincent Mentzel 1988/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux ®.