John Cage & Christian Wolff
Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not “four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,” as is often assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance. The work’s challenge to assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience made it a popular and controversial topic both in musicology and the broader aesthetics of art and performance. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or on its strings or hammers), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces. The best known of these is Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).
His teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage’s major influences lay in various East and South Asian cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”.
Wolff was born in Nice, France, to the German literary publishers Helen and Kurt Wolff, who had published works by Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Walter Benjamin. After relocating to the U.S. in 1941, they helped to found Pantheon Books with other European intellectuals who had fled Europe during the rise of fascism. The Wolffs published a series of notable English translations of European literature, mostly, as well as an edition of the I Ching that came to greatly impress John Cage after Wolff had given him a copy.
Wolff became an American citizen in 1946. When he was sixteen his piano teacher Grete Sultan sent him for lessons in composition to the new music composer John Cage. Wolff soon became a close associate of Cage and his artistic circle, which included the fellow composers Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, the pianist David Tudor, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage relates several anecdotes about Wolff in his one-minute Indeterminacy pieces.