John Cage’s Greatest Hits

Courtesy The John Cage Trust

2012 marks the 100th birthday of the avant-garde composer.

September 5, 2012, marks the 100th birthday of John Cage, and many events around the globe will pay tribute to the late avant-garde composer. Laura Kuhn, John Cage professor of performance arts and director of the John Cage Trust at Bard College, looks back at three of his most influential and provocative works.

Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48): “Refreshing, popular and incredibly beautiful, this is Cage’s magnum opus for prepared piano [whose sound has been altered by objects inserted into the strings]. In 1949, struck by the originality of this work, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded him a grant for ‘having extended the boundaries of music.’”

4'33" (1952): “Comprising three movements wherein the pianist sits at the piano and plays nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, this work created a scandal at its première. It perfectly embodies Cage’s idea of silence—that there is no such thing. Although there is an absence of intentional sound, this is a performance in which the sounds of the environment are invited in.”

Europeras 1 & 2 (1985–87): “This work derives its name from the words ‘Europe’ and ‘opera,’ but also sounds unmistakably like ‘your opera,’ alluding to its populist leanings. The musical content is a simultaneous presentation of arias and duets selected by the singers, heard within a pulverized, decontextualized mass of instrumental fragments drawn from 64 European operas, ranging from Gluck to Puccini. Each of the elements at Cage’s disposal—lighting, music, dance, costumes, etc.—was conceived so as to be completely independent from the others, resulting in a total absence of intended musical or dramatic interrelationships—a circus of independent elements.”