John Cage

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photo of John Cage, 1988

John Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer. A pioneer of chance music, electronic music and non-standard use of musical instruments. Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avantgarde and, in the opinion of many, the most influential American composer of the 20th century.

Quotes of John Cage

chronologically arranged, after date of the quotes of John Cage
graphic illustration the structural proportions in Sonata III of 'Sonatas and interludes', written by John Cage between 1946-48
John Cage, 1952: A computer-generated performance of 4′33″
photo 1972: Farah Diba greets John Cage and Merce Cunningham at the 1972 festival; - quote of Merce Cunningham, 2000 'John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 1950's. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the I Ching - the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams'
a section of Cage's music-piece 'Water Walk'
photo of the organ in Halberstadt in Sachsen Anhalt, built for the Organ²/ASLSP-project
photo, 1987: Pietro Borradori and John Cage in Frankfurt, Germany
photo, 1992: John Cage and Michael Bach in Assisi, Italy
music piece of John Cage, performed in 2005 in the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany
photo of Nobukazu Takemura, at the Serge Modular Synthesizer, at the John Cage 100th Anniversary event, Kyoto Art Center


  • I can't speak or write German, but I'am overjoyed because I have bought one of your pictures. Now it is in me. I write music. You are my teacher.
    • Quote from his letter to Jawlensky, early Februari 1935; as cited in 'The shape of the Future 3: Art' in Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin 2012, p. unknown
    • Cage bought one of the small 'Head' paintings of Jawlensky, via his art-agent Galka E. Scheyer who showed Cage some paintings of Jawlensky early 1935, and sold his choice very cheap for 25 dollars; Cage was then 25 years old and strongly inspired by images, as he told Scheyer and wrote Jawlensky
  • Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of "sound effects" recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.
    • Quote of John Cage, in: 'The Future of Music: Credo' (1937); in: 'Silence: lectures and writings by Cage, John', Publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, V.
  • I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the use of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored.
    • Quote of John Cage, in: 'The Future of Music: Credo' (1937); SILENCE 3-4
    • Quote of John Cage, in: 'The Future of Music: Credo' (1937); SILENCE; lectures and writings by Cage, John', Publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, CREDO/3
  • The composer (organizer of sound) will be faced not only with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time. The 'frame' or fraction of a second, following established film technique, will probably be the basic unit in the measurement of time. No rhythm will be beyond the composer's reach.
  • In: 'The Future of Music: Credo' (1937); in: 'Silence: lectures and writings by Cage, John', Publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, 4/SILENCE


  • I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.
    • "Lecture on Nothing" (1949)
  • We need not destroy the past. It is gone.
    • "Lecture on Nothing" (1949)
  • I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson. And so we make our lives by what we love.
    • "Lecture on Nothing" (1949)
  • A finished work is exactly that, requires resurrection.
    • Quote of John Cage from Forerunners of Modern Music (1949), first published in the New York journal A Tiger's Eye, later collected in Silence.


  • I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I'm changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically uniquely themselves. This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is but what it actually is in all of its acoustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.
  • A sound does not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing another sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has not time for any consideration--it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.
  • Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.
    • Quote of "Experimental Music", John Cage (1957)
  • Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
    Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
    • "Communication", the third of the Composition as a Process lectures, John Cage gave in Darmstadt in 1958 and published in Silence.
  • David Tudor and I went to Hilversum in Holland to make a recording for the Dutch radio. We arrived at the studio early and there was some delay. To pass the time, we chatted with the engineer who was to work with us. He asked me what kind of music he was about to record. Since he was a Dutchman I said, 'It may remind you of the work of Mondrian.' When the session was finished and the three of us were leaving the studio, I asked the engineer what he thought of the music we had played. He said, 'It reminded me of the work of Mondrian.'
    • Quote from 'Lecture on Nothing', (c. 1949), in 'Silence: lectures and writings by John Cage; Publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, p. 127
    • this lecture had been prepared some years earlier, but was not printed until 1959, when it appeared in 'It Is', ed. Philip Pavia


  • So it was that I gave about 1949 my 'Lecture on Nothing' at the Artists' Club on Eighth Street in New York City (started by Robert Motherwell), which predated the popular one associated with Philip Pavia, Bill de Kooning, et al. ). This 'Lecture on Nothing' was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions (Sonatas and Interludes, Three Dances, etc.) . One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, 'If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.' Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, 'John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute.' She then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen.
    • Quote in: 'Silence: lectures and writings by John Cage'; publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, Foreword/ix
  • At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of w:Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my 'Juilliard lecture', which ends: 'A piece of string, a sunset, each acts.' The audience was seated in the center of all this activity. Later that summer, vacationing in New England, I visited America's first synagogue, to discover that the congregation was there seated precisely the way I had arranged the audience at Black Mountain.
    • Quote in: 'Silence: lectures and writings by John Cage'; publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, Foreword/ix
  • Critics frequently cry 'Dada' after attending one of my concerts or hearing one of my lectures. Others bemoan my interest in w:Zen. One of the liveliest lectures I ever heard was given by Nancy Wilson Ross at the Cornish School in Seattle. It was called Zen Buddhism and Dada. It is possible to make a connection between the two, but neither Dada nor Zen is a fixed tangible. They change; and in quite different ways in different places and times, they invigorate action. What was Dada in the 1920's is now, with the exception of the work of Marcel Duchamp, just art. What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen.. .I doubt whether I would have done what I have done. . .I often point out that Dada nowadays has in it a space, an emptiness, that it formerly lacked. What nowadays, America mid-twentieth century, is Zen?
    • Quote in 'Silence: lectures and writings by Cage, John', Publisher Middletown, Conn. Wesleyan University Press, June 1961, x/SILENCE


  • I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.' I said, 'Well then, I'll beat my head against that wall.' I quite literally began hitting things, and developed a music of percussion that involved noises.
    • Quote from an interview in Observer magazine (1982), repeated on several occasions
  • There is one term of the problem which you are not taking into account: precisely, the world. The real. You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change.. .It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say as it 'presents itself'; that means that it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.
    • Quote in 'John Cage, For the Birds: John Cage In Conversation with Daniel Charles', London/New York: Marion Boyars, 1981; as quoted in: 'Tàpies: From Within', June ─ November, 2013 - Presse Release, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC ), p. 17, note 10
  • Art's purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens.
    • 1982, quoted in John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind, ISBN 1891300164
  • I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.
  • Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
    • Quoted in Richard Kostelanetz (1988) Conversing with Cage
  • As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency.
    • Quote from an interview by John Corbett (1989)


  • When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic — here on Sixth Avenue, for instance — I don't have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound.. .I don't need sound to talk to me.
    • Quote of Cage, in an interview with Miroslav Sebestik, 1991; in Listen, documentary by Miroslav Sebestik. ARTE France Développement, 2003; as quoted on Wikipedia, note 54
  • They say, 'you mean it's just sounds?' thinking that for something to just be a sound is to be useless, whereas I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don't want them to be psychological. I don't want a sound to pretend that it's a bucket or that it's president or that it's in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.
    • Interview in documentary "Listen" (1992)
  • What I'm proposing, to myself and other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before. So that you're not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before.
    • as quoted in "Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music", January, 1996; ISBN 0819563110
  • I once asked Aragon, the historian, how history was written. He said, 'You have to invent it.' When I wish as now to tell of critical incidents, persons, and events that have influenced my life and work, the true answer is all of the incidents were critical, all of the people influenced me, everything that happened and that is still happening influences me.
  • We are living in a period in which many people have changed their mind about what the use of music is or could be for them. Something that doesn't speak or talk like a human being, that doesn't know its definition in the dictionary or its theory in the schools, that expresses itself simply by the fact of its vibrations. People paying attention to vibratory activity, not in reaction to a fixed ideal performance, but each time attentively to how it happens to be this time, not necessarily two times the same. A music that transports the listener to the moment where he is.

Quotes about John Cage

sorted chronologically, by date of the quotes about John Cage
  • John Cage ...once told me, ‘When you start working everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.
    • Quote by Philip Guston, quoted speaking on 'The Philadelphia Panel', transcribed in It Is, no.5, Spring 1960. pp.36–8.
  • I'm especially interested in the music of John Cage.. ..I would like to do some experimenting with the relationship between his freeform sound and [my] free-form art.
    • Quote by Jasper Johns, quoted in John Adds Plaster Casts To Focus Target Paintings, Donald Key, Milwaukee Journal, 19 June 1960, pt. 5, p. 6
  • The rise of music that is totally without social commitment also increases the separation between composer and public, and represents still another form of departure from tradition. The cynicism with which this particular departure seems to have been made is perfectly symbolized in John Cage's account of a public lecture he had given: "Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen." While Mr. Cage's famous silent piece [i.e. 4′33″], or his Landscapes for a dozen radio receivers may be of little interest as music, they are of enormous importance historically as representing the complete abdication of the artist's power.
    • Quote of Michael Steinberg, 1962, in Tradition and Responsibility. Perspectives of New Music 1, 1962, 154–159; as quoted on Wikipedia, note 103
  • Object in/ and space – the first impulse may be to give the object – a position – to place the object. (The object had a position to begin with.) Next – to change the position of the object. – Rauschenberg's early sculptures – A board with some rocks on it. The rocks can be anywhere on the board. - Cage's Japanese rock garden – The rocks can be anywhere [within the garden]..
    • Quote by Jasper Johns, in Book C (sketchbook), c. 1970; as quoted in Jasper Johns, Writings, sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. Kirk Varnedoe, Moma New York, 1996, p. 70
  • Once, I made a kind of sculpture of a flag in bronze: it was an edition of three, I think. One of them was given on some occasion to President Kennedy. I became very upset that this was happening. It was given on Flag Day! (he laughs). It seemed to me to be such a terrible thing to happen. I complained bitterly to my very good friend John Cage. He said: "Don't let it worry you. Just consider it as a pun on your work". (he laughs).
    • Quote by Jasper Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns Interviewed/ Jasper Johns interviewed Part II, Peter Fuller, Art Montly, London, August/September 1978
  • I met Cummingham around 1953 after a performance I saw. He was teaching and making dances for his company and was already working with John Cage. What interested me initially wasn't just the movement but also the music he worked with, which was unfamiliar to me.. .Later Bob Rauschenberg had been doing sets and costumes for the Cunningham Company.. .I can't say exactly how, but for a period of time, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and I saw each other frequently and exchanged ideas. John [Cage] was very interested in presenting his ideas to other people, so it was impossible to be around and not to learn.. .He could apply his ideas on space and time to painting, or music or architecture.. ..I don't have a clear sense of cause and effect in my painting, but it is probably there.
    • Quote Jasper Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns, by Bryan Robertson and Tim Marlow, Tate, in 'The Art Magazine', London, Winter 1993, pp. 40, 47
  • Cage's Music of Changes was a further indication that the arts in general were beginning to consciously deal with the 'given' material and, to varying degrees, liberating them from the inherited, functional concepts of control.
  • John Cage and I became interested in the use of chance in the 50's. I think one of the very primary things that happened then was the publication of the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes, from which you can cast your fortune: the hexagrams.
  • Cage took it to work in his way of making compositions then; and he used the idea of 64 — the number of the hexagrams — to say that you had 64, for example, sounds; then you could cast, by chance, to find which sound first appeared, cast again, to say which sound came second, cast again, so that it's done by, in that sense, chance operations. Instead of finding out what you think should follow — say a particular sound — what did the I Ching suggest? Well, I took this also for dance.
  • I'm just back from Halberstadt (a 20+ hour journey), having attended the ceremonious 13th note change in the hyperdurational sounding of John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP. This is the last note change to occur for seven long years, so it was particularly well attended. The image above is my vantage point -- being among the last to enter the church, I was really only able to watch the proceedings via the many cell phones held above the heads of hundreds of compatriots. (The presence of so much technology in so hallowed a space is, well, jarring.)
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