Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

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.

Richard H. Brown is a Ph.D. candidate in Historical Musicology at the University of Southern California. His dissertation examines John Cage's work in avant-garde cinema and the intersection of music and technology throughout Cage's career. He has presented papers at the national meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory and is an active member of the International Musicological Society “Music and Media” study group.


This article began as a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in Philadelphia in November 2009. A special thanks to Laura Kuhn and the John Cage Trust, Cindy Keefer and the Center for Visual Music, Gordon Mumma, Leta Miller, David Nicholls, and Suzanne Robinson for their editorial guidance, archival assistance, and technical consultation.