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The Transitional Space of John Cage

To celebrate John Cage is to celebrate our inner yearnings for play.

Birthday John Cage

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.

Birthday John Cage

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.

- D.W. Winnicott

John Cage would have turned 100 this Wednesday, September 5th, and events are being planned throughout the world celebrating his life and work, including a week-long festival in Washington, DC. The experimental composer (he eschewed the label of avant garde) and visual artist known for turning musical conventions on their head, exploring rhythms of sound and silence, and exploiting chance and unpredictability is being widely celebrated. To celebrate his birthday, one can even download the John Cage Prepared Piano App for your iPhone or iPad. Of course, Cage continues to be viewed by many as a charlatan, prankster, or clown. Indeed, some noted arts societies have largely ignored his centennial.

What is clear is that Cage clearly misbehaved–composing music without traditional instruments, using song structures that were wholly original–indeed, random at times, and incorporating noise and silence. Cage is a Los Angeles native and had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg (auditing his classes at USC and UCLA). He composed his first known work in 1939, Imaginary Landscape No. 1, in which a phonograph becomes a musical instrument. By 1942, he had relocated to New York, where he lived on the top floor of a deteriorating tenement along the East River.


At one point, Cage described his music as “purposeless play.” He used tape and radio collages in his compositions (perhaps the first example of sampled music), employed rolling dice as instruments, and introduced background noise in his rhythms. He used brake drums, hubcaps, and scrap metal to generate musical noise–a clear anticipation of the industrial music of late 20th century bands like Einstürzende Neubauten. Of course, noise was not really the point for Cage. He was keen on drawing attention to the sounds of modern life and the spaces between those sounds. His performance art piece, Water Music, involved a meticulous orchestration of bird whistles, shuffling a deck of cards and dealing them over piano strings, and the shaking of various water receptacles. Another piece–Water Walk (or Water Music No. 2)–involved a bath tub, toy fish, grand piano, pressure cooker, and ice cubes. It is also hilariously demonstrated by Cage himself in 1960 on the television show, I’ve Got a Secret.

To celebrate Cage is to celebrate our inner desires and yearnings for play. As adults, play is not a defensive regression (as Freud might have said) but is, as suggested by the psychoanalyst Marion Milner, a way of maintaining a “creative relation to the world.” What, if anything, does psychoanalysis add to a conversation about Cage? What might our response to Cage’s work say about our own creative spirit or drive? And what are the origins of our playful and creative spark?


Cage was bewitched by the possibilities of chance in his compositions. His use of silence elicited the participation and involvement of the audience. He is perhaps best known (and derided) for his composition, 4’33’’. Composed in 1952, this piece instructs the performer not to play the instrument throughout the duration of three separate movements, leaving the audience with the ambient noise of the theater. As Cage has said, “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time” and, of course, he has no way of controlling what ambient sounds will be heard by the audience. Cage also used imperfections in the paper he printed his compositions on to create randomness in pitch. In his Music of Changes (as well as most of the pieces he composed after 1951), he employed the I Ching to create a fully indeterminate work which depended on the divining decisions of the Chinese text. Finally, the idea of the musicircus may be Cage’s most bold way of introducing chance into musical performance. The instructions for such a composition involve inviting a number of musicians to perform simultaneously in any way they desire.

In his well-known paper, “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott outlines his theory of illusion-disillusionment. Faced with the competing demands of inner and outer worlds, the developing infant creates an intermediate area of experience–a transitional space–where reality is not demanded but is also not ignored. There is a tension between object relations in the objective world and “basking in the gratification of leisure” in the subjective, inner world. This intermediate space is “unchallenged of its belonging to inner or external (shared) reality, constitutes the greater part of the infant’s experience, and throughout life is retained in the intense experience that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work.” When Cage talks about purposeless play in his compositions (or we picture the visual works of Pollock, de Kooning, or Rothko), we envision him working within this intermediate zone. Our response to compositions like 4’33” may resonate with our comfort for transitional space.


For Winnicott, it is through creative living that we find meaning in life. In Playing and Reality, he contrasted creativity with compliance–a relationship to external reality that “carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living.” He suggested that most people experience enough creativity to know that they are mostly living uncreatively, “as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine.” For Cage, living creatively is to “wake up to the very life we’re living.” It is eschewing rote compliance. It is about misbehaving. Winnicott has suggested that our capacities for creativity stem from having been provided a good enough environment for transitional phenomena to flourish. He has also implied that creative living–the artistic life–can help us avoid being so anchored to objective reality that we become out of touch with our subjective world. As Cage put it in his 1957 lecture, "Experimental Music," his work represents “an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”

© 2012 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved