An important centenary in American music occurred last week: The 100 birthday for American composer John Cage. A week-long celebratory festival just concluded at American University in Washington, D.C. While Cage died in 1992, his musical and cultural influences endure.
Cage is one of those artists whose work often elicits perplexed, bemused or dubious responses. His music was of the sort that spurred derision. Perhaps the primary example of this is Cage’s most famous — or infamous — composition “4’33”” in which a musician walks onstage and sits motionless at a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
The “music” in this apparently silent composition does not issue from the stage. Rather, it is all the sounds that occur in the concert hall. Be they the coughs, shifting in seats, audience whispers, rustling or noise from outside. In a 1963 interview with public radio station KPFK, Cage described a revelation he had 15 years earlier, when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University (a room that is super-insulated for complete silence — often used to design and test audio equipment).
“In that room, I heard two sounds, whereas I expected to hear nothing. So when I got out of the room, I asked the engineer what those two sounds were. One was high and one was low. And he (the engineer) said, ‘Well, the high one was your nervous system in operation. And the low one was the circulation of your blood.’ Therefore, even if I remain silent, I was, under certain circumstances, musical,” Cage said.
This statement is something of a metaphor for Cage’s “body” of work. For him, music was possible in every aspect of life. It need not be the systematic formal compositions we normally think of as music. It could be the random rhythms of the street, raindrops tapping against gutters… anything auditory, if framed properly. Cage’s knack for avant-garde framing made him one of the 20th century’s most influential composers.
“What so many people said at different points was that Cage allowed them to think differently, just by clearing away all the rules,” says Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker. “For example, the musical movement known as minimalism was something that was very much a departure from Cage’s practice — something that Cage himself actually didn’t like. But I think it’s something that couldn’t have happened without Cage, without everything having been cleared away.”
Cage took inspiration from other cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage became a leading exponent of “aleatoric” or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text on changing events, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In this Cage used random roles of the dice to determine the structure and flow of compositions.
Cage once told an interviewer, “I do what I feel it is necessary to do. My necessity comes from my sense of invention, and I try not to repeat the things I already know about.”
In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life — not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”
Cage’s influence spilled over into other creative realms. For instance, his music had a significant impact on modern dance, especially through his long-time collaboration with partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham.
It probably goes without saying that Cage’s music is not for everyone. In fact, most people would likely find it inaccessible or off-putting. In this we see some of its greatest value. It matters not because it was popular. It matters because it challenges. It threatens convention. It questions what we think we know. That, rather than unthinking acceptance makes it art.