John Cage: Imaginary Landscape No. 4

John Cage: Imaginary Landscape No. 4

John Cage: Imaginary Landscape No. 4

Here is John Cage’s Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4, per­formed by the Mael­ström Per­cus­sion Ensemble:


Writ­ten in 1951, Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4 is scored for twelve radios. Two per­form­ers “play” each radio, one dial­ing the fre­quency, the other chang­ing the vol­ume and tone. The work is notated con­ven­tion­ally, i.e. with notes express­ing dura­tion placed on a five-line staff, and was com­posed using chance oper­a­tions (in this case coin tosses), as was Cage’s Music of Changes, writ­ten at the same time. Though their com­po­si­tional meth­ods were iden­ti­cal, the two works dif­fer in one fun­da­men­tal respect: given the nature of the instru­ments they employ – the piano in the for­mer case and the radio in the lat­ter – Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4 is inde­ter­mi­nate whereas Music of Changes is not.

The inde­ter­mi­nacy stems from the fact that radios pro­duce sounds that vary accord­ing to fre­quency, time of day, and geo­graphic loca­tion. It fol­lows that those sounds can­not be deter­mined in advance, and thus that each per­for­mance of Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4 will be dif­fer­ent in ways that can­not be pre­dicted. Accord­ing to Cage him­self, the expe­ri­ence of inde­ter­mi­nacy was the moti­va­tion for the piece:

When I wrote the Imag­i­nary Land­scape for twelve radios, it was not for the pur­pose of shock or as a joke but rather to increase the unpre­dictabil­ity already inher­ent in the sit­u­a­tion through the toss­ing of coins. Chance, to be pre­cise, is a leap, pro­vides a leap out of reach of one’s own grasp of one­self. (quoted in CCJC, 57)

The “leap out of reach of one’s own grasp of one­self” that Cage refers to here was to become one of his guid­ing prin­ci­ples, the goal being to elim­i­nate indi­vid­ual will, pref­er­ence, and desires, in a word, to give up con­trol. The West­ern musi­cal tra­di­tion, with its empha­sis on orig­i­nal­ity and indi­vid­u­al­ity, not to men­tion the reg­i­mented, hier­ar­chi­cal nature of the orches­tra, indeed of dia­tonic har­mony itself, had become sus­pect to Cage. Through­out his career he sought ways around these imped­i­ments, as he saw them, and at the time he clearly hoped that com­pos­ing for the radio via chance oper­a­tions would allow him to bypass them, as he explained in the con­clud­ing lines to an arti­cle detail­ing the com­po­si­tional pro­ce­dure of Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4:

It is thus pos­si­ble to make a musi­cal com­po­si­tion the con­ti­nu­ity of which is free of indi­vid­ual taste and mem­ory (psy­chol­ogy) and also of the lit­er­a­ture and “tra­di­tions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space cen­tered within them­selves, unim­peded by ser­vice to any abstrac­tion, their 360 degrees of cir­cum­fer­ence free for an infi­nite play of inter­pen­e­tra­tion. (CDPC, 59)

In the mid- to late-1950s Cage would write three more works for radio, namely Speech (1955), Radio Music (1956), and Music Walk (1958), before aban­don­ing the instru­ment, though he did later com­pose for tele­vi­sion, audio tape, records, and other elec­tronic sound sources.



CDPC: Cage, John. “Com­po­si­tion to Describe the Process of Com­po­si­tion Used In Music of Changes and Imag­i­nary Land­scape No. 4.” in Silence Hanover, NH: Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity Press, 1961. 57–59.

CCJC: The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to John Cage. Ed. David Nicholls. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002.



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