Richard Kostelanetz

John Cage’s Greatest Hits

Counting the number of composers and musicians that learned from him, understanding the importance of the new musical ideas that he pioneered, and being aware of the public that was scandalized by his music, I’d elect John Cage as the most influential and revolutionary of 20th century composers.

But what exactly, you might ask, did Cage do?

First, he pioneered what I’ve called “the great opening up of music to all sounds”. In 1937, in a talk titled ‘The Future of Music: Credo’, Cage said, “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard …”

Second, from the early 1950s, as against a traditional compositional process in which composers fix sounds in static relationships, he thought of composition as a dynamic process involving performers’ decisions and random numbers.

But it’s one thing to list Cage’s accomplishments. It’s another thing to understand them in the context of music history and in the context of the man’s life. And that’s where Kostelanetz comes in.

This ebookini — i.e. this short ebook — by Kostelanetz introduces Cage and his accomplishments in a very enjoyable and extremely informative way. And through Kostelanetz’s introduction of the man and then a discussion of what he views as Cage’s most important works, we get to know Cage as a person and how he thought about what he did. In short, we begin to understand Cage the artist.

Kostelanetz’s vehicle for conveying this understanding is his choice of what he considers Cage’s signature compositions. In a charming personal literary style, Kostelanetz tells us why he considers the following works to be Cage’s greatest hits.

He starts with Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1948), which, he points out, exhaustively climaxes Cage’s transformation of the piano into a percussion instrument by placing screws and bits of rubber between the strings.

He discusses HPSCHD (1969), for seven harpsichords, fifty-two computer-generated tapes, several thousand images, composed with Lejaren Hiller as collaborator, and arguably one of the largest and wildest compositions of the 20th century.

He tells us about Roaratorio (1979), which combines a major collage of sounds mentioned by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake with live Irish folksong musicians.

And he describes Europeras I/II (1987), an immense assemblage of song, scenery, and costume from 19th-century European opera.

Kostelanetz also mentions other works, discussing Cage’s Song Books (1970), for example, as book-art as much as it is about music.

Reading this ebookini is a great experience, informative, interesting, altogether a pleasure, and by the time we’ve finished it, we not only understand a lot about Cage and his music, we want to read it again.

Joel Chadabe


By Kostelanetz
John Cage’s Greatest Hits
Slonimsky & Harrison
On Innovative Musicians
Barnes & Noble



Richard Kostelanetz, whose earlier books introduced John Cage to two generations of readers, is an internationally recognized writer, composer, and media artist. His poems, stories, articles, and experimental prose have been published in magazines throughout the world.

In addition to editing three dozen anthologies, Kostelanetz has written more than one hundred books of criticism, cultural history, poetry, fiction, and experimental prose. His language-based audiotapes, videotapes, films, and holograms have been widely exhibited at venues for multimedia.

The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, among them a Fulbright Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, ten individual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and annual ASCAP awards for music composition, he is recognized with individual entries in such prestigious compendia as A Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Contemporary Poets, Webster’s Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Wikipedia, and

He comments:

John Cage’s Greatest Hits is indebted to my earlier books on John Cage:

John Cage: A Documentary Monograph (1970), reprinted (1992).

Conversing with Cage (1988). Reprinted in German (1989), Korean (1996); revised in French as Conversations Avec John Cage (2000); revised in English (2003).

John Cage: Writer (1993). Reprinted as John Cage Writer: Selected Texts (2001).

Writings About John Cage (1993). An anthology of considered criticism.

John Cage (Ex)plain(ed) (1996). My extended introduction to his work in various media.

Thirty Years of Critical Engagements with John Cage (1997) complements John Cage (Ex)plain(ed) in reprinting my shorter texts on Cage. Both of these last two books were written wholly by me.


My 1966 interview about his theater appeared in my book The Theatre of Mixed Means (1967, 1980).

My 1969 profile of Cage alone for Stereo Review appeared in my Master Minds (1969).

The double profile of Cage and his contemporary Milton Babbitt, initially in the New York Times Magazine (1967), is reprinted in my On Innovative Music(ian)s (1989).

Many others have written on Cage with varying degrees of comprehension and, alas, incomprehension. My favorite example of the latter is acknowledging my book Conversing … as “edited” by me. The book itself has no such credit. As the book’s second epigraph includes Cage’s explanation for why compilation represents composition, any “scholar” making this superficially minor mistake reveals, no doubt inadvertently, that he or she hasn’t read that far or, if so, hasn’t understood Cagean highly unique esthetics.