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HPSCHD is major multimedia performance work by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller. This super-duo of two incredibly influential twentieth century avant-garde composers worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The musical project took two years to complete, specifically from 1967-1969 during Cage’s time at the

John Cage an Lejaren Hiller
John Cage and Lejaren Hiller working on HPSCHD

HPSCHD was the product of a commission by Antoinette Vischer, a Swiss harpsichordist who wanted Cage to produce a harpsichord composition with computer sounds. The piece was largely inspired by a Mozart-attributed composition called “Introduction to the Composition of Waltzes by Means of Dice”. In this piece, Mozart writes each note according to the roll of a game dice.

The title HPSCHD carries special significance. HPSCHD is a contraction of the word “harpsichord”, one of the main instruments used in the performance.

The process of creating HPSCHD needed to somehow encapsulate a dice throw. Hiller, who was inspired by the idea of chance and numbers, generated a computer program that mimicked the number patterns appearing in Mozart’s piece as well as the numeric randomness of the 64 hexagons appearing in the I-ching (a traditional Chinese text).  From there, Hiller added electronic sounds and tapes. Meanwhile Cage composed the harpsichord sections.

poster for HPSCHD
poster from HPSCHD event (designed by Gary Viskupic)

In a way, HPSCHD is innovative because it emulates the dynamism of the sixties. In this era of vivid change, Cage situates HPSCHD as an unexpected conflation of old and new: the age-old harpsichord meets the revolutionary advanced computer.

Its extreme complexity surpasses any prior Cage work. HPSCHD roots itself in synergy, whereby according to Alex Di Nunzio, “the goal was to multiply the details of pitches and durations of sounds.” Five hours of seven harpsichords, NASA slide projections, 52 tapes, and other computer-generated noise breaks down its label as “multimedia” into a compilation of foreign, obscure and almost imaginary sounds.   Click on this link to hear a sample of HPSCHD:

State Farm Center. To walk in the echoes of HPSCHD, go to Assembly Hall (State-Farm center), which is where the premiere of HPSCHD took place in May, 1969.

Music and Performing Arts Library. Physical records of HPSCHD can be accessed here.

Sousa Archives and Center for American Music. More materials related to HPSCHD


Austin, L. (2004, August 24). HPSCHD (review). Computer Music Journal, 28(3), 83-85. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/172080

Di Nunzio, A. (2015, December 3). HPSCHD. Retrieved from http://www.musicainformatica.org/topics/hpschd.php. (Image 1).

Fidelium. (2012, Apr 27). HPSCHD by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller performance by Philip Jackson on Ableton Live Part 1. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD_rxfP-blM

Heimbecker, S. J. (2011). John Cage’s HPSCHD. Retrieved from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/24332

HPSCHD Event Poster. (1969, May). Photographic Subject File. Found in Record Series 39/2/20, Box MUS 11, Folder MUS 11 Instrumental Performers 1930-. University of Illinois Archives.

Music and Performing Arts Library. (n.d.). John Cage at UIUC. Retrieved from https://www.library.illinois.edu/mpal/about/exhibits/johncage/ 

Contributors: Megan Galbreath