John Cage: 4’33”

performed by you, or anyone, or everyone, anywhere

(cover image by Felix Mooneeram)

By being hushed and silent we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think…

John Milton Cage, Jr. was born on September 5, 1912 in Los Angeles, California. John Cage, Sr. was an inventor, and his wife Lucretia was a journalist for the L.A. Times. Although neither of John, Jr.’s parents were musicians (or even, as I have found, even musical), he did start taking piano lessons in the fourth grade. Wikipedia cites Richard Kostelanetz in stating that “although he liked music, he expressed more interest in sight reading than in developing virtuoso piano technique, and apparently was not thinking of composition.”

The quote that opens this article is a statement Cage made in a speech for which he won an award, proposing a day of quiet in America. He had decided by that time that he wanted to be a writer. Wikipedia says this was in 1928.

Wiki also says that in 1928, he enrolled at Pomona College to be a theology major. Regardless of his decision, it didn’t last, because in 1930, he dropped out, claiming the institution (I believe more the construct overall rather than the specific school) was “not being run correctly,” so he left. He was convinced that some time in Europe would be more worth his while, and it was there that he discovered such people as Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bach, whose music Wikipedia says “he had not experienced before.” Interesting.

His first compositions date from this time, specifically in Majorca, where he used “dense mathematical formulas,” but he ultimately abandoned them, and after returning to America in 1931, and contacted Henry Cowell, whose music he’d run across before. Cowell suggested he study with Schoenberg, but also suggested he probably get some solid training before doing so, and recommended a former Schoenberg pupil, one Adolph Weiss.

Cage moved to New York City, where he took lessons with both Weiss and Cowell, and within the year was ready to study with Schoenberg, whose fees he could not afford. Thankfully, though, he was apparently honest about it, and as Wiki relates:

…the older composer asked whether Cage would devote his life to music. After Cage replied that he would, Schoenberg offered to tutor him free of charge.

I’d heard this story elsewhere, and it apparently made enough of an impression on Cage that every day for the rest of his life, he composed, even if only a little.

He studied with Schoenberg for a few years, left, got married, met more people, and the composition for which he is most known, and which he seemed to foreshadow, came along in 1952.

It’s just silence. A performer who doesn’t touch the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and it seems almost silly to include a video, but here it is:

I could try to relate the sentiments behind a musical statement such as four and a half minutes of silence, but why not hear it from the man himself?

One of the few things I have virtually no interest in is philosophy. I like ideas, but not philosophy, which feels a bit to me like taking an idea, putting it in a vacuum and analyzing it from a distance, or even worshipping it. In so many cases, it’s about abstractions, postulations, the perceived value of a way of thinking rather than actually doing. But anyway…

Cage speaks in this short video of ‘sound acting’ versus ‘music talking’, or the difference between time and space. He mentions Marcel Duchamp. He says “I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are… I don’t want sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s a president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”

He then mentions Kant, laughs, talks to his cat, and talks about how much he loves the experience of silence. Surprisingly there’s no Buddhism mentioned, but in all of this, what is there to enjoy?

I think it’s an interesting thought experiment, for sure, a sort of (obviously) quiet rebellion against tradition, but I also just don’t share Cage’s sentiments about pure sound being satisfying.

He’s one of the most well known, (in)famous American composers, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that as far as his later works are concerned, those in which he explores his love of sound, or silence, I feel he works more as an inventor, a programmer of experiences, which may be interesting in a way. However, there are a few problems I have with the idea.

For one, the recording of an aleatoric piece, like his Atlas Eclipticalis, which is written “For any combination of instruments” from a very large list, for any number of performers, I feel that interpretations, applications, and variations from one recording to another will differ so vastly as to make the interpretation of one recording almost arbitrary in relation to the next. Of course, if you were into that sort of thing, and if there were enough recordings to satisfy your taste, you could certainly compare them all and find some joy in their differences and similarities. People would argue, I’m sure, that it’s no different than different recordings of Beethoven or Mozart.

But then what about this recording of silence? All one needs is a timer. But in performance, in a situation, an environment where the audience is supposed to be silent, what ambient noise are we hearing? The low, constant sigh of HVAC, the loud breather a few seats away, the inconsiderate shuffling of program pages or jostling of a purse. There may be a shifting in a seat, or some maddening old hag with loose, bangly bracelets that clang when she moves incessantly.

So what does it accomplish in the concert or recital hall, or even worse in recording? Well, I’ve said many words about Cage’s silence, not many of them positive, but I’ll close by saying rather the same thing I have said before about Ferneyhough’s music, although I feel at least that my opinion of Ferneyhough’s music may change, and that is that I find the idea of Cage’s music far more interesting than listening to the music itself. I have some appreciation for what it represents and attempts to accomplish, but in practice, I don’t have that much excitement for it.

But here we are, and there’s John Cage. Granted, I could have gone with his string quartet, or other more legitimate actual pieces of music, but this is what most people think of when they think of Cage, so here it is.

Stay tuned this week and next for the final, more modern two weeks of our American series. There’s some absolutely wonderful stuff to look forward to. Thank you so much for reading.

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One thought on “John Cage: 4’33”

  1. If music is not an expression of a certain philosophy – the composer’s ideas on life, death, love, hate, order, disorder, power, weakness – what is it then? Philosophy doesn’t have to be abstract, it may have and often has to do with daily matters : politics, religion, feelings. The term philosophy only implies that there is a coherent framework for those ideas. I believe loving music is the same as loving wisdom (philo-sophia). The question for you may rather be how to approach philosophy, how to make sense of it. And here I concede that people need to be guided by knowledgable people. I was lucky enough to have had the right teachers.

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