John Cage:

Scores from the early 1950s

February 8 - April 18, 1992

Museum of Contemporary Art

Cage and


Purposeful Purposelessness


Found Order *

No period in recent history transformed the identity of the arts in America like the years surrounding 1950—a time rivaling that before World War I in Europe. Although the major activity centered around New York City, the barometer that best measured these changes in America was Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina. Among the visionary faculty in attendance from 1948 to 1953 were Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Karen Karnes, Richard Lippold, Robert Motherwell, Aaron Siskind, and Jack Tworkov in the visual arts; Lou Harrison, David Tudor, and Stefan Wolpe in music; Merce Cunningham and Katerine Litz in dance; R. Buckminster Fuller in architecture; and Paul Goodman, Albert William Levi, Charles Olsen, and Mary Caroline Richards in writing. Two participants in this community who figured prominently in putting forth a decidedly American aesthetic were John Cage (faculty: summers of 1948 and 1952; resident: summer of 1953), and Robert Rauschenberg (student: 1948-49, 1951-52).

It was actually in New York that the two artists first met at Rauschenberg’s show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the spring of 1951.

* © 1992 by Peter Gena

Appropriately, they possessed similar backgrounds: each had studied with masters of the European avant-garde at the same point in their respective lives, each had already departed from established modernist practices, and each had no money. Cage had had lessons with Arnold Schoenberg from 1935 to 1937 in Los Angeles, Rauschenberg (13 years Cage’s junior) worked with Albers in 1948-49 at Black Mountain College. The relationships between pupils and teachers were comparable. Both instructors admired the inventiveness of their students, if not the finished work. In turn, each student adopted the sense of discipline that his teacher indoctrinated. This rigor was to endow the careers of the young artists, though their mentors’ rules to make discriminate order were eventually replaced by an energetic proclivity for accepting coincidence. If Albers taught the complex relationships among colors, Schoenberg espoused the same for pitch. Both of the Americans gained insight and respect for the properties of materials being used. Rauschenberg determined that it was as natural to appropriate "junk" objects as it was to use oil on canvas, or anything else. Cage expanded Schoenberg’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie (melodic continuity through changing timbres) beyond that of pitch to include discontinuities — shifting among sounds of the environment, noise, duration, and silence.

By the early 1950s Cage had already emerged as a central figure of the avant-garde. He had absorbed a myriad of ideas from the work of many acquaintances and luminaries from both coasts and Europe. His experimentation with quasi-serial processes led him to eschew the dominance of pitch and harmony, and thus to explore systematic methods for constructing music through rhythm and duration. He had learned to appreciate the virtues of noise, creating percussion pieces that used instruments, junk, and his new invention, the prepared piano, in which noises are produced by inserting various objects between the strings. Additionally, his sonic palette was expanded to include environmental sounds, electronics, radio, speech, and other vernacular sources. A deep interest in composer Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, the surrealists, and Zen (he studied with Daisetz Suzuki) subsequently prompted Cage to gradually remove control in favor of chance procedures, work with irrational durations, and free sounds to be themselves through non-linear progression, while liberating silence. Merce Cunningham, a Cage collaborator since 1944, unbound dance movement in a corresponding manner.

Initially Rauschenberg and Cage independently found Black Mountain College steeped in the history of their artforms. The visual arts program, under Albers’s direction, was quite formal; the German born artist’s classes were laden with rigorous drawing exercises. Similarly, a distinguished European classical tradition at the college resisted Cage in the summer of 1948, when he put on 25 concerts of Satie’s music. Moreover, Cage caused major consternation when he gave a lecture that indicted Beethoven for an influence that has "been deadening to the art of music" through an over emphasis on harmony, while exalting Satie, who "corrected" the situation via static repetition and rhythmic structure. The Satie festival culminated, however, with the highly successful U.S. premiere of The Ruse of Medusa. Cage’s copy of this theater piece was translated from the French by visitor M. C. Richards. Buckminster Fuller, whose utopian ideals were to become increasingly important to Cage, was talked into playing the baron by the fledgling director Arthur Penn. Merce Cunningham danced, Cage played the piano, and Willem de Kooning designed the set.

This triumphant confluence of theater, music, and dance that ended the Summer Institute of 1948 was perhaps a harbinger of the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first "happening." Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

The intellectual climate in which the theater piece was formulated that summer was vibrant with ideas. M. C. Richards and Tudor had introduced Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and its Double to Cage. The neo-dada movements, the writings of Eckhart and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and his

study of Zen led Cage to question Western ideals as they pertained to linearity in choice, form, logic, and meaning. While neither Rauschenberg nor Cage wholly embraced the tenets of abstract expressionism, they did endorse the notion of a lack of concentration of material towards the center. The equal tension over the entire canvas of many of the paintings in this exhibit support Cage’s penchant for a lack of beginning, climax, and denouement in music. As a result, the seating as well as the stage in the happening was set with no central focus in mind, showing Cage’s preference for a three-ring circus effect. Similarly, since the inception of his own permanent dance company in 1953, Merce Cunningham has treated the entire stage as a dynamic region with no central focus when positioning the dancers.

It was in 1954 that David Tudor first played Cage’s Music of Changes in Europe at Donaueschinger, Paris, and other cities. The European post-war serialists at these performances expressed bewilderment as the piece began to unravel the thin line that separated total control (their goal) and indeterminacy (Cage’s). Though the intent is different, the results, at least on the surface, are similar. Music of Changes was begun in 1951, after composer Christian Wolff had introduced Cage to the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes), a book of prophecies that uses a random process in order to select one among 64 hexagrams which in turn points to the daily oracle. Cage was to adopt this selection method to compose most of his later works. This exceedingly difficult 45-minute piece employed this process to choose events, tempi, durations, sounds, and dynamics from charts set up by Cage. Placed in spatial notation (each quarter-note equals 2-1/2 centimeters), successive durations are segmented through an additive choice of fractions — from a chart of 64 elements — and are practically infinite in variety. Sounds or silences are selected by the I Ching process if a structural space is open to the duration chosen for it. Active engagement of the pedals is indicated during both sound and silence. The speed of travel through this space, though often unpredictable, changes each time a new tempo is indicated by the large numbers or is altered by the words RITARD. (ritardando) or ACCEL. (accelerando). Thus, sounds enter this time-space continuum centered only on themselves with no history or influence exerted on previous or subsequent incidents. With Music of Changes, Cage succeeded in consolidating intention (his charts) with non-intention (the I Ching selection process), accepting occurrences through self-discipline as a series of independent events rather than relationships.

Cage’s Haiku (1951), for keyboard, was the only piece of music to be published by the Black Mountain Music Press. His contemporary and fellow Californian Lou Harrison, who shared his intrigue for Eastern sensibilities, was the editor of this edition of 300. Like the Music of Changes, it is notated in space-time proportion (5/8 inch to the quarter-note), and some of the sparse durations are represented by irrational numbers, but the measures are unmetered and the entire time grid is laid out on just a single page. The intimate nature of this charming miniature is reflected by its visual appeal in addition to the musical result. Clearly a performance of Haiku does not demand the pianistic virtuosity of a David Tudor, but it requires no less sensitivity.

Water Music (1952) is as social as Haiku is personal. The poster-sized score is meant to be seen by the audience. Here Cage, acknowledging that an audience has both ears and eyes, introduces elements of theater. In addition to playing traditional musical intervals (octaves, fifths, etc.), the pianist is instructed to produce unmusical sounds by slamming down the keyboard lid, dealing playing cards onto the strings, and turning a radio on and off. As the title suggests, the use of water plays a significant role throughout the performance. It is poured back-and-forth into receptacles and used in a whistle. The passage of time in Water Music is indicated by specific lengths, as in Cage’s earlier work, but without conventional notation. Instead, events are measured in clock-time and not always spatially proportional.

Cage’s Music for Carillon No. 1 (1952) marks his first departure from specifying duration, and his initial venture into graphic notation for an instrumental work. When he discovered that the length of the resonance

of carillon bells could not be accurately measured, he devised a grid with superimposed structural lines. He then used elaborate stencils to randomly place points on the graph to represent notes. Pitch was represented vertically, and time horizontally (each square = 1/4 second). The published score however, consists of transcribed pitches of free duration. In Music for Piano (1953), Cage went a step further by placing duration-free notes directly on points where he found imperfections in the paper used for the score — thus using it as its own stencil. It bears pointing out that many of these new experiments were also undertaken by Cage’s close colleagues. He credits the late Morton Feldman with writing the first pieces using graphic notation and free duration. In fact, one of Feldman’s first published graph pieces was copied in Cage’s hand.

Although Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings preceded Cage’s composition 4'33" (1952) by almost a year, the concept behind these famous open forms was "in the air" for quite some time. Rauschenberg acknowledges that Albers "taught me such respect for all colors that it took years before I could use more than two colors at once."1 He preferred to suppress personal preference, so as not to subordinate or dominate the presence of one color by the use of another. Similarly, Cage recalls that in 1940 he was employed by the WPA as a recreation leader, and that the


"may have been the birth of the silent piece, because my first assignment . . . was to go to a hospital in San Francisco and entertain the children of the visitors. But I was not allowed to make any sound while I was doing it, for fear that it would disturb the patients. So I thought up games involving movement around the rooms and counting, etc., dealing with some kind of rhythm in space".2

Cage’s 4'33 acts as a time grid for the fortuitous sounds in the performance space just as White Paintings serve as a ground for incidental light and shadows. Unlike Water Music, the horizontal time-space in 4'33 specifies no intentional events except vertical bar-lines which indicate beginnings (60 on top) and endings (i.e. 30"). It consists of three movements with their combined lengths (30", 2'23", 1'40") adding up to the total duration indicated by the title. The piece, for any instrument or group of instruments, was premiered by David Tudor in Woodstock, New York in the fall of 1952. Tudor delineated the movements by closing and opening the keyboard cover between movements. A performance of the piece works only in the context of a

concert when the audience does not purposefully contribute to the ambience. Similarly, the objective of the White Paintings would be abused by anyone intentionally attempting to project silhouettes on the canvas. Silence is allowed to emerge over sound, and vice-versa, much like the way the white and black overlay each other on the surface of a painting by Franz Kline. 4'33", like Cage’s works with determinate notation, frees music without leaving performers to their own devices.

The White Paintings and 4'33" proved to be a profound inspiration to artists of all disciplines. In the winter of 1954, Paul Taylor, a Cunningham dancer who also led his own company, executed Duet, a collaboration with Rauschenberg. It consisted of Taylor standing and a partner sitting — both motionless throughout the performance. In the early 1960s, Naim June Paik produced Zen for Film, a lengthy work of clear film which accumulates scratches, etc., with each showing. Paik preferred to create a "living movie" by meditating in front of the light during the screening, an imposition antithetical to Cage’s premise of non-intention in 4'33". Around the same time, Austrian Peter Kubelka and American Tony Conrad independently created imageless films that exclusively employed the four extreme elements of film: light, darkness, sound, and silence. Conrad’s The Flicker, as the name suggests, alternates between light and dark, accelerating to a frenzy with a single tone increasing in intensity and pitch. Kubelka’s 6-1/2-minute film, Arnulf Rainer, employs long sections of light accompanied by white noise, and darkness accompanied by silence. Kubelka’s detractors suggest that the Öesterreiches Filmmuseum, an unpleasant black box that he had built in Vienna to eliminate every possible distraction from the screen (very un-Cagean), was in fact designed with this film in mind.

One can scarcely imagine how artists of the 1950s were expected to continue working after the appearance of the White Paintings and 4'33". These two works at once effectively closed the book on painting and composing, while widening the door for conceptual, minimal, pluralistic, and multicultural work. Rauschenberg and Cage persisted in expanding the techniques of indeterminacy. Automobile Tire Print (1953), a "collaboration" between the two friends, involved Cage driving his Model A Ford over a length of connected drawing sheets with Rauschenberg carefully directing as he applied black paint to one of the rear tires. The continuity of the recognizable image constitutes a documentation, or "recording" of this act. Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), is likewise a documentation of mold and lichen growing on the surface of the work. These works, which uncover an order by way of a circumstantial method, fall short of the extent to which Cage uses randomness in process. The 22-foot-long tire print is a map of a linear progression, whereas a length of magnetic tape used by Cage in Williams Mix (1952), for example, is a history of juxtaposed events created by means of splicing recorded sound according to chance processes. Rauschenberg sees a fundamental difference when approaching indeterminacy in space as opposed to time:

"I tried to explain to John Cage that you can’t use chance in painting without turning out an intellectual piece. You can use it in time, because then you can change time".3

Accordingly Cage freely admits that he has never had any use for sound recordings — including those of his own music — unless they can be used as part of a process to create something else; they ought to be changed with each playing. Indeed, Cage and Rauschenberg are still in constant search of change as they avoid getting too comfortable in a style. This is perhaps the most astounding trait that often distinguishes them from other successful artists. After one of the most exhilarating, inspiring, and fertile periods of modern cultural history, their work abounds in change as they continue to breathe new life into art.

Peter Gena
Associate Professor and Chair, Time-Arts Program,
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago


1. Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg, (NYC: Vintage Books, 1987), 23.

2. After Antiquity: John Cage in Conversation with Peter Gena, in A John Cage Reader, eds. Peter Gena and Jonathan Brent (New York: C.F. Peters Corp., 1982), 170.

3. Barbara Rose, loc. cit., 64.


Cage, John. Silence. Middletown Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Cage, John. A Year Form Monday. Middletown Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community. NYC: E. P. Dutton, 1972.

Gena, Peter and Jonathan Brent, eds. A John Cage Reader. New York: C.F. Peters Corp., 1982.

Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge Massachusetts: The M. I. T. Press, 1987.

Rose, Barbara. An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.