CAMBRIDGE, MA, 1952 — In a padded room deep in the bowels of a Harvard lab, the composer steps into silence.
He expects to hear. . . nothing, and for a few moments, he does. But then his own body — the beating of his heart, the rush of his flowing blood — becomes the music.
Growing up in Los Angeles, John Cage courted silence. The son of an inventor and a journalist, he began studying piano in fourth grade but was drawn to ambient sounds. Traffic. Birds. Even neighbors shouting next door. In 1933, speaking as high school valedictorian, he proposed an annual day of quiet. “Hushed and silent,” he said, “we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think.”
During the Depression, Cage dropped out of college to set out on his radical path. He took a freighter to France, then studied painting and poetry in Paris. But when he began composing, his methods verged on madness. Forget harmony, melody, even rhythm. John Cage found music in the world’s soundscape.
Early compositions were merely atonal, but in 1938, Cage began experimenting with “aleatoric music,” compositions shaped by chance. On an instrument he called the “prepared piano,” he played tunes altered by kitchen utensils, erasers, and other detritus laid on the strings. Later he used the Chinese I Ching to structure compositions that varied with every roll of the dice. And then there were his “Imaginary Landscapes.”
№1 used two turntables and a prepared piano. №2 added tin cans, a conch shell, a wastebasket, and the roar of a lion. №3 threw in everything but the kitchen sink and №4 had musicians turning the dials of 24 separate radios.
Yes, there were lean years. America in the 1940s preferred Big Bands to “noise,” however orchestrated, yet Cage persisted. Teaching, lecturing, befriending abstract painters and modern dancers, he recalled what his father used to say.
“If someone says ‘can’t,’” John Cage Sr. told his son, “that shows you what to do.” In Indian mystics and Zen Buddhism with its “sound of one hand clapping,” Cage found other teachers. The purpose of music, one said, was “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
Then in 1952, Cage heard silence speak in a soundproof room. Soon he saw it on canvas, all-white paintings done by his friend Robert Rauschenberg. Boring? Crazy? Your kid could do that? No, Cage realized. The white canvases were alive with shifting light, just as silence comes alive when you know how to listen.
Late that summer, in a ramshackle music hall near Woodstock, New York, silence had its concert debut. Striding onto the small stage, a pianist sat at the keyboard. Taking out a stopwatch, he clicked it. . . And waited. After some seconds, he clicked again. End of first movement. Click. Second movement.
The audience was restless. Was this some kind of joke? Click. End of second movement. When a third finished, after precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist walked offstage. Some booed, others laughed. Finally a local artist stood. “Good people of Woodstock,” he announced, “let’s drive these people out of town.”
“They missed the point,” Cage said. “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
The debut of 4’33” changed few minds. The loud world got louder, as did music when Elvis appeared. John Cage, however, had heard the future. Suddenly notorious as the man who framed silence, Cage earned a growing audience. He soon wove his music into the first “happenings” featuring artists and musicians in choreographed chaos before audiences bewildered, bemused, or fascinated.
4’33” was rarely performed in Cage’s lifetime but since his death in 1992, it has acquired cult status. Frank Zappa “recorded” a version. A 50th anniversary performance was given in London. In 2004, the BBC Orchestra gave silence its symphonic debut. Other orchestras have since joined in. Watch (and listen to your own ambient sounds.)
For its role in opening our ears, 4’33” is now regarded as one of “the pivotal compositions” of the 20th century. Another noted: ““Listening to or merely thinking about ‘4’33” ’ led composers to listen to phenomena that would have formerly been considered nonmusical.” The piece has been performed by Heavy Metal bands, solo pianists, and an eclectic assortment of musicians. It has a half million hits on Spotify. In October 2020, the Berlin Philharmonic, facing COVID, performed 4’33” “to draw attention to the plight of artists following the lockdown of cultural institutions.”
The world still sings and plays. Composers come and go. But only one opened our ears to chance, to time, to the music around us. “When I hear what we call music,” Cage said, “it seems to me that someone is talking. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic, I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound. I don’t need sound to talk to me.”