John Cage was the son of an inventor, and he had an unremarkable and generally unmusical childhood. He attended two years of college, then left to travel in Europe. When he returned to the United States, he began serious study, first with Henry Cowell and then with Arnold Schoenberg. He began writing in his own musical system, often using techniques similar to those of Schoenberg. In 1937 he moved to Seattle and took a job accompanying a dance company. From this he began to view music as segments of time to be filled with sounds. During this period his music is marked by strict, mathematically devised proportions of time. He filled these segments with new sounds, including different objects used as percussion (brake drums, for example), electronic sounds, and prepared piano (a piano with objects placed between the strings to modify pitch and timbre).
In the 1940s he moved to New York and joined a group of avant-garde artists, including painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage was long associated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as composer, performer, and music director. At about this same time Cage developed an interest in Eastern religions. During this period, he continued his use of carefully structured segments of time, but began to fill them in with materials derived by chance processes (the rolling of dice, the use of the I Ching, and other methods). In perhaps the ultimate statement of this aesthetic, he wrote 4'33', a piece of total silence on the part of the performer; into which the random sounds of the world enter. This cemented his beliefs that the goal of music was "purposelessness," and that the role of the composer was to create situations in which sounds could "simply be." To this end, he continued to devise strategies for creating activities in which sounds could happen. The most expansive example of this is HPSCHD, created with Lejaren Hiller. The piece is written for seven harpsichordists, various other performers, and fifty-one tapes, along with multiple films, slides, and light shows. Using various activities, the basic coordination of these elements is set in motion, and the audience walks among the performers over the course of five hours.
In his later years, Cage turned to computers as an aid to his creation of pieces, and became interested in theater (or in his vision, circuses). Along with his musical contributions, he left a large body of writings that explain and exemplify his aesthetic.