Concert for Piano and Orchestra, 1958, Cubierta, hoja de instrucciones y páginas 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 y 9, Credit Line: Editions Peters.
Reunion, 1968, Performance Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, chess game on sounding board, Photo: Shigeko Kubota.
Merce Cunningham carrying Carolyn Brown on a chair while David Tudor lies on the floor under the piano. Performance at Friedric-Wilhelm Gymnasium, 5 October 1960, Photo: Peter Fischer, Courtesy Galerie Schüppenhauer.
Robert Rauschenberg, White Paintings (Three Panel), 1951, Oil on canvas, 182,88 x 274,32 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis, © Robert Rauschenberg, Estate of Robert Rauschenberg, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2009.
John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1985, Photographer: Jay Anderson, Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.
Nam June Paik, John Cage and David Tudor after the Performance. Concert «Kompositionen» Atelier Mary Bauermeister, Cologne, 6 October 1960, Photo: Klaus Barisch, Courtesy Galerie Schüppenhauer.
John Cage during the rehersals on stage in a floor trap. Performance at Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium, 5 October 1960, Photo: Peter Fischer, Courtesy Galerie Schüppenhauer.
Chess Pieces, 1944, Guache, black & white ink, 48,2 x 48,2 cm, Patrick Shaw, Chicago, Photo: Brian Franczk, © John Cage, John Cage Trust, 2009.
John Cage on the primed piano. Performance at Friedric-Wilhelm Gymnasium, 5 October 1960, Photo: Peter Fischer, Courtesy Galerie Schüppenhauer.
John Cage, preparing a piano, c.1964, Copyright John Cage Trust.
Hans Richter (Berlin, Alemanya, 1888-Locarno, Suïssa, 1976) Dreams That Money Can Buy, 1946, film, Photo courtesy: BFI Stills, Posters and Design – Print source: BFI.
Imaginary Landscape no. 1, 1939, Cubierta, cubierta interior y página 1, Credit line: Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing, Arts, Astor, Lenos and Tilden Foundations.
Sonatas and Interludes, 1946-1948, Cubierta, hojas de instrucciones y páginas 1 y 2, Credit Line: Editions Peters.
John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1964, Photographer: Hans Wild, Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.
John Cage, composing Atlas Eclipticalis, 1962, Photographer: Unknown, Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.
John Cage, 1991, Photographer: Henning Lohner, Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.
Museu d'Art Contemporani Barcelona
Plaça dels Angels
+ 34 93 412 08 10
The Anarchy of Silence
John Cage and Experimental Art
October 23, 2009-January 10, 2010
This is the first major international retrospective of the work of the American avant garde composer John Cage (Los Angeles, 1912-New York, 1992) since his death. Cage is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and the figure who most significantly redirected the conceptual horizon of postwar art. The exhibition gives a systematic account of the radical innovations the musician introduced over his career, from the 1930s to the 1980s.
The Anarchy of Silence. John Cage and Experimental Art is a collection of over 200 works, including scores, paintings, sound pieces, sculptures, films and installations, and a journey through Cage’s career from his first work on the expansion of the parameters of percussion music in the thirties, with ever less conventional "instruments," to the development of the "prepared piano" in the 1940s, by way of his historic "theory of silence" (which culminated with the score 4’33’’) and his multimedia collaborations in the eighties. The exhibition also highlights his influence on other artists and composers, and contains works by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, George Brecht, Robert Morris, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, Walter de Maria and the Fluxus artists. Among the works on show are original scores by Cage which have never before been presented in Spain, as well as Automobile Tire Print (1953), the only explicit collaboration between Robert Rauschenberg and Cage, the Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961), by Robert Morris, the electronic chessboard he made with Marcel Duchamp in 1968, and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966).
Although frequently mentioned, the figure of John Cage is still little understood. This exhibition organised by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) shows the radical strategies the composer deployed through his practice based on chance and the "emptying" of the score to open it up to other uses. In addition to his noted classes at New School for Social Research (New York), Cage taught experimental composition to a generation of artists and influenced others. Many of them belonged to the avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century: from Fluxus to Conceptual Art. To mark the exhibition a published catalogue includines various essays on the composer and his work written by Julia Robinson, Liz Kotz, Branden Joseph, Yve-Alain Bois and the musicologist James Pritchett.
Cage was born in Los Angeles, California. His father John Milton Cage Sr. (1886-1964) was an inventor, and his mother Lucretia (Crete) Harvey (1885-1969) worked intermittently as journalist for the Los Angeles Times. The family's roots were American: in a 1976 interview Cage mentioned "a John Cage who helped [George] Washington in the surveying of Virginia." Cage described his mother as a woman with "a sense of society" who was "never happy." while his father is perhaps best characterized by his inventions: sometimes idealistic, such as a diesel-fueled submarine that gave off exhaust bubbles, the senior Cage being uninterested in an undetectable submarine, others revolutionary and against scientific norms, such as the "electrostatic field theory" of the universe. John Milton Sr. taught his son that "if someone says 'can't' that shows you what to do." In 1944-45 Cage wrote two small character pieces dedicated to his parents: Crete and Dad. The latter is a short lively piece ending abruptly, while Crete is a slightly longer, mostly melodic contrapuntal work.
Cage's first experiences with music were from private piano teachers in the greater Los Angeles area and several relatives, particularly his aunt Phoebe Harvey who introduced him to piano music of 19th century. He received first piano lessons in the fourth grade, but though he liked music, he expressed more interest in sight reading than in developing virtuoso piano technique, and apparently was not thinking of composition. By 1928 Cage was convinced that he wanted to be a writer. That year he graduated from Los Angeles High School as valedictorian and enrolled at Pomona College, Claremont. However, in 1930 he dropped out, believing that "college was of no use to a writer" by an incident described in the 1991 autobiographical statement:
"I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left."
Cage persuaded his parents that a trip to Europe would be more beneficial to a future writer than college studies. He hitchhiked to Galveston and sailed to Le Havre, where he took a train to Paris. Cage stayed in Europe for 18 months, trying his hand at various forms of art. First he studied Gothic and Greek architecture, but decided he was not interested enough in architecture to dedicate his life to it. He then took up painting, poetry and music. In Europe that he first heard the music of contemporary composers (such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith) and finally got to know the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which he had not experienced before.
After several months in Paris Cage's enthusiasm for America revived after reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass — wanting to return immediately, his parents, with whom he regularly exchanged letters during the trip, persuaded him to stay in Europe a little longer and explore the continent. Cage started travelling, visited various places in France, Germany and Spain, as well as Capri and, most importantly, Majorca, where he started composing. His first compositions were created using dense mathematical formulae, but Cage was displeased with the results and left the finished pieces behind. Cage's association with theatre also started in Europe: during a walk in Seville he witnessed, in his own words, "the multiplicity of simultaneous visual and audible events all going together in one's experience and producing enjoyment."
Cage returned to the United States in 1931. He went to Santa Monica, California, where he made a living partly by giving small, private lectures on contemporary art. He got to know various important figures of the Southern California art world, such as pianist Richard Buhlig (who became his first teacher) and arts patron Galka Scheyer. By 1933 Cage decided to concentrate on music rather than painting. "The people who heard my music had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings", Cage later explained. In 1933 he sent some of his compositions to Henry Cowell; the reply was a "rather vague letter", in which Cowell suggested that Cage study with Arnold Schoenberg — Cage's musical ideas at the time included composition based on a 25-tone row, similar to Schoenberg's 12-tone technique. Cowell mentioned, however, that before approaching Schoenberg, Cage should take some preliminary lessons, and recommended Adolph Weiss, a former Schoenberg pupil.
Cage travelled to New York City in 1933 and started studying with Weiss as well as taking lessons from Cowell himself at the New School for Social Research. He supported himself by taking a job washing walls at a Brooklyn YWCA. Cage's routine during that period was apparently very tiring, with just four hours of sleep on most nights, and four hours of composition every morning starting at 4 a.m.. Several months later, Cage became sufficiently good at composition to approach Schoenberg. He could not afford Schoenberg's price, however, and when he mentioned it, the older composer asked if Cage would devote his life to music. After Cage said he would, Schoenberg offered to tutor him for free.
Cage studied with Schoenberg in California: first at USC and then UCLA, as well as privately. The older composer became one of the biggest influences on Cage, who "literally worshipped him", particularly as an example of how to live one's life as a composer. The vow Cage gave, to dedicate his life to music, was still important some 40 years later, when Cage "had no need for it [i.e. writing music]," he continued composing partly because of the promise he gave. Schoenberg's methods and their influence are documented by Cage himself in various lectures and writings. Particularly well-known is the conversation mentioned in the 1958 lecture Indeterminacy:
After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."
Cage studied with Schoenberg for two years, but although he admired his teacher, he decided to leave after Schoenberg told the assembled students that he was trying to make it impossible for them to write music. Much later, Cage recounted the incident:
"[...] When he said that, I revolted, not against him, but against what he had said. I determined then and there, more than ever before, to write music."
Although Schoenberg never complimented Cage on his compositions during these two years, in a later interview he said that none of his American pupils were interesting, except Cage: "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor — of genius."
In 1934-5, during his studies with Schoenberg, Cage was working at his mother's arts and crafts shop, where he met artist Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff. She was an Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest; her work encompassed fine bookbinding, sculpture and collage. Although Cage was involved in a relationship with Don Sample when he met Xenia, he fell in love immediately. Cage and Kashevaroff were married in the desert at Yuma, Arizona, on June 7, 1935.
The newly married couple first lived with Cage's parents in Pacific Palisades, then moved to Hollywood. During 1936-8 Cage changed numerous jobs, including one that started his lifelong association with modern dance: dance accompanist at the UCLA. He produced music for choreographies and at one point taught a course on "Musical Accompaniments for Rhythmic Expression" at UCLA, with his aunt Phoebe. It was during that time that Cage first started experimenting with unorthodox instruments, such as household items, metal sheets, and so on. This was inspired by Oskar Fischinger, who told Cage that "everything in the world has a spirit that can be released through its sound." Although Cage did not share the idea of spirits, these words inspired him to begin exploring the sounds produced by hitting various non-musical objects.
In 1938, with help from a fellow Cowell student Lou Harrison, Cage became a faculty member at Mills College, teaching the same program as at UCLA, collaborating with choreographer Marian van Tuyl. Several famous dance groups were present, and Cage's interest in modern dance grew. After several months he left and moved to Seattle, Washington, where he found work as composer and accompanist for choreographer Bonnie Bird at Cornish School of the Arts. The Cornish School years proved to be a particularly important period in Cage's life. Aside from teaching and working as accompanist, Cage organized a percussion ensemble that toured the West Coast and brought the composer his first fame. His reputation was enhanced further with the invention of the prepared piano — a piano which has had its sound altered by objects placed on the strings — in 1940. This concept was originally intended for performance in a room too small to include a full percussion ensemble. It was also at Cornish School that Cage met people who became lifelong friends, such as painter Mark Tobey and dancer Merce Cunningham. The latter was to become Cage's lifelong partner and collaborator.
Cage left Seattle in Summer 1941, after painter Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited him to teach at the Chicago School of Design. The composer accepted partly because he hoped to find opportunities in Chicago, that were not available in Seattle, to organize a center for experimental music. These opportunities, however, did not materialize. Cage taught at the Chicago School of Design and worked as accompanist and composer at the University of Chicago. At one point, his reputation as percussion composer landed him a commission from the Columbia Broadcasting System to compose a soundtrack for a radio play by Kenneth Patchen. The result, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, was received well, and Cage deduced that more important commissions would follow. Hoping to find these, he left Chicago for New York City in the spring of 1942.
In New York, the Cages first stayed with painter Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Through them, Cage met numerous important artists such as Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, and many others. Guggenheim was very supportive: the Cages could stay with her and Ernst for any length of time, and she offered to organize a concert of Cage's music at the opening of her gallery, which included paying for transportation of Cage's percussion instruments from Chicago. However, after she learned that Cage secured another concert, at the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim withdrew all support, and, even after the ultimately successful MoMA concert, Cage was left homeless, unemployed and penniless. The commissions he hoped for did not happen. He and Xenia spent the summer of 1942 with dancer Jean Erdman and her husband. Without the percussion instruments, Cage again turned to prepared piano, producing a substantial body of works for performances by various choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, who moved to New York City several years earlier. Cage and Cunningham eventually became romantically involved, and Cage's marriage, already breaking up during the early 1940s, ended in divorce in 1945. Cunningham remained Cage's partner for the rest of his life. Like his personal life, Cage's artistic life went through a crisis in mid-1940s. The composer was experiencing a growing disillusionment with the idea of music as means of communication: the public rarely accepted his work, and Cage himself, too, had trouble understanding the music of his colleagues. In early 1946 Cage agreed to tutor Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician who came to the U.S. to study Western music. In return, he asked her to teach him about Indian music and philosophy. Cage also attended, in late 1940s and early 1950s, D. T. Suzuki's lectures on Zen Buddhism, and read the works of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The first fruits of these studies were works inspired by Indian concepts: Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, String Quartet in Four Parts, and others. Cage accepted the goal of music as explained to him by Sarabhai: "to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences."
Sonatas and Interludes were received well by the public. After a 1949 performance at Carnegie Hall Cage received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, which enabled him to make a trip to Europe, where he met composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. More important, however, was Cage's chance encounter with Morton Feldman in New York City in early 1950. Both composers attended a New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where the orchestra performed Webern's Symphony, op. 21, followed by a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Cage felt so overwhelmed by Webern's piece that he left before the Rachmaninoff; and in the lobby, he met Feldman, who was leaving for the same reason. The two composers quickly became friends; some time later Cage, Feldman, and Cage's pupil Christian Wolff came to be referred to as "the New York school."
In early 1951 Wolff presented Cage with a copy of the I Ching — a Chinese classic text which describes a symbol system used to identify order in chance events. The I Ching is commonly used for divination, but for Cage it became a tool to compose using chance. To compose a piece of music, Cage would come up with questions to ask the I Ching; the book would then be used in much the same way as it is used for divination. For Cage, this meant "imitating nature in its manner of operation": his lifelong interest in sound itself culminated in an approach that yielded works in which sounds were free from the composer's will:
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.
The first pieces composed using chance were Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radio receivers, and Music of Changes for piano. The latter work was written for David Tudor, whom Cage met through Feldman — another friendship that lasted until Cage's death. Tudor premiered most of Cage's works until early 1960s, when he stopped performing and concentrated on composition. The I Ching became Cage's standard tool for composition: he used it in practically every work composed after 1951.
Despite the fame Sonatas and Interludes earned him, and the connections he cultivated with American and European composers and musicians, Cage was quite poor. Although he still had an apartment, at 326 Monroe Street (which he occupied since around 1946) his financial situation in 1951 worsened so much that, while working on Music of Changes, he prepared a set of instructions for Tudor as to how to complete the piece in the event of his death. Nevertheless, Cage managed to survive and maintained an active artistic life, giving lectures, performances, etc. In 1952–53 he completed another mammoth project — the Williams Mix, a piece of tape music, which Earle Brown helped to put together. Also in 1952, Cage wrote down the piece that became his most well-known and most controversial creation: 4′33″. The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece — four minutes, thirty-three seconds — and is meant to be perceived as consisting of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. Cage conceived "a silent piece" years earlier, but was reluctant to write it down; and indeed, the premiere (given by Tudor on 29 August 1952 at Woodstock, New York) caused an uproar in the audience. The reaction to 4′33″ was just a part of the larger picture, however: on the whole, it was the adoption of chance procedures that had disastrous consequences for Cage's reputation. The press, which used to react favorably to earlier percussion and prepared piano music, ignored his new works, and many valuable friendships and connections were lost. Pierre Boulez, who used to promote Cage's work in Europe, was opposed to Cage's use of chance, and so were other composers who came to prominence during the 1950s, i.e. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis.
From 1953 onwards, Cage was busy composing music for modern dance, particularly Cunningham's dances (Cage's partner adopted chance too, out of fascination for the movement of the human body), as well as developing new methods of using chance, in a series of works he referred to as The Ten Thousand Things. In Summer 1954 he moved out from New York and settled in a cooperative community in Stony Point, NY. The composer's financial situation gradually improved: in late 1954 he and Tudor were able to embark on a European tour. From 1956 to 1961 Cage taught classes in experimental composition at the New School for Social Research, and during 1956–58 he also worked as an art director of a typography. Among the works completed during the last years of the decade were Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58), a seminal work in the history of graphic notation, and Variations I (1958).
In 1960 the composer was appointed Fellow of Center for Advanced Studies in the Liberal Arts, Professions, and Sciences at the Wesleyan University, where he started teaching classes in experimental music. The fruit of Cage's association with the university was the publication, in October 1961, by Wesleyan University Press of Silence, a collection of Cage's lectures and writings on a wide variety of subjects, including some writings (e.g. the famous Lecture on Nothing) that were "composed", using a complex time length scheme, much like some of Cage's music was. Silence was the first book by Cage; he went on to publish five more. It was Silence, however, that remained his most widely read and influential book. Another important event of the early 1960s was the beginning of Cage's lifelong association with C.F. Peters Corporation. Walter Hinrichsen, the president of the corporation, offered Cage an exclusive contract, and also instigated the publication of a catalogue of Cage's works, which appeared in 1962.
Edition Peters soon published a large number of scores by Cage, and this, together with the publication of Silence, led to much higher prominence for the composer than ever before — one of the positive consequences of this was that in 1965 Betty Freeman set up an annual grant for living expenses for Cage, to be issued from 1965 to his death. But by mid-1960s Cage was receiving so many commissions and requests for appearances, that he was not able to fulfill them. This was accompanied by a busy touring schedule; Cage's compositional output from the decade is accordingly scanty. After the orchestral Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-62), a work based on star charts, which was fully notated, Cage gradually shifted to, in his own words, "music (not composition)." The score of 0′00″, completed in 1962, originally comprised a single sentence: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action", and in the first performance the disciplined action was Cage writing that sentence. The score of Variations III (1962) abounds in instructions to the performers, but makes no references to music, musical instruments or sounds.
Many of the Variations, and other 1960s pieces, were in fact "happenings", an art form established by Cage and his students in late 1950s. Cage's "Experimental Composition" classes at the New School for Social Research have become legendary as an American source of Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers, and designers. The majority of his students had little or no background in music: most of them were artists. They included included Jackson Mac Low, Allan Kaprow, Al Hansen, George Brecht, Alice Denham and Dick Higgins, as well as numerous other people Cage invited unofficially. Famous pieces that resulted from the classes include George Brecht's Time Table Music and Alice Denham's 48 Seconds. As set forth by Cage, happenings were theatrical events that abandoned the traditional concept of stage-audience and occur without a sense of definite duration; instead, they are left to chance. They have a minimal script, with no plot. In fact, a "happening" is so-named because it occurs in the present, attempting to arrest the concept of passing time. Cage believed that theater was the closest route to integrating art and (real) life. The term "Happenings" was coined by Allan Kaprow, one of his students, who was to define it as a genre in the late fifties. Cage met Kaprow while on a mushroom hunt with George Segal and invited him to join his class. In following these developments Cage was strongly influenced by Antonin Artaud’s seminal treatise The Theatre and Its Double, and the happenings of this period can be viewed as a forerunner to the ensuing Fluxus movement. In October 1960, Mary Bauermeister's Cologne studio hosted a joint concert by Cage and the video artist Nam June Paik, who in the course of his Etude for Piano cut off Cage's tie and then washed his co-performer’s hair with shampoo.
Cage's parents died during the decade: his father in 1964, and his mother in 1969. Cage had their ashes scattered in Ramapo Mountains, near Stony Point, and asked for the same to be done to him after his death.
Cage's work from the sixties features some of his largest and most ambitious, not to mention socially utopian pieces, reflecting the mood of the era yet also his absorption of the writings of both Marshall McLuhan, on the effects of new media, and R. Buckminster Fuller, on the power of technology to promote social change. HPSCHD (1969), a gargantuan and long-running multimedia work made in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, incorporated the mass superimposition of seven harpsichords playing chance-determined excerpts from the works of Cage, Hiller, and a potted history of canonical classics, with 52 tapes of computer-generated sounds, 6,400 slides of designs many supplied by NASA, and shown from 64 slide projectors, with 40 motion-picture films. The piece was initially rendered in a five-hour performance at the University of Illinois in 1969, in which the audience arrived after the piece had begun and left before it ended, wandering freely around the auditorium in the time for which they were there.
However, also in 1969, Cage produced the first fully notated work in years: Cheap Imitation for piano. The piece is a chance-controlled reworking of Erik Satie's Socrate, and, as both listeners and Cage himself noted, openly sympathetic to its source. Although Cage's affection for Satie's music was well-known, it was highly unusual for him to compose a personal work, one in which the composer is present. When asked about this apparent contradiction, Cage replied: "Obviously, Cheap Imitation lies outside of what may seem necessary in my work in general, and that's disturbing. I'm the first to be disturbed by it." Cage's fondness for the piece resulted in a recording — a rare occurrence, since Cage disliked making recordings of his music — made in 1976. Overall, Cheap Imitation marked a major change in Cage's music: he turned again to writing fully notated works for traditional instruments, and tried out several new approaches, such as improvisation, which he previously discouraged, but was able to use in works from the 1970s, such as Child of Tree (1975).
Cheap Imitation became the last work Cage performed in public himself. Arthritis had troubled Cage since 1960, and by early 1970s his hands were painfully swollen and rendered him unable to perform. Nevertheless, he still played Cheap Imitation during the 1970s, before finally having to give up performing. Preparing manuscripts also became difficult: before, published versions of pieces were done in Cage's calligraphic script; now, manuscripts for publication had to be completed by assistants. Matters were complicated further by David Tudor's departure from performing, which happened in early 1970s. Tudor decided to concentrate on composition instead, and so Cage, for the first time in two decades, had to start relying on commissions from other performers, and their respective abilities. Such performers included Grete Sultan, Paul Zukofsky, Margaret Leng Tan, and many others. Aside from music, Cage continued writing books of prose and poetry (mesostics). In January 1978 Cage was invited by Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press to engage in printmaking, and Cage would go on to produce series of prints every year until his death; these, together with some late watercolors, consitute the largest portion of his extant visual art.
In 1987 Cage completed a piece called Two, for flute and piano, dedicated to performers Roberto Fabbriciani and Carlo Neri. The title referred to the number of performers needed; the music consisted of short notated fragments to be played at any tempo within the indicated time constraints. Cage went on to write some 40 such pieces, usually employing a variant of the same technique; together, these works are known as Number Pieces. The process of composition, in many of the later Number Pieces, was simple selection of pitch range and pitches from that range, using chance procedures; the music has been linked to Cage's anarchic leanings. One11 (i.e. the eleventh piece for a single performer), completed in early 1992, was Cage's first and only foray into film. Another new direction, also taken in 1987, was opera: Cage produced five operas, all sharing the same title Europera, in 1987–1991.
Already in the course of the 1980s, Cage's health worsened progressively: he suffered not only from arthritis, but also from sciatica and arteriosclerosis. He suffered a stroke that left the movement of his left leg restricted, and, in 1985, broke an arm. Cage was able to counter much of the effects of aging by pursuing a macrobiotic diet. Nevertheless, ever since arthritis started plaguing him, the composer was aware of his age, and, as biographer David Revill observed, "the fire which he began to incorporate in his visual work in 1985 is not only the fire he has set aside for so long — the fire of passion — but also fire as transitoriness and fragility." On August 11, 1992, while preparing evening tea for himself and Cunningham, Cage suffered another stroke. He was taken to the nearest hospital, where he died on the morning of August 12. According to his wishes, Cage's body was cremated, and the ashes scattered in the Ramapo Mountains, near Stony Point, NY; the same place where Cage scattered the ashes of his parents, years before. The composer's death occurred only weeks before a celebration of his 80th birthday organized in Frankfurt by the composer Walter Zimmermann and the musicologist Stefan Schaedler was due to take place. However, the event went ahead as planned, including a performance of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra by David Tudor and Ensemble Modern. Merce Cunningham outlived his partner by 17 years, and died peacefully in his home, of natural causes, on 26 July 2009.