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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

John  Cage

John Cage 1912to –1992

American composer, writer, and artist, and one of the most important theorists of 20th century music. Born in Los Angeles, he was interested in music from a young age, but never followed a conventional path. In the 30s, he was already creating sounds from various non-musical objects, and in 1940, wrote his first piece for a “prepared piano”—a piano with screws and other objects wedged between the strings to alter their sound. He moved around between Hollywood, Seattle, Chicago, and New York City, and everywhere he became immersed in the avant-garde movement, befriending artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. He also met the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage was married to a Russian artist at the time, but the marriage was already headed toward divorce as he and Cunningham became involved. The two of them would remain romantic and creative partners for the rest of their lives. They were both greatly influenced in the 50s when Cage received a copy of the I Ching, a Chinese divination text that relies on random numbers. Having studied Zen Buddhism, Cage wanted to incorporate indeterminacy into his work; he believed that leaving his compositional decisions to chance would free the music from his own preferences. In 1952, he debuted his most famous work, 4′33″, a 4 minute and 33 second piece during which the performer does not play an instrument, allowing the audience to listen to whatever sounds happen to fill the void. Though divisive, 4′33″ has become one of the most influential pieces of the last century. Cage continued to play and experiment throughout his career, whether writing arrangements for radio receivers, pioneering electronic music, organizing “happenings,” or shaping the sound and philosophy of modern dance through his lifelong collaborations with Cunningham. He was also an avid collector of mushrooms.

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