Remembering John Cage

Liz Appleby


“Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town”. The impassioned cry of one artist at the close of a benefit concert at the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock New York, on August 29, 1952. The audience had earlier heard David Tudor, a young virtuoso pianist perform works by composers of the European and American avant-garde. Included in the program was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, the premiere of John Cage’s 4’33”.


If he were alive, Cage would have celebrated his 100th birthday last week. In this, his centenary year, as events are staged across the globe to celebrate his life and work, 4’33” has lost none of its radical edge. 


Describing 4’33” is fraught with difficulty. Cage wrote the piece in three movements totaling 4’33”. No instruments are played, if performed at a piano, as it often is, the lid of the piano is raised and lowered to indicate the end and start of each movement, the performer may have a stopwatch or timer (of course - how else to gauge 4 minutes 33 seconds), there are no musical notes, and yet, there is a musical score. It is not silent, though it is often referred to as such.


Since Cage set 4’33” free from his imagination into the concert hall, umpteen column inches have been filled arguing its philosophical, artistic and aesthetic meaning. Speaking at the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in the1980s, Cage said, “The thing about 4'33" is that it can be any length…we can listen at any time to what there is to hear. I do that with great pleasure and often, people can do that in ordinary or extraordinary circumstance”. As Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker in 2010 “…Cage had an itch to try new things. What would happen if you sat at a piano and did nothing?”.


4’33” does so much for a piece that, musically speaking, does so little. It is an exercise in patience for today’s online generation, and its length appears longer when forced to stop and observe each second of time passing. It encourages the listener, in the absence of instruments, to consciously turn their attention to the sounds of their immediate environment.


To write a piece of music as left field as 4’33” was an act of courage or foolishness, depending on the point of view. Cage admitted it took him several years to come to the decision to write the piece. Several roads led Cage to write 4’33”, although seeing the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg in 1949 gave Cage the final push. Cage described the paintings as mirrors of air. Rauschenberg, who studied with Bauhaus master Josef Albers, had created his all white painting after deciding that selecting one color, over another, was a matter of personal taste. He made a conscious decision to remove this from his work. By creating pictorially blank paintings, Rauschenberg gave up the control the artist has over what the viewer sees. Cage also wanted to remove his taste, likes and dislikes from his work.


Experimentation was well known to Cage. In the 1930s he had studied under two equally experimental composers, American Henry Cowell, and serialist Arnold Schoenberg, whose influence would seep through into his work. Cage’s “prepared piano” pieces borrowed from Cowell, with screws and other objects inserted between the strings of the piano to change the sound, while the mathematical approach in Cage’s early works echo aspects of Schoenberg.



For Cage, all sound was worth listening to. As he put it, “Many people in our society now go around the streets and in the buses and so forth playing radios with earphones on and they don't hear the world around them”. If Cage were alive today he would see how people cut themselves off from their environment, walking like zombies gawping at tiny screens, lifting their eyes intermittently to check obstructions in their path, earphones in place, cocooned in a private sound bubble. Cage might argue that sounds around us can be as intoxicating as those organized as music, indeed, for Cage, all sounds were music.  As he said, "just let the sounds be themselves."


It was Cage’s interest in Zen and Eastern philosophy in the 1940s and ‘50s that took Cage in a new direction. He had attended the lectures of Zen scholar Daisetz Suzuki and studied with Gita Sarabhai from India, who had moved to New York in the late 1940s to study European music. When Cage asked her what the function of music was, Sarabhai said “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences”. Cage knew he had something to give to music, and in his words, could discover something for it. For Cage, music was not simply a means of communication, when it was it often fell short. People did not always understand what he was trying to say through his work. For him, there had to be a better reason to create music. It was there in Sarabhai’s response.


In the 1950s Cage was introduced to the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes. Cage used this book, and its technique of tossing coins to make decisions about his music. One of his most impressive works of chance, over 40 minutes long, is “Music of Changes”. Its duration, tempo and dynamics are all determined by Cage’s use of the I Ching. These chance operations were used in live situations too, turning each Cage performance into a unique event.


Paul Griffiths referred to this in his book Modern Music, “Cage’s ideas have appealed to composers who share his leanings towards performance rather than prescription, towards the unique event rather than the permanent work of art, towards action rather than structure”. Certainly Cage’s works at this time increasingly had more in common with theatre and the arts, rather than music, with his performances becoming increasingly theatrical. One piece, “Water Music,” involves the performer walking across a prepared stage, sending duck calls, pouring water, and relieving boiling pans. During a residency at the Black Mountain College, Cage unveiled his first ‘happening’ incorporating several different actions and mini performances into one piece, “Black Mountain Piece,” which pushed Cage further into the realm of theatre.


Cage’s growing profile saw him increasingly in demand as a lecturer, teaching courses in new music across Europe and America. He continued throughout the decades to write music and poetry and his happenings turned into immersive multimedia events attracting thousands of people. In the 1960s his critically acclaimed book “Silence” was published, he wrote other books and intermittently worked as musical director with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, touring with them regularly. In 1988 he was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, choosing to use chance to generate the text. The recordings reveal a mischievous man, generous in spirit and, unsurprisingly, Zen like in stature.


4’33” is still Cage’s most famous piece. Its reference by everyone from Yoko Ono to Rage against The Machine, has helped introduce it to a wider public. At its performance at the recent BBC Proms, some sat still in quiet contemplation, others whispered to their friends, shuffled in their seats and looked confused. Six decades on, 4'33 is still as radical as ever.


Author Bio:

Liz Appleby is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Steve Bowbrick, Flickr -- Creative Commons
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