The music of chance

The composer John Cage was at the heart of the 20th-century avant-garde. He is remembered for his 'silent' piece, 4'33", his immersion in eastern philosophy, his use of random elements in his music - and his sense of fun. On the eve of a festival in his honour, musicians, artists and choreographers explain what he means to them

Stephen Montague, composer
When I first met John in 1975, he had given me his phone number and told me to call if I was in town. When I was next there, I did. "Am I interrupting you?" I asked. "Of course," he replied. My heart sank. But then he continued: "I regard telephone calls as unexpected pleasures. I like to remain open to things I can't predict." And he invited me to come round for a macrobiotic tea.

Later we were on tour with his operas Europeras 3 and 4. We were at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and the building still wasn't quite finished. There was a party on, and John and I, along with, Merce Cunningham, Mme Duchamp (Marcel Duchamp's wife) and the composer Yvar Mikhashoff, got into a service lift to try to find it. But the lift stopped between floors, and the lights went off - we were plunged into total darkness. It was plain weird. Every second I expected the lift to go into freefall. We pressed the emergency button, and waited. Nothing happened. Finally Mme Duchamp said: "What are we going to do?"

John replied: "It's the perfect opportunity to hear a piece of music. Just listen." There was a sort of rumble, a kind of hum from the building. We all listened intently. After a while, Yvar started some irregular, very occasional tapping, and so did I. Finally - after about 20 minutes, though it seemed like hours - the lights went back on and we were able to get out. Later, John said: "Wasn't that a marvellous piece of music. My only sadness is that two people were adding dissonances to it."

Gavin Bryars, composer
My first encounter with John Cage changed my life. I had known about him from quite an early age, as my music master at Goole Grammar School had told me about the prepared piano (the way Cage altered the sound of the instrument by inserting objects between the strings) and about 4'33" (the so-called silent piece), which he found interesting, though puzzling.

But it was seeing the Cunningham Company at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1966 that really opened my eyes. The first piece I saw was called Solo, danced by Merce Cunningham himself behind a white scrim, with a brilliant white decor by Robert Rauschen berg. It was accompanied by the five piano Nocturnes by Erik Satie, played with great delicacy by Cage. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life.

But the second piece, Variations V, was simply astonishing. It involved the whole company performing seemingly random actions with great elegance, all interacting with an array of electronics in the pit, overseen by the benign team of Cage, David Tudor and Gordon Mumma.

I decided that this was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.

I met Cage briefly during this visit to England, and a couple of years later found myself working with him in the US. It was through his personal generosity that I was able to stay there so long - I had only a visitor's visa and couldn't do any official work, but he took me on as an assistant, paying me out of his own pocket.

However, it is his intellectual generosity that I value above all. Cage didn't have any "students" in the strict sense, just people who worked with him. It is a measure of his greatness that those who are now composers never end up sounding like him. He gave you permission to be yourself. Anything goes, provided - as he would always say - that you take "nothing" as the base.

Merce Cunningham, choreographer; Cage's partner and collaborator
The thing about John is that nothing stopped him. He was constantly working on pieces and bringing them to fruition. Every piece he composed, right from the beginning, he would get performed, either by himself in the early days or gradually by others - he was a practical man. With the invention of the prepared piano, he could produce the sound of a small orchestra from a single instrument. A lot of the early prepared-piano pieces were for my solos. It was a mark of his practicality that because we could not have long gaps between items on the programme, he would make sure the piano would need very little adjustment between pieces - but the sound would be absolutely different.

We did several tours before I founded my company. I remember once we went out west somewhere to a small college. The woman in the physical education department who had invited us wasn't happy with our programme, and didn't want to pay us. So John told her we wouldn't leave until she did. Well, in the end, she did.

He had an extraordinary gift for invention. He was always interested in new possibilities and new sounds - it was always a case of what's next to do.

Jean-Luc Choplin, chief executive, Sadler's Wells
In 1976 I was running a summer academy in the south of France in La Sainte Baume. I had asked John to produce a piece for it, and he was in residence for the whole event, staying in this old monastery. In one concert we programmed his piece Atlas Eclipticalis, which included a very difficult challenge for the trombonist: he was required to play the highest note you can produce on the instrument at a very specific moment.

The piece was performed outside, the players spread around the surroundings. The trombonist was stationed in the forest. This musician was Japanese; he was completely into Cage's music and philosophy, completely crazy, and determined - like a samurai. He said: "If I cannot play this note I will commit suicide." And he was terribly serious about it.

One night I went round to have dinner with John. I said: "You have to speak to him. He is creating a huge psychodrama; I will have to cancel the concert." John said: "Have some mushrooms, Jean-Luc. There's a very small difference between life and death."

In the end, we hid another musician behind a tree in case the trombonist tried to hurt himself. The trombonist missed the note, the hidden musician jumped on him to stop him ... happy ending!

Martin Creed, Turner prize-winning artist
I want what I want to say to go without saying.

Christopher Fox, composer
I spent a week working with John Cage in 1980 and it changed my life. I thought I understood his music and his working methods, but what was so impressive was the rigour with which he questioned every artistic decision. Nothing was taken for granted, and that is what makes his music so extraordinary. For me, Cage and Stravinsky are the most important figures in the music of the past 100 years: they have changed the way we experience musical continuity, giving us new ways of perceiving time.

But there still aren't enough opportunities to hear Cage's music live, played by musicians who have got to the heart of what he was doing. When is a British orchestra going to play the Dance Four Orchestras, for example? Or a British opera house stage the first two Europeras? Perhaps if he had smiled less, people would take him more seriously. Certainly, the memory of Cage's charming public persona has tended to obscure the intense discipline he brought to his creative work. It's only when performers and promoters bring similar qualities of concentration and sheer hard work to his music that we can really get to know it in all its wonderful, dangerous beauty.

Mike Batt, composer of the Wombles theme, and of 1' (Batt/Cage)
When I decided to put 1' - a minute's silence - on an album of mine it was a respectful, jokey, John Cagean thing to do. I had registered the name Clint Cage with the Performing Right Society so that I couldn't be sued: in effect I was co-writing a piece of silence with myself. But it was the use of the name that caused controversy.

I think I have mixed feelings about Cage: half admiration for his independence of spirit and originality, half a suspicion that he was having a bit of a laugh at everyone's expense. He must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek. If he hadn't, he would have been a bit of a wanker.

To my mind, Cage would never step into the hallowed hall of great artists. There are great film directors who have done much more for great art than Cage and aren't recognised for it. But still, when there are people like Cage who turn art on its head - Damien Hirst, say - that is very interesting, and a laugh. The avant garde are a bit up themselves, but sometimes a gem comes through. If ever there was such a gem then it was John Cage.

Siobhan Davies, choreographer
Both Merce Cunningham and John Cage were people to learn from as I grew up as a choreographer. I met John on several occasions, and he even appraised a work I made on students in 1979. He was far too kind.

I did not want to be influenced by his ideas on chance as the main creative principle. I thought it necessary to learn about structures and forms. Now I find I am trying to free myself of the luggage that some of that learning has brought me.

So I have recently returned to listen again to his music, reread his writings, and have seen for the first time his collection of 20th-century scores by many different composers, all experimenting with non-traditional notation, where each explodes visual as well as aural information on to the page. All the while I came across an irreverent, witty, curious, joyful and wise man. I appreciated how he questioned the formation of habits, asking us instead to enjoy what spontaneously arises in front of us.

Michael Berkeley, composer
I always used to think of John Cage, like Stockhausen, as being more important as a musical philosopher than an actual composer. But as I've become more familiar with Cage's wonderfully inventive mind, I've fallen under the spell of his ability to sculpt in sound in works such as the ingenious pieces for prepared piano and the percussive and metallic Constructions. No wonder choreographers like Merce Cunningham found in Cage an inspirational spatial element that is wonderful to dance to, and that is now often electronically emulated but seldom equalled. Cage is that rare thing, a maverick who has taught us to re-evaluate the way in which we perceive music through creations that, though frequently conceived with childlike simplicity, both scintillate and enchant the ear.

Kathan Brown, director, Crown Point Press, California
One day in January 1980, we had a visitor to Crown Point Press who had nothing in his background to prepare him for either John Cage or the archaic nature of etching. I began (as I usually do) by explaining to him that the artist draws on a copper plate through a protective ground, and when the plate is submerged in a tray of acid the drawing is bitten. Afterward, the bitten marks are filled with ink, the excess wiped off, and through the action of the press a sheet of paper receives the image.

"But what is he doing?" the visitor asked, indicating Cage, who was drawing on a plate, consulting computer printouts of I Ching hexagrams before he made each mark. "And what about him, what's he doing?" A printer was mixing colors. Since each of Cage's prints had dozens of plates, each with several marks of different colours (and the potential for more to be added all the time), a great many mixtures were made before anything was run through the press.

The work went on for some time, and I explained each step. Finally, the etching was printed, and Cage admired it ecstatically: "I had no idea it would be this way - look at that little line, don't you think it's beautiful?" The visitor got caught up in the excitement and began to recapitulate the various steps to be sure he had them right. But as he was saying goodbye, alarm came over his face as he looked back over my shoulder. "What's he doing now?" he asked. I turned to discover Cage with his hands in a big bowl of flour. He was making bread.

Seán Doran, artistic director and chief executive, English National Opera
I do believe the future, let's say 25 to 50 years from now, will place Cage as the most important composer of the 20th century. This is not sticking my neck out. I find this notion easily convincing, and I have held it for some time. Cage's soundworlds are fashioned foremost to be beautiful - a prism that helps us refocus the world already within and around us. I find his music transformative, deeply moving, Mozartian in this respect. The commitment in the music to the notion of individuality and freedom (so 20th century) and truthfulness (so not 20th century) I also find very appealing. But, of course, others find it so perplexing - and it is wonderfully that as well!

· The BBC Symphony Orchestra's festival, John Cage Uncaged, is at the Barbican, London EC2, from tonight until Sunday. Details: 0845 120 7596.

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