Percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music; he explores the academically forbidden ‘non-musical’ field of sound insofar as is manually possible. - John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo
John Milton Cage, Jr. was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and died in New York in 1992. He was one of the leading figures of the postwar Avant-Garde movement and has had a greater impact on music in the 20th century than any other American composer. Cage’s interest in percussion, primarily structures of rhythmic and metric repetition, resulted in his experiments in rhythm after studying African drumming and Indian Carnatic music with Henry Cowell. Curiously, many of Cage’s early percussion compositions weren’t written for traditional percussion instruments. Instead he began to compose simple rhythmic structures that could be performed using whatever instruments or materials available. Thus his works have become synonymous with set-ups that include tin cans, lion’s roar, shakers, wrist bells, various body sounds, sheets of steel, and prepared pianos, in addition to more conventional percussion instruments. This incongruity toward instrumentation served Cage well during the Great Depression, as instruments and performers came at a premium. Additionally, due to his wife’s employment at a local bindery during the time, many of his first performances were staged using printing equipment from her office, or everyday objects from their home.
This is the essence of Living Room Music, composed in 1940 is dedicated to Xenia, his wife. The piece is composed for four players and is performed on any object one might find in a living room. Cage specified in the score that “any household objects or architectural elements may be used as instruments,” but should be ordered from high to low pitch for each player. Examples he includes are “magazines, newspaper or cardboard” for the first player, “table or other wooden furniture” for the second, “largish books” for the third, and “floor, wall, door or wooden frame of window” for the fourth. The piece opens with each player performing interlocking rhythmic structures. The second movement then changes tone asking the performers to generate all the sounds vocally by repeating fragments of a text by Gertrude Stein, “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” The optional melodic third movement contains the only pitched melody, which the composer denotes, can be played “on any suitable instrument,” and the final movement returns to the rhythmically patterned composition performed on the found percussion objects of the opening.
Alixandra Porembski, English Language Annotator