Born in Los Angeles, he attended the Pomona College in Claremont, and studied the piano with Fannie Dillon in Los Angeles and Lazare Lévy in Paris; his first composition teacher was Richard Buhlig. In 1933–34 he studied with Henry Cowell and Adolph Weiss in New York, followed by two years with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. In 1943 he moved to New York, becoming director of music in the dance company of Merce Cunningham. In 1949–51 he attended lectures by Daisetz T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, and worked with painter Robert Rauschenberg and pianist David Tudor. During this time, he gathered a group of young composers including Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, among others. In 1948–52 he lectured at the summer courses in Black Mountain College, followed by the New School for Social Research in New York in 1956–60. As an internationally renowned expert on mycology, he lectured on fungi and was one of the founders of the New York Mycological Society. In 1958, during the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, he presented the concept of music based on random procedures. In 1968 he became a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. From 1960 onwards, he chiefly worked as an independent artist, teaching composition to private students and lecturing at various universities.
S e l e c t e d w o r k s: Imaginary Landscape No. 1for two turntables, piano and cymbal (1939), First Construction (in Metal) for percussion sextet (1939), Bacchanale for prepared piano (1940), Living Room Music for percussion and speech quartet (1940), The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano (1942), In the Name of the Holocaust for prepared piano (1942), Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1948–50), Music of Changes for piano, four books (1951), Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radios (1951), Seven Haikufor solo piano (1952), 4’33” for any instrument(s) (1952), Williams Mixfor tape (1952), Water Musicfor pianist (1952), 59?”for string player (1953), 34’46.776” for prepared piano (1954), 26’1.1499 for string instrument (1955), 27’10.554” for percussionist (1956), Radio Musicfor 1–8 performers (1956), Fontana Mix for tape (1958), Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1958), Electronic Music for Piano (1965), HPSCHD for harpsichords and tape (with Lejaren Hiller Jr. 1967–69), Cheap Imitation for solo piano (1969, version for solo violin, 1977), Song Books for voices (1970), Étudesaustrales, 32 works in four books for piano (1974–75), Renga (1975–76), 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs (1977), Quartets No. 1–8 for various instruments (1976–78), Études boréales No. 1–4 for piano and/or cello (1978), Freeman Etudes for violin (1977–90), Litany for the Whale for two voices (1980), Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras (1981), Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983), Music for… for voice and 11 instruments (1984), Perpetual Tango for piano (1984), Ryoanji, versions for various instruments (1983–85), Haikai for gamelan ensemble (1986), Europeras 1–4, operas (1987–90), One9 for shō solo (1991).