Skip to main content

The Spirit inside Each Object: John Cage, Oskar Fischinger, and “The Future of Music”


Late in his career, John Cage often recalled his brief interaction with German abstract animator Oskar Fischinger in 1937 as the primary impetus for his early percussion works. Further examination of this connection reveals an important technological foundation to Cage's call for the expansion of musical resources. Fischinger's experiments with film phonography (the manipulation of the optical portion of sound film to synthesize sounds) mirrored contemporaneous refinements in recording and synthesis technology of electron beam tubes for film and television. New documentation on Cage's early career in Los Angeles, including research Cage conducted for his father John Cage, Sr.'s patents, explain his interest in these technologies. Finally, an examination of the sources of Cage's 1940 essay “The Future of Music: Credo” reveals the extent of Cage's knowledge of early sound synthesis and recording technologies and presents a more nuanced understanding of the historical relevance and origins of this document.

Hide All
Cage, John. Annotated postcard invitation to Oskar Fischinger, 1937. William Moritz Collection at the Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles.
Cage, John. “Brief History of this Field of Music,” schematic diagram, ca. 1935; “Guggenheim Application and Bibliography”; “Bibliography of Articles etc., on Percussion Music, Electrical Music, Synthetic Music, or Composers Thereof.” Series V, “Ephemera,” folder “Experimental Music and Percussion,” John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library, Evanston, IL.
Cage, John. “The Future of Music: Credo,” 1961, corrected typescript. Series 1, box 5, folder 13, John Cage Papers, Wesleyan University Special Collections and Archives, Middletown, CT.
Cage, John. Interview with Thomas Hines, 21 and 23 May 1992. Getty Research Institute, 2002. M.40.
Cage, John. Letters to Henry Cowell, 16 August and 27 September 1940. Box 2, folder 5, New York Public Library, Cowell Collection.
Cage, John. Interview with Irving Sandler, 1967. Box 4, folder 12, Irving Sandler Papers, Getty Research Institute, 2000.M.43.
Cage, John. Letter to Alexej von Jawlensky, n.d. (1935). Alexej von Jawlensky-Archiv, Lorcano. Facsimile and translation in Müller, “It Is a Long, Long Road,” 273–74.
Cage, John. Letters to Pauline Schindler, 3 June 1935, 24 May 1935, 3 June 1935. Getty Research Institute Special Collections, Los Angeles.
Cage, John. Letters to Adolph Weiss, March 1935. Transcribed in William Bernard George, Adolph Weiss, Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1971.
Cage, John. Letters to Peter Yates, 24 December 1940 and 13 January 1941. MSS 14, box 3, folder 1, Peter Yates Papers, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California at San Diego.
Cage, John. Manuscript, n.d. MSS 14, box 3, folder 2, Peter Yates Papers, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California at San Diego.
Cage, John. “Mesostic for Elfriede Fischinger,” 8 May 1980. Center for Visual Music, Elfriede Fischinger Collection, Los Angeles.
Cage, John. Transcription of “Organized Sound for the Sound Film”; manuscript and typescript drafts “Credo.” Series V: Ephemera, folder: “1940,” John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library, Evanston, IL.
Cage, John M. Sr. Letter to Dr. John P Hagen, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., 6 October 1956. Series IV, Correspondence, box 2, folder 3, item 13, John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library, Evanston, IL.
Cage, John M. Sr. “The Rape of Common Sense,” ca. 1930. Private publication, manuscript held by the John Cage Trust.
Cage, Xenia. Note Card to John Cage, 22 November 1976. John Cage Trust.
Fischinger, Oskar. Contract with Solomon R. Guggenheim, 18 June 1943. Account no. 786445, folder 10. Hilla Rebay Non-Objective Film Collection, Guggenheim Museum Archives, New York City.
Fischinger, Oskar. Letter to John Cage, 20 May 1943. Fischinger Collection, Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles.
Fischinger, Oskar. Undated score. Fischinger Collection at the Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles.
Garve, Renata. Letter to John and Xenia Cage, 25 August 1941. Box 62, folder 1, David Tudor Papers, Getty Research Institute.
Scheyer, Galka. Letter to Alexej von Jawlensky, 8 February 1935. Galka Scheyer Papers, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, J1935–2.
Schoenberg, Arnold. Signed and annotated course announcement sent to Galka Scheyer. Folder “Arnold Schoenberg,” doc. 6. Galka Scheyer Papers, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA.
Sturdy, Herbert. “Articles of Incorporation of Sturdy Cage Projects, Inc.,” 2 March 1935, Corporation No. 162010; “Certificate of Election to Wind Up and Dissolve Sturdy-Cage Projects Inc.,” filed 29 December 1964. California Secretary of State, Business Programs Division, Certification and Records, Sacramento.
Sturdy, Herbert. Letter to General Quesada, 23 November 1957. Series I, box 2, folder 3, item 16. John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library, Evanston, IL.
Antheil, George. “Music Tomorrow.” transition 10 (January 1928): 123–26.
Brinkman, Christine Noll. “Collective Movements and Solitary Thrusts: German Experimental Film, 1920–1930.” Millennium Film Journal 30/31 (Fall 1997).,31/NBrinckmannCollective.html.
Brougher, Kerry, Strick, Jeremy, Wiseman, Ari, and Zilczer, Judith, eds. Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music since 1900. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Cage, John. “A Composer's Confessions.” Reprinted in John Cage: Writer, ed. Kostelanetz, Richard, 37. New York: Limelight, 1993.
Cage, John. For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles. Ed.Gora, Tom and Cage, John. Boston: Marion Boyars, 1981.
Cage, John. John Cage: An Anthology. Ed. Kostelanetz, Richard. New York: Da Capo, 1970.
Cage, John. John Cage Selected Correspondence. Ed.Kuhn, Laura and Silverman, Kenneth. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, Forthcoming.
Cage, John. John Cage: Writer. Ed.Kostelanetz, Richard. New York: Limelight, 1993.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.
Cage, John M., Sr. “Electron Beam Tube.” U.S. Patent No. 2,225,330 (Schenectady, NY, assigned to General Electric Co.), filed 22 April 1939, issued 17 December 1940.
Cage, John M., Sr. “Invisible Ray Vision System.” U.S. Patent No. 2,395,099, filed July 6, 1935, issued 19 February 1946.
Cage, John M., Sr. “Ultra Short Wave System.” U.S. Patent No. 2,190,511 (Schenectady, NY, assigned to General Electric Co.), filed 1 March 1938, issued 13 February 1940.
Chávez, Carlos. Toward a New Music. New York: Da Capo Press, 1937.
Fischinger, Oskar. “Sounding Ornaments.” Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 July 1932. Reprinted and translated in William Moritz, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, 179–80. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
George, William Bernard. Adolph Weiss. Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1971.
Hewlett, William R. “Variable Frequency Oscillator.” U.S. Patent No. 2,268,872, filed 11 July, 1939, issued 6 January 1942.
Hewlett, William R., and Cage, John M.. “Direct Current Amplifier and Modulator Therefor.” U.S. Patent No. 3,014,135 (assigned to Hewlett-Packard Co.), filed 4 March 1957, issued 19 December 1961.
Hicks, Michael. “John Cage's Letter to Peter Yates, December 24, 1940.” American Music 25/4 (Winter 2007): 507–15.
Hicks, Michael. “John Cage's Studies with Schoenberg.” American Music 8/2 (Summer 1990): 125–40.
Hines, Thomas. “‘Then Not Yet ‘Cage’: The Los Angeles Years, 1912–1938.” In John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Perloff, Marjorie and Junkerman, Charles, 6599. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
James, Richard. “Avant-Garde Sound-on-Film Techniques and Their Relationship to Electro- Acoustic Music.” Musical Quarterly 72/1 (1986): 7489.
Joseph, Branden. “‘A Therapeutic Value for City Dwellers’: The Development of John Cage's Early Avant-Garde Aesthetic Position.” In John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950, ed. Patterson, David W., 135–76. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Revised ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Keefer, Cindy. “‘Raumlichtmusik’ - Early 20th Century Abstract Cinema Immersive Environments,” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16/6–7 (October 2009): 15.
“Lecture Series to Be Given.” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, 27 February 1937, 4.
Levin, Thomas, Y. “Tones From Out of Nowhere: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archeology of Synthetic Sound.” Grey Room 12 (Fall 2003): 3279.
Magoun, Alexander B.Television: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.
Mary, Maureen. “Letters: The Brief Love of John Cage for Pauline Schindler, 1934–35.ex tempore 7/1 (Summer 1996).
Mattis, Olivia. “Varèse's Multimedia Conception of ‘Deserts.’Musical Quarterly 76/1 (Winter 1992): 557–83.
Miller, Leta E. “The Art of Noise: John Cage, Lou Harrison, and the West Coast Percussion Ensemble.” In Perspectives on American Music, 1900–1950, ed. Saffle, Michael, 215–63. New York: Garland, 2000.
Miller, Leta E. “Cultural Intersections: John Cage in Seattle (1938–1940).” In John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950, ed. Patterson, David W., 4782. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Miller, Leta E.John Cage and Henry Cowell: Intersections and Influences, 1933–1941.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 59/1 (Spring 2006): 47112.
Mills, John. A Fugue in Cycles and Bels. New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1935.
Moholy-Nagy, László. “The Future of the Photographic Process.” transition 15 (February 1929): 289–93.
Moholy-Nagy, László. The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. New York: Norton, 1938.
Moholy-Nagy, László. “Problems of the Modern Film.” In Moholy-Nagy, An Anthology, ed. Kostelanetz, Richard, 131–38. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Moritz, William. “The Films of Oscar Fischinger.” Film Culture 5860– (1974–75): 37188.
Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Müller, Maria. “‘It Is a Long, Long Road’: John Cage and Galka Scheyer.” In The Blue Four: Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee in the New World, ed. Barnett, Vivian Endicott and Helfenstein, Josef, 273–78. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Nicholls, David. American Experimental Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Nicholls, David. “Cage and the Ultramodernists.” American Music 28/4 (Winter 2010): 492500.
Nicholls, David. John Cage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Nitske, W. Robert. The Life of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Discoverer of the X Ray. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971.
Noll, Michael. Television Technology: Fundamentals and Future Prospects. Norwood, MA: Artech House, 1988.
Paul, Elliot and Sage, Robert. “Artistic Improvements of the Cinema.” transition 10 (January 1928): 127–34.
Putnam, Samuel. “Leopold Survage, Colored Rhythm, and the Cinema.” transition 7 (September 1927): 180–84.
Reidy, Brent. “Our Memory of What Happened Is Not What Happened: Cage, Metaphor, and Myth.” American Music 28/2 (Summer 2010): 211–27.
Silverman, Kenneth. Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Sitney, P. Adams, ed. The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. New York: New York University Press, 1978.
Smith, Catherine Parsons. “Athena at the Manuscript Club: John Cage and Mary Carr Moore.” Musical Quarterly 79/2 (Summer 1995): 351–67.
Stevenson, Robert M.John Cage on His 70th Birthday: West Coast Background.” Inter-American Music Review 5/1 (Fall 1982): 317.
Thoben, Jan. “Technical Sound-Image Transformations.” In See This Sound: Audiovisiology Compendium: An Interdisciplinary Survey of Audiovisual Culture, ed. Daniels, Dieter and Naumann, Sandra with Thoben, Jan, 425–26. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2010.
Tompkins, Calvin. The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art. New York: Viking Press, 1965.
Ussher, Bruno David. “Music in the Films.” LA Daily News, 16 September 1940.
Varèse, Edgard. “Organized Sound for the Sound Film.” The Commonweal, 13 December 1940, 204–5.
Vertov, Dziga. “The Writings of Dziga Vertov.” In Film Culture Reader, ed. Sitney, P. Adams, 353–75. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Webb, Richard C.Tele-Visionaries: The People behind the Invention of Television. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2005.
Weiler, Clemens, ed. Alexej Jawlensky: Köpfe, Gesichte, Meditationen. Cologne: H. Peters, 1959.
Weis, Elisabeth, and Belton, John, eds. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Weschler, Lawrence. “My Grandfather's Last Tale.” Atlantic Monthly 278/6 (December 1996): 86106.
Yates, Peter. “Organized Sound: Notes in the History of a New Disagreement: Between Sound and Tone.” California Arts and Architecture (March 1941): 8, 42.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed