John Cage’s ideas have long inspired artists inside and outside the experimental music subculture. Besides new-music figures considered disciples or associates — Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and David Tudor, for example — he had an effect on the most famous rock band of all time: Paul McCartney became interested in Cage in 1966, and the chaotic orchestration of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is thought to have derived from Cage’s ideas, as had several of John Lennon’s songs during the band’s last years, including “Revolution 9,” with its debt to Cage’s notions of randomness.
Musicians further on the edge — Brian Eno, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Anthony Braxton, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, which has a song called “John Cage Bubblegum” — bear his stamp as well.
The composer-writer-theoretician has also exerted an influence in the worlds of dance, visual art, opera and alternative rock. Here, a few artists speak about his impact.
Every piece of music reflects the composer’s vision of the world. To enter Cage’s worldview is to be invited into a generous, humble, light space, where a virtuosic musical turn is of equal value to a routine action or a committed silence. Cage’s music gently asks the audience to silence the voice in your head that searches for meaning or anticipates a cadence; instead, Cage asks you to simply be present and coexist with the sounds that arise and die away.
— Yuval Sharon, opera director with roots in the New York City Opera; co-founder of Los Angeles artistic company the Industry
When Superchunk was touring a lot, in the ‘90s, I started to pick up records and books. I always thought his effect was about how you live your life, and how you think about art, rather than the way a Superchunk record is put together.
He was interested in the idea of indeterminacy and randomness and chaos — not just embracing it, but seeing the art in it. It’s a very generous take on the world.
It’s not something you’d throw on at a party, but the “Indeterminacy” record is so inspiring and surprising: It doesn’t matter what era it’s from, it’s still shocking. You don’t know what’s coming next.
— Mac McCaughan, singer and guitar player for the bands Superchunk and Portastatic and founder of the celebrated North Carolina-based indie-rock label Merge Records
Cage inspired me when I knew him tremendously, and [he] became a kind of guru to most people who knew him. I did paintings and sculpture based on random operations. We all played around with his ideas, his ways of thinking.
By accepting the unexpected in art as in life. Welcoming the unknown, the surprising, the unfathomable, the illogic, the dense and working with it in the art work, the theatrical indeterminacy.
It works in art as in daily life, keeps us alert and ready to improvise. It gives us endless shocks, challenges and surprises. It keeps us young.
His presence was peculiar — unlike anyone else’s. He was always either smiling and laughing — or extremely serious. Nothing in between.
—Rachel Rosenthal, performance artist who knew Cage in New York in the 1950s and has run companies in L.A. that blur the lines among art, theater and dance
Cage was mostly important to people like me because of his use of chance and concepts like the sound of a room. I don’t think he was a huge influence on me as an artist, but his influence on thinking about art was enormous.
It’s similar to someone like Jean-Luc Godard saying you need a beginning, middle and end, but not in that order. Cage is one of the figures who set the stage for what happened after 1955.
But whether artists were directly influenced, it’s hard to say. Being directly influenced by John Cage would be ridiculous, like being directly influenced by Warhol or Duchamp. You’d have to argue with it, subvert it.
—Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, British-born abstract painter and chair of the graduate art program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena
A piece like “4'33"” is not just about silence — it’s about all kinds of environmental noises. For me, that led to a consciousness of the entire environment around a piece. Most European concert music had been about shutting out the environment.
Even a much later piece like “Roaratorio,” based on a reading of “Finnegans Wake,” might seem like the opposite because it’s very noisy. But I think there’s a real philosophical link between the two.
Another really important thing about Cage is he created an experimental music network by identifying and connecting people who he thought should know each other.
— New-music composer Michael Pisaro teaches at Cal Arts in Valencia. He’s also a guitarist and a member of the international composers-performers group Wandelweiser.
Every song on “Love at the Bottom of the Sea” features these new chance-based electronic instruments — not traditional synthesizers — such as the Dewanatron Melody Gin, the Folktek Micro Garden and the Buchla Source of Uncertainty. They are not under my control, except that of course I can turn them off. This is the product of an aesthetic which wouldn’t exist without Cage.
Stephin Merritt founded the chamber-pop band the Magnetic Fields in Boston in the early ‘90s. He is now based in Los Angeles.