John Cage: musicians and artists on a legend

John Cage used plants, liquidisers, radios and even silence to make music. As the Proms prepare to celebrate the centenary of his birth, musicians and artists reveal how the composer continues to inspire them

Tom Service's guide to John Cage

The bin bag sonata

Joe Cutler, whose Greatest Hits of Prince Consort Road is one of 10 pieces in the Cage Music Walk, commissioned to accompany tomorrow's Cage Prom

When I was offered this commission, I was shown some sites where the work could be performed. The one that appealed to me was a dumping ground in the Royal College of Music's basement. It was filled with bin bags. It got me thinking about what music musicians would put in their own Room 101. So I asked friends what they hated. My four-minute piece has samples of these rejects, each no longer than six seconds, except they've been transformed to sound as if they're actually living inside bin bags. Since Cage liked to borrow sounds he found around him, you can also hear nocturnal animals: cats, mice, rats.

As that piece is played, I will also be performing. Discarded manuscripts will be thrown from the college's third floor window by one of my students, and I'll be dressed as a roadsweeper, sweeping them up. Helium-filled balloons will be released into the air, too, as if the music is escaping.

Cage once said that if music bores you, you should listen to it again and again until you're no longer bored. That's the point about this work: instead of rejecting something, you should find a way of reclaiming it.

Cage opened a door that showed me a world no one thought possible. If he's not the most important composer of the 20th century, then he is at least among the top three – not just because of his own music, but because of his ways of thinking. When I compose, he's there in my head, challenging my preconceptions.

A jug, a pipe and a goose call

Artist Jeremy Millar, whose Cage-related video Preparations is currently showing at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

There's a clip on YouTube from 1960 showing Cage on a US game show called I've Got a Secret. He performs Water Walk – which featured a jug, an iron pipe and a goose call – in front of the TV audience. I love it. There's a seriousness to the way he pushes things into the bath, or stuffs them into a liquidiser, yet he seems to recognise that what he's doing is somewhat ridiculous. It tells you a great deal about the man.

He once said: "Art's purpose is to sober and quiet the mind, so that it is in accord with what happens." I find those words a challenge and a consolation. I know a lot of artists who take a similar line, even though they may not like his music at all. For example, 4'33", his three-movement silent work, is him cupping his ear to the world and inviting you to do the same.

When I was asked by the Hayward gallery to pick a subject for a travelling exhibition, I suggested Cage's visual art. We called it Every Day Is a Good Day. Instead of putting his works in chronological order, which he would have disliked, we used chance to determine what would hang where. We had about 100 works. We numbered them and asked each venue how many they would like. We then numbered their walls and used formulae to situate each work. So the show looked different at every gallery.

When I walked in for the opening at the Baltic, Gateshead, in 2010, I thought: "My God, it's so beautiful!" It wasn't our show because it wasn't our work, and we hadn't decided what went where either, so we weren't being self-congratulatory. But then neither was Cage whenever he said he found his work beautiful. It was as if we were seeing something we couldn't have imagined. I hope Cage would have liked that.

'He took music back to zero'

Ilan Volkov, who will conduct tomorrow's centenary Prom

Cage's music should be part of the repertoire, just like the work of Boulez or Ligeti – but there is so much resistance. In the UK, people find it tricky to deal with his humour and joyous attitude, which is very un-British.

I've just finished a rehearsal of his orchestral works for the Prom and we all found them challenging, but not because the music is difficult to play. In fact, it's the opposite. Somebody asked me: "Why do we need to play it – can't we give it to amateurs or students?" Well, no. The fact that it's easy to play doesn't mean it's easy to comprehend. It's quite threatening for orchestral musicians to play this music because it makes them take decisions. In some pieces from the 1950s, he's trying to liberate musicians' imaginations by using different notations or using noise instead of notes. He's taking music back to zero.

In Branches, one of the pieces we'll perform, we make sounds with amplified cactus spines, leaves and branches. In another, called Cartridge Music, tiny sounds are magnified through loudspeakers. It's a mistake to think of his music as a free-for-all, though. When he scored Imaginary Landscapes for 12 radios, everything is notated except for what comes out of the radios. So it's not all completely free, and where it is – that's where his music gets interesting.

What's impressive for me is how Cage makes music democratic. He wanted us to be open to the beauty of sounds in themselves. As a conductor, I'm almost redundant: my main role is as a coach during rehearsals. Normally, I help orchestras with dynamics and articulation. In Atlas Eclipticalis, which we will also perform, I become a sort of human clock, standing there measuring out time for the orchestra.

Of course he's an important composer. He was really pushing the envelope. People will always say that music that does that is no good.

A nod to the great silence

Haroon Mirza's homage to Cage, called "4" 33 RPM, is part of the Soundworks series at the ICA, London, and online

I feel very close to Cage, as he was exploring the same areas I am: it's like Damien Hirst exploring the same territory as Goya. We're both interested in the distinctions between noise, sound and music. The difference is that Cage is a musician first and foremost, albeit one who is pushing music towards visual art, whereas I'm coming from the other side. I trained in painting and sculpture, but I got interested in how to create acoustic rather than visual space.

If you go to art school, you can't avoid Cage. So I knew about him, but it wasn't until my work started moving towards the acoustic that I really appreciated what a pioneer he was. There were other composers – Edgard Varèse and Darius Milhaud – who were doing similar things, but he was more prolific and worked with interesting people from other disciplines, like the choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1960s, people in Fluxus and beyond were exploring similar territory with chants and Zen Buddhism. But Cage's work had a greater integrity and seriousness.

My Cage homage – featuring feedback, distortion and samples of Simon and Garfunkel and Michael Jackson – is played at 33rpm and it lasts 4 minutes 33 seconds, so it's a nod to Cage's famous silent work. But it's not silent. It's really a DJ mix tape, which isn't what he did at all. But maybe he would have if he were alive now.

• The John Cage Centenary Celebration Prom is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5040), 17 August.


Interviews by Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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