On the evening of 29 August 1952 a crowd of avant-garde aficionados and local music enthusiasts filed into the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock to hear a piano recital by the young virtuoso David Tudor. That they should be here, tucked away in the Catskills, was already extraordinary. The Maverick is more hermitage than concert hall: a wooden, barn-like structure, set – in 1952 at least – in several acres of woodland. Water Music by John Cage, a Californian composer whose recent work had been feted in New York, opened the programme and baffled its audience. It involved Tudor performing various actions at seemingly random intervals: blowing a duck-call, tuning a radio, shuffling and dealing playing cards. After subdued applause, Tudor sat back down at the piano. He played pieces by Christian Wolff, an 18-year-old student of Cage’s, and by Morton Feldman, Cage’s friend; and thundered through Pierre Boulez’s fiendishly difficult first sonata. The penultimate piece on the programme was Cage’s latest, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples. Half a minute later he reopened the lid, then shut it. The summer rain could be heard falling on the Maverick’s wooden roof. Another couple of minutes – Tudor opened and shut the lid again – and muttering broke out in the hall. People began shuffling towards the exit. Four minutes and 33 seconds without a note played and Cage had stamped himself on music history with the most radical contribution of his generation. At the end of the concert, a local artist drew himself up and bellowed: ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.’
Cage had been thinking about silence from an early age. In 1928, as a geeky 16-year-old high-school pupil in LA, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest with a speech on Pan-American relations entitled ‘Other People Think’. It ran:
One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created, and finally to have everything stopped that runs, until everyone should hear the last wheel go round and the last echo fade away … then, in that moment of complete intermission, of undisturbed calm, would be the hour most conducive to the birth of a Pan-American Conscience.
The speech has since been enshrined as the founding document of Cage’s aesthetics, though at the time there was little indication he would choose a career in music. His childhood had been awkward, shadowed by his father’s failure: John Cage Sr, an inventor, had been bankrupted trying to develop a submarine for use in the First World War; an accident sustained while working for an aircraft company, in which he lost the full use of one of his arms, compounded the disappointment. John Jr started school under a cloud. He was bullied so badly that his parents were forced to transfer him to an experimental school at UCLA, but he suffered there, too. On top of the bullying his teachers disapproved of his bookishness and nagged him to play sport and be ‘better adjusted’. Still, Cage was a brilliant student: he excelled at Latin and Greek and finished high school as valedictorian of his class. He also took piano lessons, from his aunt Phoebe and from an eccentric composer called Fannie Dillon who was obsessed by birdsong. But his voice was thought so terrible that he wasn’t allowed to join the school glee club, and he hated practising technical exercises. Indeed he hated practising at all, preferring to pound his way, sight-reading, through the staples of the repertoire.
Cage continued his studies at Pomona College in nearby Claremont, where, by the end of his second year, his rebellious nature began to show. Rather than plough through the reading list assigned by his professor, he went into the library to read the first book he could find written by an author whose name began with Z – his first recorded flirtation with chance as method. He was given an ‘A’ in his end of year exams anyway, which convinced him there was something wrong with the system, and he left Pomona for Europe, abandoning his plan to follow his grandfather into the Methodist Church. In Paris he studied architecture with Ernö Goldfinger, then continued his wandering. Capri, Biskra, Madrid, Berlin, Italy, North Africa: as the world blurred by, Cage made his first faltering attempts at composition, using knotty mathematical systems inspired by Bach.
As he later told his biographer David Revill, the modern art he had begun to explore in Europe – cubism, German expressionism, surrealism – had given him the feeling that ‘if other people could do things like that, I myself could.’ He moved back to California, at the bluest ebb of the Great Depression, convinced his future lay in music. In 1933 he sent a clarinet sonata to the pianist Richard Buhlig who, impressed by its maturity, sent it on to the composer Henry Cowell, then a major figure in the American avant-garde and an outspoken advocate of non-Western musical traditions. He liked the piece enough to include it in a concert programme and encouraged Cage to visit him in New York. Cowell hired Cage as his assistant and, crucially, advised him to study with Schoenberg, then teaching at the University of Southern California.
Cage joined Schoenberg as a pupil in 1935 and became fascinated by the dispassionate rigour of serialist composition. To a young man who had dreamed of a ‘Pan-American Conscience’, the serialist movement’s anti-individualism was attractive. He idolised Schoenberg – by his own admission, ‘worshipped him like a God’ – even though the great man’s indifference bordered on victimisation: ‘All the time I studied with Schoenberg, he never once led me to believe that my work was distinguished in any way,’ Cage recalled. ‘He never praised my compositions, and when I commented on other students’ work in class he held my comments up to ridicule.’ Many years later Schoenberg said of him: ‘Of course, he’s not a composer, but he is an inventor – of genius.’ In the eyes of his first mentor, Cage was continuing the work his father had been unable to finish.
Inspired by the futurist Luigi Russolo’s tract The Art of Noises, which argued for the creation of new instruments that could represent the clamour of industrialised modernity better than the strings, brass and woodwind of classical tradition, Cage began to experiment with non-standard instrumentation. The early 1930s fashion for percussion had led to such works as Varèse’s Ionisation for 30 percussionists, and Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, which featured seven electric bells, three propellers, a siren and a tam-tam. Cage wanted to extend the logic. In a lecture he gave to the Sonic Arts Society in Seattle – where, through Cowell, he had secured a temporary teaching job at Cornish – he outlined his radical thoughts on instrumentation: ‘Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.’ He began to experiment energetically with new sound sources, in compositions like Imaginary Landscape No. 1, which used the frequency tones on a set of variable-speed turntables he had purloined from Cornish, and Credo in US, scored for tin cans, gongs, electric buzzer, tom-tom, piano and phonograph. He prepared a piano for the first time in March 1940, for a performance by the dancer Syvilla Fort. She wanted to dance to percussion music but the hall she was to perform in was too small for an ensemble, so Cage wedged screws and weather-stripping between the strings of the piano, effectively transforming it into a small percussion orchestra.
That September he moved to San Francisco with his wife Xenia, an Alaskan sculptor and bookbinder he had married while studying under Schoenberg. He had hoped to find a job with the Works Projects Administration, the organisation founded by Roosevelt to employ artists during the Great Depression, but they refused to acknowledge him as a musician since he wrote for percussion, and denied him a post in the music department. They did, however, hire him as a ‘recreation leader’, sending him to entertain the children of visitors at one of the city hospitals. ‘That may have been the birth of the silent piece,’ Cage said in an interview in 1982: he wasn’t allowed to make any noise for fear of disturbing the patients, so invented counting games that involved moving rhythmically round the space, in silence. In San Francisco, Cage found himself part of a thriving musical avant-garde that included Cowell, Lou Harrison (who shared his interest in unusual percussion), the micro-tonal composer and vagabond Harry Partch, and the prolific symphonist Alan Hovhaness. He also met Moholy-Nagy, who invited him to teach a course at his New Bauhaus School (later the Institute of Design) in Chicago. Cage delivered an ambitious series, described in the trimester handbook as the ‘exploration and use of new sound materials; investigation of manual, vocal, mechanical, electrical and film means, for the production of sound; sound in the theatre, dance, drama and the film; group improvisation; creative musical expression; rehearsal and performance of experimental music.’
Among those impressed by Cage in Chicago was Max Ernst, who arranged for his wife, Peggy Guggenheim, to celebrate the opening of her new gallery in New York with a concert of Cage’s percussion music. So John and Xenia upped sticks yet again, arriving in the city in the spring of 1942 with 25 cents between them, all they had left after the bus fare. Plunged into the New York art world, amid the cluster of abstract expressionists round Guggenheim (Gorky, Pollock, Mondrian and Motherwell), Cage was well placed to soak up ideas. He played chess with Duchamp, and befriended Robert Rauschenberg, whose notorious White Paintings – a series of rectangular canvasses painted plain white – have often been seen as the visual counterpart to 4’33”. Cage recognised that the ‘emptiness’ of Rauschenberg’s paintings was no such thing, writing later that he saw them as ‘airports for the lights, shadows and particles’. They turned visual minutiae that would usually go unnoticed into objects of aesthetic appreciation, suggesting, as Duchamp had, that art isn’t necessarily a matter of objects in themselves but lies in the way we look at them.
The Guggenheim concert never happened. Cage, somewhat overzealously, managed to organise a show under his own steam at the Museum of Modern Art, featuring music by himself and by fellow-travellers Cowell and Harrison. He had thought Guggenheim would be thrilled but she saw the concert as a rejection and withdrew her patronage. Nonetheless, the MoMA show was well received by the critics: a sympathetic two-page spread in Life magazine talked of Cage’s wish to persuade his audience to ‘find new beauty in everyday modern life’ by making them listen to the music in the sounds around them. But just as people were beginning to understand what he was doing, Cage’s marriage was falling apart. He had fallen in love with Merce Cunningham, whom he had first met back at Cornish. In a vain concession to marital fidelity the two men attempted a ménage à trois with Xenia, but Cage’s sexual preference was all too obvious, and she was slowly, inexorably frozen out. Cage’s compunction flooded into a series of vexed, emotionally charged works for prepared piano, The Perilous Night, A Valentine out of Season, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. When the couple divorced in 1945, his depression deepened.
Then, as he put it himself a couple of years later, ‘in the nick of time, Gita Sarabhai came from India.’ Sarabhai was a wealthy woman who had taken it on herself to rescue the musical traditions of India from the hegemony of the Western classical tradition and had come to New York to get to know her enemy. Cage offered to teach her European-style music theory in exchange for lessons in Indian music and the culture surrounding it. She introduced him to Asian thought via an extensive reading list – Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva, Huang-po’s The Doctrine of Transmission of Mind, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna – and encouraged him to attend the Buddhist scholar Daisetz Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia. All of which, Cage later said, soothed his distress. Certainly, the pieces he wrote after meeting Sarabhai reflected a new tranquillity: The Seasons, for instance, a gentle, ambling work for full orchestra laced with fragile celesta solos, or Dream, a single melodic line picked out on the piano along a simple diatonic scale. More important, Zen lent philosophical ballast to the aesthetics Cage was already tending towards: the injunction to dissolve the ego in order to transcend suffering gave him another reason to remove himself from the music, to pursue an art of self-erasure.
From 1946 to 1948 Cage worked on the piece that many still consider his masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, which used the same piano-as-percussion-orchestra technique he had pioneered with Syvilla Fort a decade earlier. This series of delicate miniatures, influenced by the Asian classical music he had explored with Sarabhai, was a great success, establishing him in the eyes of many of his contemporaries as the most exciting composer of the avant-garde. But it was the piano piece, Music of Changes, written in 1951, that had the bigger impact on music theory and cemented the link between Cage’s name and ‘chance operations’. He wrote the piece using the I Ching, the ancient Chinese ‘Book of Changes’, assigning pitch, duration, dynamic and tempo values to the book’s 64 auguric images, and flipping coins in order to choose between them, patiently building the piece chord by chord. When he came to structure his silent piece, he used the same technique, but this time only its length, and the length of its movements (marked by Tudor’s opening and shutting of the piano lid), needed to be determined. The period four minutes and 33 seconds was decided by chance; it had nothing to do, as was popularly believed, with the temperature at absolute zero, -273 °C.
Tudor gave Music of Changes its premiere in January 1952. That summer, Cage had a residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he orchestrated what has come to be known as the first ever ‘happening’, a multimedia piece in which he lectured to the concert hall from the top of a ladder while Tudor played the piano, Cunningham and his troupe danced through the audience, and Rauschenberg played old Edith Piaf records from in front of his White Paintings. It was at Black Mountain that Cage composed Water Music. Just a few days later, he made his famous visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard, a room built to absorb sound reflections and so create absolute silence. ‘In that silent room,’ as Cage never tired of explaining, ‘I heard two sounds, one high one low.’ When asked what they were, the engineer in charge of the room replied that the high sound was Cage’s nervous system, the low one his circulation. The revelation that silence and sound weren’t opposites but part of a continuum, that there would always be something to listen to, was the final nudge. Two weeks before the Maverick concert, with Tudor’s encouragement, Cage prepared the first score for 4’33”.
The former Village Voice critic Kyle Gann’s new book traces the ‘multiplicity of routes’ by which Cage arrived at his great statement. Most of them, as he shows, were there in the programme for the Woodstock concert, laid out like the premises of a syllogism: Schoenberg and serialism were present via Boulez, the movement’s latest advocate; Russolo’s ideas were implicit in Water Music. Gann also argues convincingly for Cage’s place in the early 20th-century quest to define an authentic, national American music, situating him in a line of pioneers including Dvořák, for his New World Symphony, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first composer to draw on the rhythms of America’s non-Caucasian settlers, and Cowell, who used the geometric patterns he discovered in the American landscape to structure his pieces. Cage, Gann argues, decided that the most effective way to capture the landscape was by letting it sing – rain, blow, rustle – for itself. The American nationalists were represented at the Maverick, for those who hung around to hear it, by Cowell’s The Banshee, the evening’s finale.
Despite being widely panned following its New York debut – the New York Times wrote it off as ‘hollow, sham, pretentious Greenwich Village exhibitionism’ – 4’33”, and the thought behind it, has been influential. This is largely thanks to Cage’s skill, rare among musicians, at presenting his ideas – his youthful eloquence never left him. Six years after the Maverick, Cage was invited to take up a residency at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, the laboratory for the post-serialism of Stockhausen and Boulez, who had lectured there in previous years. Cage confronted the Darmstadters with a very different way of looking at things. He lectured on silence as sound (‘These sounds, which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention’), and on indeterminacy as a way to devolve power over music-making from the composer to the performer and to liberate music from the strictures of pulse. The third part of his series, entitled ‘Communication’, was the weirdest, beginning with 32 questions (‘Is communication something made clear?’, ‘Is what’s clear to me clear to you?’) rattled off one after another, and ending with a story by the ancient Chinese philosopher Kwang-tse about an eccentric priest whose wisdom leads him to ramble the forests ‘slapping his buttocks and hopping like a bird’.
In 1961 Cage was appointed a fellow at Wesleyan University, and managed to persuade the university press to publish the Darmstadt lectures and some of his other writing under the title Silence. The book became a fund of inspiration for emerging artists. The early conceptual art movement Fluxus embraced Cage’s notion that a piece of music could be defined by an idea and notated using only words – like the version (there are several) of the 4’33” score also published in 1961, which just bears roman numerals specifying the length of the silences, followed by the word ‘TACET’. In the hands of the Fluxus artists this became the idea that any experience, of any duration, could be the object of aesthetic contemplation – a piano being fed a bale of hay, for instance, as in one of La Monte Young’s more extreme compositions of the late 1960s. The Minimalists picked up on Cage’s use of inaudible processes – using the I Ching to determine duration, for example – but aimed to make them audible. Drawing the distinction between his work and Cage’s, Steve Reich wrote: ‘What I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.’
Cage couldn’t very well write another silent piece, but his obsession with chance and indeterminacy would define his work for the rest of his life. In his pieces with Cunningham, composition and choreography were performed independently of each other, making any rhythmic synchrony between dance and music purely a matter of coincidence. His final compositions were the Number Pieces, in which individual pitches and the range of pitches used were fixed by chance procedures, while the durations of the notes were often left to the performer. When Cage died, on 12 August 1992 following a stroke, the flood of obituaries – by this time he had settled comfortably into eminence – nearly all mentioned 4’33”. The New York Times, so sceptical in the 1950s, wrote that the piece had ‘a philosophical agenda … to call attention in a formal context to the richness of ambient sound’, and the Independent that listeners to ‘the notorious silent piece 4’33” are invited to discover music wherever they may within the ambience of the “performance”’. There will always be those who can’t get past the piece’s lack of audible artistry, who see it as a joke or, worse, as an insult; but as Gann notes, and as the obituaries attest, ‘4’33” is one of the best understood pieces in avant-garde 20th-century music. Cage got his point across.’ Because, though so many artists and ideas influenced it, his point is beautifully simple. We are never without music, Cage says, whenever we remember to listen – the composer doesn’t need to create it, so much as let it happen.