A World Without Noise Just Sounds

At 22, John Cage studied counterpoint with the master of serial music, Arnold Schoenberg. "[He] said I would never be able to compose, because I had no ear for music," said Cage, who admitted that pitch eluded him. But he was undeterred. Through radical experimentation, including pioneering work in electronics, he became as significant a revolutionary as his teacher, if not his equal as a composer. Cage had a deceptively simple notion: "Everything we do is music." He died last week at 79, after suffering a stroke in New York City.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, son of an inventor, he began serious music studies in the '30s. He also began composing for modern dance, notably for Merce Cunningham, with whom he was professionally and personally linked for the rest of his life. Though his early work was influenced by his teachers, including Schoenberg, Cage quickly moved into new territory. For him, there was no such thing as noise: he embraced everything from coughs to kitchen timers, incorporating "random sounds" into his music. He made a "prepared piano," placing spoons, bolts and other objects inside the instrument to change its sound.

New music, he believed meant "new listening." A pioneer in "chance" performance, Cage gave increasingly free rein to performers. Timbre and other elements in "Music of Changes," for example, are determined by tossing coins. In the famous "4'33"," the performer is silent: music is whatever you hear. At first, this philosophy outraged many critics, but it made Cage a key member of the avant-garde. A latter-day Renaissance man--painter, poet, teacher, expert on mushrooms--he influenced a generation of composers and figures as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg and the Grateful Dead. In his later years, he won wide respect. "Until I die," he said in 1957, "there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." It makes a perfect epitaph.