Today, exactly 100 years after his birth, composer, writer and conceptual artist John Cage is still, for many, Public Enemy No. 1. On a scale far beyond the reach of any other 20th-century art composer, this master provocateur is still the one who inflames and infuriates. (I like to imagine that Cage, a natural-born trickster, would have loved the bit of April Fool's mischief that iTunes pulled a few years ago when they offered his "silent" 4'33" as their free download of the day.)
But Cage was no flim-flam artist; 4'33" wasn't silent and it wasn't a joke at all. When a pianist does nothing more than lift and close the instrument's lid, the ambient sounds surrounding the listener, and even the listener's own breath, become the vehicle for a kind of sonic zazen. It is a stunningly potent invitation to reframe music and the world. In a 1988 interview with composer William Duckworth, Cage said that 4'33" was a piece he used "constantly in my life experience. No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work ... More than anything else, it's the source of my enjoyment of life."
His habit of putting a frame around chance encounters and stamping those cosmic accidents with his own signature may well anger you, but at the very least he forces you to reconsider your expectations and assumptions. Not just within classical music circles — and whether or not you personally enjoy his output or his aesthetics — Cage fundamentally reshaped ideas of what music was and what it could be. (Be sure to check out 33 artists from Wilco's Glenn Kotche to Amanda Palmer to Cage specialist Margaret Leng Tan reacting to the question: "John Cage, what does he communicate?")
While it is true that he could have disseminated his ideas via the ministry (a path he considered early on, before he was introduced to Buddhism), visual art (ditto), or more primarily as a writer or as a philosopher, music and live performance were his main modes of expression. Like meditation itself, Cage's work is best experienced rather than explained, so in honor of the Cage centennial, here are five videos and performance clips of his work, each a path into understanding what he was all about.