The 1950s saw Cage toying with the very foundational ideas of composition. After receiving a copy of the I-Ching—a classic Chinese divination tool—from a pupil, Cage began employing the text to elicit chance procedures in his musical works. This period saw Cage develop his philosophies around sound, silence, and the concept of “music” in an astounding variety of outlets. In 1952, the same year as Cage released Williams Mix, a piece featuring eight quarter-inch magnetic tapes spliced and re-arranged according to the I-Ching, his friend David Tudor premiered 4’33” in Woodstock, New York. In this piece, the performer is instructed not to play during its three movements, thereby revealing the ambient sounds of the performance space. In essence, Cage’s most radical idea was to eschew the composer’s assumed role as organizer of sounds, and instead to create a framework to listen to silence. At first, Cage’s new approach caused fractures in his professional and personal art networks, but today it is an icon of American minimalism, akin to visual artist Mark Rothko’s colorful ambience, or Aram Saroyan’s “one-word” poems (see below).
L: Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961
R: Aram Saroyan, no title, 1966
The 1960s were Cage’s most active years. He taught at Wesleyan University and the New School, composed prolifically for Merce Cunningham and his dance company, published the treatise Silence, and wrote an overwhelming number of commissions, continuing to provoke new questions about the value of organized sound. During this period, he was also an active performer; while based in the New York area, Cage travelled back to Michigan several times to teach, perform, and listen. This includes an appearance at the avant-garde festival ONCE Again in 1965, performances with David Tudor in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and solo collaborations with Merce Cunningham.
In the 1967 book A Year From Monday: New Lectures and Writings by John Cage, the composer twice mentions Ann Arbor: “Once when I was in Ann Arbor with Alexander Smith, I said that one of the things I liked about botany was that it was free of the jealousies and selfish feelings that plague the arts, that I would for that reason, if for no other, given my life to live over again, be a botanist rather than a musician.” One of the most recognizable images of Cage, taken in Ann Arbor in 1971, show Cage sitting on stage smoking a cigarette behind a small desk. The photo is in fact cropped from a larger image depicting Cage looking on as Cunningham performs center stage (see below).
Merce Cunningham and John Cage perform "How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run" at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, April 13, 1971.
Photo: University Musical Society.
Interlochen and Cranbrook
In July 1972, John Cage travelled to The Interlochen Arts Academy in upstate Michigan. Originally invited to participate in a composer’s workshop, Cage, predictably, shifted the students’ attention away from the composition process and instead to the impact of silence.
John Cage with Interlochen students foraging mushrooms on Interlochen's campus in 1972.
Photo: Interlochen Public Radio.
Lewis Saul, one of the participants in those workshops, remembers:
I got a call from my high school alma mater -- The Interlochen Arts Academy -- inviting me to join other recent Composition Major graduates for a symposium with John Cage. We were told to bring a tape of one of our compositions -- not too lengthy -- and a sleeping bag.
We met Mr. Cage in a large classroom and after the introductions, one by one, we threaded up the reel-to-reel, or cassette tapes in some cases (this is OLD tech, kids!) and played our music. Cage made short pithy comments after each tape. Mine -- a short improvisational work for electric clarinet and keyboards -- solicited a smile and the remark, "that is valuable social music."
Obviously pleased to be done with that business, he loaded us in a bus and we drove for a few hours until we reached the wild untouched world of the northern Michigan pine forest. Cage had us form a large circle, and proceeded to give a serious lecture on morel mushrooms.
He taught us how to look for them on trees blighted with Dutch Elm Disease, and -- most importantly -- how to be certain we weren't picking any false morels, such as Gyromitra esculenta or Verpa bohemica -- both morel lookalikes which are poisonous!
For the rest of the day, we all went mushroom hunting, filling our little baskets with these weird-looking fungi, as Cage went around checking everyone's haul to make sure that they were all true morels.
Dusk. We made a large circle of rocks and built a campfire. Cage had checked all the morels, which now were placed in a large bucket. Out came sticks of butter and thinly-sliced garlic. JC carefully cut up the morels and put the mixture into a large pot which was then put on the fire.
In a few minutes, we were all feasting on buttery morels. They were delicious!
It got dark. We fed the fire. Some of my compadres started to ask Cage some questions, most of them ridiculous. Cage never gave a verbal answer, only staring back at the questioner, and smiling, devilishly ...
"Why did you write 4'33"?" "What made you decide to invent the prepared piano?" "What do you think of Composer X?" Still smiling, lips pursed, Cage -- in a very soft voice -- said, "would everyone please shut up?"
Stunned silence. But not complete silence. People were making little noises, shuffling around in their sleeping bags. But after a few minutes, as Cage looked at each of us with those piercing eyes, a complete silence fell upon the group. Cage was delighted. The silence was deafening. Suddenly -- far off in the distance -- the very faint sound of an airplane ...
"Now, that's music!" Cage smiled -- a real smile, his eyes wide and gleaming with complete joyous satisfaction.
In 1974 Cage returned to the Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he worked with visual artists including printmakers, graphic designers, and sculptors. Students joined the composer as he foraged for mushrooms throughout the Cranbrook Gardens and surrounding forests. His visit marked the opening of Music-Mushrooms-Manuscripts, a museum exhibition of Cage’s art along with a performance of his work. Cage’s Cranbrook stay also included “John Cage Listens to John Cage,” a public concert held on April 12 at Cranbrook which featured students from Cranbrook’s Upper School and the local Andover and Seaholm High Schools. The program, writes Shelly Selim, 2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow Cranbrook Art Museum,:
[F]eatured a 35-piece ensemble of brass, string, woodwind, and non-pitched percussion instruments for the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis, executed in unison with the multi-piano composition Winter Music. Other works included Variations IV, 4’33”, 0’00”, and Prelude for Meditation, the latter representing his earlier compositions exploring ambient noise and prepared piano. The entire evening was conducted by a seventeen-year-old Steve Tennent, who had just graduated from high school four months earlier, and a promotional poster was designed by co-head of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Design department, Michael McCoy.
L: John Cage Listens to John Cage, 1974. Offset lithograph poster designed by Michael McCoy, with photography by Frances Greenberg. Printed at Cranbrook Press. (c) Michael McCoy.
Photo: Stephen Milanowski.
R: Steve Tennent conducts the orchestra from the back of Cranbrook Upper School’s Little Gym.
Photo: Steve Tennent.
His stay at the Academy included private and public lectures. Memorably, one lecture featured the young artists riffing on Cage’s tongue-in-cheek performativity; a group of Cranbrook print students created dozens of paper bag masks, adorned with Cage’s smiling face and reverential beard. Within these bags, students Chuck Baughman and Doug Huston included “a suite of droll and imaginative prints–including a program for the concert performance and limited-edition postcards.”
L: A close up of a “Cage Bag” created in 1974.
R: A postcard of CAA student Jim Poole, wearing the “Cage Bag” on campus.
Photo: Stephen Milanowski.
In April 2024, the Cranbrook Art Museum and Cranbrook Art Academy will celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Cage’s Cranbrook visit which will include live performances from Cage-ian Detroit artists, rare archival material from the Cranbrook collections, and a few surprises. You can get a sneak peek at art, photographs, and more from John Cage’s Cranbrook archive during Europeras 3 & 4 on March 8, 9, and 10.
Detroit Music Hall, "Child of Tree"
In March 1975, Detroit’s Music Hall hosted the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for several engagements. Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner, was a frequent collaborator with the most modern American composers. At Music Hall his company performed Changing Steps, featuring Cage’s Cartridge Music, as well as Rebus, choreographed to David Berman’s improvised vocals and electronics, and Sounddance, set to David Tudor’s Toneburst, an insistent, squelching, molten electronic track produced with Tudor’s homemade synthesizers. Detroit Opera board member Ruth Rattner, who was in the Music Hall audience, remembers, “Cage was in the orchestra pit, not conducting, but lighting matches!”
These performances at Music Hall featured a Cage composition most subtle in texture, but monumental in philosophy. During Cunningham’s piece Solo (“Animal Solo/Dance”), Cage premiered his work Child of Tree, a sparse meditation on silence, nature, and animism. The core of Child of Tree is a cactus, whose spines are plucked, brushed with a feather, or rubbed against rocks. The impetus for the piece, according to The John Cage Trust, came from his recent trip with the Company out west:
While on tour in Arizona with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1975, one of the dancers, Charles Moulton, brought a dried cactus to Cage, placed it near his ear, and plucked its spines. This inspired Cage to use cacti as musical instruments in pieces like Child of Tree and Branches. The score consists solely of performance instructions as to how to select 10 instruments via I Ching chance operations. All instruments should be made of plant matter, or be themselves plant materials (e.g. leaves from trees, branches etc.). One of the instruments should be a pod (rattle) from a Poinciana tree, which grow in Mexico. Cage instructs: "Using a stopwatch, the soloist improvises clarifying the time structure by means of the instruments. This improvisation is the performance.”
This embrace of improvisation is a markedly different approach than the chance operations offered by the I-Ching, showing how Cage continued to adjust his own compositional philosophies as his career continued. The Music Hall series would be Cage’s last public concert in Detroit; arthritis had been encroaching for over a decade, and in 1976 Cage retired from performing.
- Austin Richey, Ph.D, Digital Media Manager and Storyteller at Detroit Opera
 John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings by John Cage, 35.
 Selim, “Music-Mushrooms-Manuscripts,” Cranbrook Sightings Blog.