John Cage, the musician, musical theorist, artist, composer, philosopher, avid mycologist, writer and one of the leading lights of the 20th century avant garde was born on September 5, 1912. Cage’s iconoclastic approach to music—and everything else he did—is neatly summed up in this short comment:
After I had been studying with him for two years, [Austrian composer Arnold] Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”
Superb! I hate to admit it, but I’d rather read John Cage than actually listen to his music. Like most people, the only song of his that I can sing in the shower is “4′33″ although I have a shelf full of his books, books about him and anthologies of his interviews.
I do have a slightly funny John Cage anecdote: Sometime in the mid-1980s, Cage, along with Winona Ryder and several other cultural notables, was photographed for an ad campaign for The GAP. These black and white ads were in magazines and on bus shelters in major cities. New York was just plastered with them at the time (Sadly I can’t find Cage’s ad on Google Images).
Part of the pay, apparently, was a rather large GAP gift certificate and on a day that I happened to be in a GAP store on Seventh Ave and 23rd Street—and had literally just passed his ad on the way into the store—John Cage decided that he was going to spend his. I heard him explaining this to the employees—that he had $1000 to spend—and could they please assist him spending it? They at least seemed to recognize Cage from his GAP ad, if not his actual achievements and the staff was happy to help out the cool old guy in the ad.
Cage didn’t stay long because he seemed to know exactly what he wanted. I recall that he walked out with a winter corduroy coat, a big stack of black “pocket tee” shirts, some denim shirts and some blue jeans. His style of shopping was extremely utilitarian. He left nothing to chance…
Below, the fascinating ‘American Masters’ documentary on John Cage, ‘I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It’:
Below, a seldom-seen cable access program with Cage with his friend, writer Richard Kostelanetz. The pair discuss James Joyce and more: