Music Makers

Silence And Sound: Five Ways Of Understanding John Cage

Composer, conceptual artist and professional provocateur John Cage, in a 1966 portrait. i i

Composer, conceptual artist and professional provocateur John Cage, in a 1966 portrait. Victor Drees/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Victor Drees/Getty Images
Composer, conceptual artist and professional provocateur John Cage, in a 1966 portrait.

Composer, conceptual artist and professional provocateur John Cage, in a 1966 portrait.

Victor Drees/Getty Images

Today, exactly 100 years after his birth, composer, writer and conceptual artist John Cage is still, for many, Public Enemy No. 1. On a scale far beyond the reach of any other 20th-century art composer, this master provocateur is still the one who inflames and infuriates. (I like to imagine that Cage, a natural-born trickster, would have loved the bit of April Fool's mischief that iTunes pulled a few years ago when they offered his "silent" 4'33" as their free download of the day.)

But Cage was no flim-flam artist; 4'33" wasn't silent and it wasn't a joke at all. When a pianist does nothing more than lift and close the instrument's lid, the ambient sounds surrounding the listener, and even the listener's own breath, become the vehicle for a kind of sonic zazen. It is a stunningly potent invitation to reframe music and the world. In a 1988 interview with composer William Duckworth, Cage said that 4'33" was a piece he used "constantly in my life experience. No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work ... More than anything else, it's the source of my enjoyment of life."

His habit of putting a frame around chance encounters and stamping those cosmic accidents with his own signature may well anger you, but at the very least he forces you to reconsider your expectations and assumptions. Not just within classical music circles — and whether or not you personally enjoy his output or his aesthetics — Cage fundamentally reshaped ideas of what music was and what it could be. (Be sure to check out 33 artists from Wilco's Glenn Kotche to Amanda Palmer to Cage specialist Margaret Leng Tan reacting to the question: "John Cage, what does he communicate?")

While it is true that he could have disseminated his ideas via the ministry (a path he considered early on, before he was introduced to Buddhism), visual art (ditto), or more primarily as a writer or as a philosopher, music and live performance were his main modes of expression. Like meditation itself, Cage's work is best experienced rather than explained, so in honor of the Cage centennial, here are five videos and performance clips of his work, each a path into understanding what he was all about.

5 Ways Of Understanding John Cage

Cover for Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

Sonatas And Interludes

  • Artist: Boris Berman
  • Album: Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

One of earliest of John Cage's many musical innovations was the prepared piano. How he came to invent it is now the stuff of legend: One story describes a metal rod accidentally falling into Cage's piano as he accompanied a dance class in 1939 in Seattle. In any case, Cage began intricately rigging the bowels of his piano with any number of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and weatherstripping. The result was a completely unique sound – a complete, customized battery of percussion inside a box. It took Cage more than three hours to prepare a piano to perform his Sonatas and Interludes, composed between 1946 and 1948. Sonatas 14 and 15 go as a pair, and feature a central note around which Cage weaves an exotic garland of melody. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano
Album
Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano
Artist
Boris Berman
Label
Naxos
Released
1999

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Cover for Cage:The Piano Works I

Stephen Drury Prepares A Cage-ian Piano

  • Artist: Stephen Drury
  • Album: Cage:The Piano Works I

So what goes into preparing a piano according to Cage's specs, anyway? Pianist Stephen Drury, a Cage specialist, explains how he gets the instrument ready (a bread clip, strips of rubber from a canning jar, screws, bolts), how long it takes (at least 3 hours) and how to do it (very carefully).

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Song
Cage:The Piano Works I
Album
Cage:The Piano Works I
Artist
Stephen Drury
Label
Mode Records
Released
1995

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Cover for Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music

'Indeterminacy'

  • Artist: David Tudor
  • Album: Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music

For his 1959 Indeterminacy recording, John Cage read 90 of his own tales — "autobiographical fragments," he called them; some funny, some melancholic — out loud in random order. Each story lasted exactly 60 seconds, with some stretched out very slowly and some crammed in as fast as possible in order to make the one-minute mark. Meanwhile, beyond his own range of hearing, his friend and collaborator, the pianist David Tudor, performed bits of Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra with his Fontana Mix. (In his performance notes for Indeterminacy, Cage indicated that one could perform the stories with any music the performers liked, or no music at all.)

The results are both curious and sublime. As Kay Larson explains in her excellent, lucid and newly published book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, the guiding force behind this work was his Buddhism teacher, D.T. Suzuki: "Cage had encountered teachings on indeterminacy in Suzuki's class. Suzuki's vision of the universe was slippery and full of transformative potential. Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means that you don't know where you are. How can it be otherwise, say the Buddhist teachings, since you have no fixed or inherent identity and are [yourself] ceaselessly in process?"

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Song
Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music
Album
Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music
Artist
David Tudor
Label
Smithsonian Folkways
Released
1959

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Cover for Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music

"I've Got A Secret"

  • Artist: John Cage
  • Album: Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music

In January 1960, John Cage showed up on the immensely popular television game show I've Got A Secret to perform his "Water Walk." (The 2012 equivalent: Björk on Dancing With The Stars?)

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Song
Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music
Album
Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music
Artist
John Cage
Label
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Released
1959

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Cover for Music for Merce Cunningham: Five Stone Wind

'Variations V'

  • Artist: John Cage WIth David Tudor & Takehisa Kosugi
  • Album: Music for Merce Cunningham: Five Stone Wind

John Cage's work didn't exist in a vacuum. Take for instance 1965's Variations V, a collaboration between choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham — whom Cage first met in 1938, and who soon became Cage's companion until the composer's death in 1992. The co-creators of Variations V also included David Tudor, Robert Moog, video artist Nam June Paik and electronic artist Billy Klüver, among others. The score was created by coin flips that determined each sonic element; accordingly, the music would change at each performance.

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