33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates We asked musicians from Yoko Ono to Nona Hendryx to Lou Reed what they've taken from the late composer's musical and philosophical ideas.

33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates

John Cage in The Hague, Netherlands, 1988 Paul Bergen/Courtesy of Redferns hide caption

toggle caption
Paul Bergen/Courtesy of Redferns

John Cage in The Hague, Netherlands, 1988

Paul Bergen/Courtesy of Redferns

100 years ago today, John Cage was born. In celebration of his birthday, we asked contemporary musicians across a wide range of genres and backgrounds — not only in classical music, but also pop, rock, metal, electronic and experimental — what they've taken from the late composer's musical and philosophical ideas.

Cage was known throughout his career for experimental, indeterminant avant-garde compositions. In 1958, he asked a series of questions during a lecture at Darmstadt, which were later published as "Composition as Process" in his book Silence. The lecture muses at length about music, sound and listening. During this line of questions, Cage inquires: "Music, what does it communicate?"

We turned his question around, and present here 33 musicians responding to this prompt: John Cage, what does he communicate?

33 Musicians On John Cage

  • Glenn Kotche (Wilco)

    Freedom. John Cage communicated the freedom to rethink, to ask questions, to reinvent and to trust. He rethought the traditional models of music. He put a focus on percussion (YES!) like no one else and therefore he questioned melody and harmony and the organization of sound. He reinvented music by communicating that music is everything — ALL sound and silence, too. And he communicated trust. He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day. This is what John Cage communicated. Freedom.

  • Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (Throbbing Gristle)

    Cage conveyed an opening up to the "view" of music/sound by his unorthodox approach to sound making by investing his works with not just experimentalism but a sense of irony, humour and freedom from established modes of composition. It's that freedom, the breaking down, embracing and conflating of visual and audio structures, and the notion of democratising presentation by also removing the barrier between audience and performer that opened the minds of so many. Music as a means of communication remains of paramount importance to our work. What it communicates is always going to be largely dependent on the subjectivity of the listener irrespective of the presentation and intention of the composer. That's where the beauty of music/sound lies, it's an incredible vehicle for opening dialogue.

  • Yoko Ono

    History of Western music can be divided into B.C. (Before Cage) and A.C. (After Cage). I was a lucky girl to have bumped into him in my roller coaster life. Us downtown artists called him J.C., for Jesus Christ ... not to his face, but when we spoke about him amongst us. He was a good friend, and I miss him.

  • Paul De Jong (The Books)

    Just reading Cage's beautifully executed scores generally has given me greater satisfaction than listening to his music in concert or through recordings, with only few exceptions: the 1950 string quartet and the pieces for prepared piano, which I find of a breathtaking and austere beauty. But spending time with any of Cage's scores in front of me while he gently leads my inner ear through his gracefully notated and endlessly resourceful musical constructions unlocks an inner-sonic world that leaves the deep silence of my mind replenished and ready to embrace the sonic onslaught of modern daily life.

  • Dan Deacon

    To me, the biggest lasting influence Cage has is the idea that music is listening. That music isn't only the notes on a page that a composer puts there. It's the sound of a leaf blower; of the rain hitting the windshield coming out from under an overpass; the slowly developing choir of cicadas. It not only empowered composers to work with found sound and nontraditional sounds with greater freedom, but it also empowered the audience to find beauty in the chaos and noise of an industrialized world. Basically that anything can happen and anything is music.

  • Thomas DeLio

    For Cage, the act of composition became an act of presentation, the presentation of content to a listener, who is then left with a vivid realization of the possibility of form, the possibility that materials may at some point be shaped in some way and become a reflection of one of many possible, equally significant, moments of coherence. Perhaps it was precisely this possibility to which Cage was referring when he often said that for him composing no longer involved making choices, but asking questions, for questions illuminate potential. Ultimately, he became less interested in creating specific forms (answers), than instantiating the possibility of form (questions).

  • Pauline Kim (Escort)

    John Cage was an iconic pioneer who liberated artists and enlightened audiences to not fear the unknown. One thing sticks to mind: There are no such things as mistakes and silence. Everything is an experiment. By applying chance operation to daily activities, one realizes that there can be order in chaos. I can't help wondering if we were to stop the party for 4'33" during an Escort show, if one wouldn't still hear the music and the whole house would keep dancing!

  • Tim Hecker

    Cage communicated perhaps, above all, a sense of the importance of the ear in cultural experience. Cage's midcentury world was arguably a milieu where text was supreme and visuality was increasingly dominant. Yet the ear was, as always, a back-seat passenger. His work sought to wrestle away the taken-for-grantedness of hearing. He made an argument for disciplined listening; a push for an enlarged notion of what compositional practice was and encouraged a new form of spirituality through the ear. Yet the irony of his work is that he relied most on the act of writing and acoustic silences to make his case.

  • Nona Hendryx

    John Cage opened my mind to the importance of listening — hearing what is not there, the space between sound, and how silence is the backdrop which gives sound the time and space to exist.

  • Joan La Barbara

    Generosity is the word that first comes to mind when I think of John Cage. Having spent many years performing with him, listening to him lecture and also watching him respond to questions posed to him by people who never thought twice about coming and confronting him with scores, problems or queries, I never knew him to back away from a situation or from a question — whether it was simple or complex. Often, when I encounter barriers in my compositional or creative stream, I reflect on his fearless superimposition of works and his joy in discovering something new, and take courage and inspiration from his attitudes to move forward in my own work. John's decision to always say "yes" in the hope of being surprised has affected me greatly, and I am trying to incorporate that into my daily thoughts and actions. He also, of course, communicated freedom and the encouragement to intrepidly continue with one's work and ideas even in the face of adversity — perhaps because of adversity. He communicates all of this still to those of us who continue to realize his compositions, to those of us who compose and create art and to the audiences who hear our work.

  • Lou Reed


  • Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never)

    There's a moment from in love with another sound where Cage describes the experience of observing two Coke bottles as unique instances, subject to differing shades of light and positions in space. He is likening his experience of the bottles to the importance of generating variety in the arts, in forgetting history and striving for newness in a repetitive social reality, which is stifled by a preoccupation with memory. For Cage, all of that might boil down to a matter of patterns at the grocery store. He was a guy who saw his work as fused to his immediate reality in the most unambiguous and uncomplicated way, while interacting with the most paradoxical aspects of it. He communicated an unpretentious awareness of everything around the things we hold to be true — the Coke bottle, the orchestra and the quiet, all equal and subject to fascination.

  • Steve Antosca

    John Cage emerged in the robust creative mix of mid-20th century America — a far-reaching artist, thriving in an environment of experimentation and invention. The long shadow of Cage's influence reached me through the I Ching, and led me to the writings of Joseph Campbell and Jung, and to a willingness to approach music as an "open" art form — an evolving process for me. As co-director of the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, D.C., the observed wealth and variety of approach to creativity in Cage's work and festival contributors is evidence of the penetrating influence of John Cage.

  • Amanda Palmer

    I encountered John Cage in college through my experimental music teacher, Alvin Lucier. Silence was required reading. All of a sudden the defined boundaries and walls of sound and music exploded all around me, and they've never repaired themselves, thank god.

  • Jean-Hervé Péron (Faust)

    M. Cage communicated to me the profound assurance that there is nothing serious about music.

  • Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab)

    To answer John Cage's perforating question, I'll have to bring light upon the fact that music has always held a special place in my existence. From a young age music imparted meaning. Somehow the world around me made more sense when music — preferably the stuff that I liked — was being played. Everything would liven up; take on a more significant and consequential countenance. So I've always experienced music as something transformational, a true alchemic force that has worked as an intangible bridge from which there is a view to transforming myself and the world.

  • Gary Wilson

    To me, John Cage's music and life communicated the need for each of us to walk our own path ... to be an individual free from restraints (though one has to be civil in the real world). My life changed at age 13 when I heard John Cage's "Concert for Piano and Orchestra," "Fontana Mix" and "Cartridge Music." I had never heard anything like that before and was in a musical daze for weeks afterward. When I was 15, I spent three days with Mr. Cage, going over my original scores at his home in Haverstraw, N.Y. I miss John Cage dearly.

  • Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond)

    4'33" suggests to me that art may be the very act of noticing, the focusing of one's attention upon the sounds, the movements, the passing of time, the life that is happening all around and within us. The performance creates a framework for the audience, a designated space or time within which one may pause to notice life itself. The artist assumes the role of one pointing a finger toward an object, sound or movement. The artist or composer may choose to exert varying degrees of control over the focus of an audience's attention.

    Can someone explain this to my mom? Thanks.

  • Margaret Leng Tan

    Cage liberated 20th-century American music from the almighty European tradition and gave American composers the confidence to be themselves. In fact, not only composers but American artists in general. One can go so far as to say Cage gave all artists the confidence to be themselves. In essence, we are all Cage's spiritual children.

    John Cage certainly gave me the confidence to be myself. He gave me the courage to explore the piano in adventurous new ways starting with his prepared piano. And his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano inspired me to turn a toy into a real instrument.

  • Colin Stetson

    That music (and all art for that matter) is at its core experiential. That it is the interaction with and manipulation of consciousness. Through his work he didn't merely destroy convention, but rather established an entirely new framework and definition of art, expanding possibilities to the infinite, and showing those of us who would strive to create that we need only the intention to make our dreams manifest and the conviction to stand behind them and that ultimately, what we make is a contribution to the experience of the lives of others.

  • Ryan Seaton (Callers)

    Through a lifetime of wrenching people away from their assumptions and into the present moments existing within performances, John Cage consistently provided occasions for listeners to shed their preconceptions regarding purpose, order, musical sound and silence. As the frame surrounding his work continues to expand and recede into the distance, we benefit not only from an ever-growing palate of sound but also the potential for our lives to more closely resemble our art, and vice versa. Basically, he's done a good job of leaving us in an inescapably Cage-like "post-Cagean" world.

  • Robert Spano

    As a young composition student in the '70s, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and Carter were standard fare. Then I chanced upon a recording of a Cage string quartet and was teleported to a whole other set of possibilities. The encounter with many of his other works and writings continued to challenge my assumptions of what music is, can be and might be. His name is wonderfully ironic, in that he took so many sounds imprisoned as noise, and liberated them as musical events. He called us to question our own perception before too quickly classifying a sound as beautiful or ugly, and to find beauty in the meeting of perceiver and perceived.

  • M.C. Schmidt (Matmos)

    John Cage's life and work constitute a perverse object lesson in the consequences of reduction. The harder he sought to suppress and remove his own ego in order to let the sound of the world through, the more powerfully his work took on a signature quality, an aesthetic charge that is continuous. Chance operations now sound "Cage-ian." In this sense, John Cage communicated more of himself than the method was meant to permit. Was this failure? If it was, it still models a beautiful kind of fidelity: to Merce, to the world, to the rich results of letting go.

  • Christopher Burns

    amplification: magnification of small gestures
    choreography: composing the performer's physical actions
    computation: realizing elaborate processes
    constraint: rules and systems inviting imagination
    discipline: realization of elaborate processes
    environment: audiences construction of experience
    fearlessness: relentless pursuit of new ideas
    intermedia: consistent aesthetic across disciplines
    layering: systems modifying systems
    metacomposition: methods which result in a variety of realizations
    multiplicity: simultaneous and independent layers of activity
    notation: the encoding of behavior in graphics and text
    plurality: works inviting unique interpretations with each listening
    reinvention: transformation of historically conditioned material
    structure: independent determinations of content and duration
    synthesis: welding disparate influences

  • Aron Sanchez (Buke and Gase)

    John Cage communicated that in all mediums, the approach and conditions of appreciation need not be immediately obvious and often exists inherently within itself, free of contrivances, decision-making and cultural structures.

  • Phil Kline

    John Cage communicated music in and of the now — music contained by neither material nor tradition, made by player and listener alike, born of sound and mind, freedom and discipline, process, community, everything and its opposite.

  • Stephen Drury

    "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." John Cage's most frequently quoted phrase seems to deny any intention of the composer to communicate. Usually forgotten is how he continues: "and that is poetry as I need it." Silence is poetry — the poetry of our own listening. Cage's work invites each of us to discover our own music in our own listening, the sounds set free from the composer's efforts at communication. Releasing the composer's grasp of sound, he hands us pure intimacy with sound. A perfect Zen koan — by not making beauty, Cage shows us beauty.

  • Malcolm Goldstein

    To communicate, without intention, no dust in the way; sound as each its own is-ness, all sounds being a physical phenomena as with gesture touching upon the body. Communication inevitable with doors and windows open; our ears, eyes, nose, skin and all receiving. A sounding of the world.

  • Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy)

    We all know Cage had two main ideas — one was that any sound can be a material for composition, the other was that a piece could exist without being composed: It can be aleatoric. Today, sampling and synthesis are so widespread that the former idea is a given. The latter idea, by contrast, is no longer very interesting. In a way, Cage didn't communicate anything. What he opened up has closed up on both sides. But I'd say his legacy has something to do with a heightened awareness of the indeterminate threshold between music and nonmusic.

  • George E. Lewis

    In 1965, composer David Behrman, who worked extensively with Cage and Cunningham, published the classic article, "What Indeterminate Notation Determines." While the article doesn't mention Cage, the title's implied response to query encourages algebraic substitution: "What Communicators Communicate." David tells us that composers faced issues of "cultural conditioning," and Cage's music communicated the necessity of challenge to the comfortable assumptions of his or any era; once you start down that road, thoughts inevitably turn to what else might need fixing — ideals of beauty or chimeras of control. An inventor like his dad, Cage certainly knew how to fix broken stuff.

  • Jenny Lin

    John Cage got me thinking harder about sound. He taught me to leave sound alone. Every time I go to the movies and see the words "Silence is Golden," on the big screen before the featured film, I think of Cage. Talking stops, but whispering begins, accompanied by the continuous slurping of sodas and crunching of popcorn. Immediately afterward, opening music and credits take over. Where was the golden silence? I never got silence. It seems that the world can never be completely silent again. At least not according to Cage. And I have accepted it.

  • Roger Reynolds

    John Cage communicated with others through the discipline he manifested in his way of living; through an unwavering, lifelong commitment to discipline; through the breadth of media with which he engaged fruitfully; through the constant reformulation of the personal values that his work manifested as a result of his continuing internalization of a never-ending stream of new resource that came to him, and that he sought out.

    This is all communicative not through content but rather example. In the end, the most important content that he communicated was permission — to go where one needs to go, as he did.

  • Yvonne Troxler (Glass Farm Ensemble)

    I am always intrigued how much playing John Cage's music opens our eyes and ears. It seems as if he is forcing us to reconsider things we took for granted. His music often has sections where you have to adjust to events and sounds that can't be predicted. This is so refreshing and invigorating, as if jumping into a cold mountain lake and then coming out of it wide awake and alert.

Max Blau is a staff writer at Creative Loafing. He is also a contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Grantland and Paste.