Cage’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Cage’s 4′ 33″, the most famous work by a leading advocate of musical indeterminacy, celebrated the randomness and incoherence of everyday life and the sounds of silence.

Summary of Event

When asked to enumerate the outstanding musical event of the twentieth century, listeners may suggest the riot that accompanied the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the arrival of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, or even the first Beatles concert in the United States. A case could well be made, though, for the most famous and audacious piece of the American composer John Cage, a work with a title that concisely describes its duration: 4′ 33″, or four minutes, thirty-three seconds. Cage’s piece had been performed by American pianist and composer David Tudor in New York City on August 29, 1952. Music;avant-garde[avant garde] 4′ 33″ (Cage)[Four minutes thirty three seconds] [kw]Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres (Aug. 29, 1952)[Cages Four Minutes Thirty three Seconds Premieres] [kw]4′ 33″ Premieres, Cage’s (Aug. 29, 1952)[Four Minutes Thirty three Seconds Premieres, Cages] Music;avant-garde[avant garde] 4′ 33″ (Cage)[Four minutes thirty three seconds] [g]North America;Aug. 29, 1952: Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres[03860] [g]United States;Aug. 29, 1952: Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres[03860] [c]Music;Aug. 29, 1952: Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres[03860] Cage, John Tudor, David

For this piece, a pianist seats him- or herself at the keyboard, opens the score, and turns the pages at precisely indicated intervals; what he or she does not do is play a single note. An audience unfamiliar with the piece or with Cage’s intention or general reputation will grow restless, amused, irritable, or annoyed, but it is not likely to be bored. At the end of the piece, when the pianist rises to bow, the audience will respond with applause, laughter, or boos; but each member of the audience will have heard a musical event of his or her own making. There is unlikely to have been complete silence for listeners (unless a person is profoundly hearing impaired); listeners may have heard a fly buzz or the usual annoyances of concert halls, such as coughing, paper crinkling, and chairs squeaking. If the hall is quiet, listeners may have heard the hum of the air conditioning or simply supplied words and tunes in their own brains. Listeners have to agree that there has been sound, even of their own devising, and that there has been a performance.

One need not agree with Allan Kozinn’s Kozinn, Allan description of the effect of 4′ 33″ in his obituary of Cage in The New York Times. Kozinn wrote that “listeners were forced to focus on nonmusical sounds, or . . . on the quality of silence itself.” Absolute silence is virtually unavailable; the ever-active human ear, even on the quietest horizon, invariably picks up messages from over the threshold. If the world seems increasingly noisy, that did not evoke a complaint from Cage, who late in life argued that “I think it is true that sounds are, of their nature, harmonious, and I would extend that to noise. There is no noise, only sound.” (He drew the line only at sounds that frighten or cause pain.)

Born in 1912, Cage lived a life that took him from the West Coast—particularly Los Angeles, where he was born and formulated his musical theories—to New York, where he lived from World War II until his death in August, 1992. He showed early interest in two of his abiding passions, rhythm and dance. He showed much less interest in conventional harmony and the Western serious musical tradition than in the interrelationship of music and sound, specifically in rejecting the customary distinction between music and noise. He studied in his youth with the great German composer Arnold Schoenberg Schoenberg, Arnold , when the latter taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), after his exile from Europe in the 1930’s (Schoenberg also taught at the University of Southern California). Cage invariably considered Schoenberg’s dismissal of his pupil’s compositional efforts as a compliment; Cage, said Schoenberg, is “not a composer but an inventor of genius.”

In 1937, Cage wrote a prescient youthful essay, “The Future of Music: Credo,” "Future of Music, The" (Cage)[Future of Music, The] which sketched the outline of his long career as a composer, performer, and musical theorist. He never wavered from his belief in the ability of human listeners to mediate among sounds and take pleasure from them.

Following his move to New York during World War II, Cage was attracted to Eastern philosophy. He studied Zen Buddhism at Columbia University and became intrigued by the I Ching, the Chinese “Book of Changes,” which reinforced his belief in the role of indeterminacy and chance in human affairs. He showed a lifelong interest in the principles of Dada, the art form associated with Marcel Duchamp; the “found objects” that Duchamp utilized in his art had their analogies in the random and unanticipated sounds in Cage’s musical scores.

Cage’s fascination with the collision of sounds and the potency of silence bore fruit not only in 4′ 33″ but also in his frequent collections of writings, the most famous of which remains the cogently titled Silence Silence (Cage) (1961). Silence revealed his creative awareness of Eastern thought and religion, sounds and music, dance, art, and poetry.

Significance

By acceding to the elements of chance and incoherence in daily life, by asking listeners to contemplate the congruence of music and noise, and by being willing to appear ridiculous in defense of his theories of art, John Cage became a guru to several generations of American composers, performers, and audiences. When asked angrily if he were a charlatan, Cage is said to have replied, “No, I was born in 1912.” For his willingness to court the scorn of the musical academy and for maintaining his faith in the validity of his theories over a long career, Cage became something of an American original and an artistic icon.

During a mid-1960’s concert of his music at the University of Illinois in which Cage gargled into a microphone and chopped vegetables in a blender, even Cage was startled when an elderly member of the music faculty started tossing chairs from the wings of the auditorium onstage. Muttering about what a disgrace Cage was and that, indeed, if Cage was saying that all noise is music, then here was music, the old academic succeeded only in playing into the hands of the wily innovator. Cage cheerfully accepted the criticism as part of the performance.

Cage had always forced audiences to reconsider the relationship among the notes on the score, the sounds emerging from instruments and tools, the intention of the composers and performers, and the actual result that occurred when music and sounds merged and collided in the human ear. He was a joyful phenomenologist who passed the mantle of creativity from the composer and the performer to listeners, who had to sort out the jumble of sounds and sensations and decide whether the result was pleasing or repellent. Cage may have overestimated the goodwill of listeners if he thought that the buzz of a noxious insect or the sound of a jackhammer could be perceived as pleasant or even as a kind of spontaneous music, but he was right to demand, as American musical innovators such as Charles Ives and Henry Cowell had, that listeners be far more attentive to sounds and use their ears in a creative way.

To the musical establishment, Cage was often seen as an anarchist, scuttling the musical language and rules that had developed over many centuries; to enthusiasts of the serious music repertory, Cage was seen as a kind of terrorist, robbing the composer of his privileged position as philosopher and arbiter of musical taste and handing over the composer’s functions to the listener. In 4′ 33″, Cage could be said to have returned musical self-negation on the part of the composer and performer to a point of modesty that even the most self-effacing medieval monk could envy. To Cage’s critics, the piece seemed the height of arrogance, since listeners at a concert are punished with four and a half minutes of silence, during which many will simply fume at Cage’s presumption and egotism.

During the duration of the piece, with the composer sitting at the piano and turning the pages at specified points, a noisy or rambunctious audience may enjoy the composer’s chutzpah or simply take the occasion as an opportunity to chat; a quiet audience may sit nervous and uncomfortable. Whatever happens, the audience itself is creating the event and inventing, in its ears, the music. Cage’s musical output generally may strike listeners as a cold shower, an act of discipline, or even presumption and outright fraud, but an audience is unlikely to go home indifferent or unchanged in its attitudes.

Earlier composers claimed variously to have drawn their music directly from God (like Johann Sebastian Bach) or from their own titanic grapplings with their imaginations (like Ludwig van Beethoven). Cage once wrote, “In an older view, and my own, it is the artist’s duty to imitate in his work not the appearance of nature, but her manner of operation.” Such an approach could lead to the self-effacing claim of Edward Elgar, the British composer, that the air was full of music and that the composer simply wrote it down, or to the approach of Cage, who believed that “music” was nothing more or less than the random, indiscriminate collision of sounds, and that it was the responsibility of listeners, not composers, to make sense of this variety. In 4′ 33″, Cage achieved his musical masterpiece, and he marked a turning point in the human perception of music, by offering unmediated access to the world of sounds. Music;avant-garde[avant garde] 4′ 33″ (Cage)[Four minutes thirty three seconds]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baas, Jacquelynn. Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. A study of the influence of Buddhism on Western art, including music, with a chapter on the work of John Cage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, David W., and Christopher Hatch, eds. Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. A collection of articles first presented as papers at the 1995 Mills College conference “Here Comes Everybody: The Music, Poetry, and Art of John Cage.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. 1961. Paperback ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. Arguably the best known and most influential of Cage’s theoretical writings. Sparked the late 1960’s fascination with Cage. Despite the ironic title, Cage’s writings celebrate the ubiquity of unexpected, pleasing sounds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Christoph, and Daniel Warner, eds. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum, 2004. A comprehensive resource on the culture of sound, including noise and music. John Cage is the author of three chapters. Discography, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoover, Kathleen, and John Cage. Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959. Cage’s admiring study of Thomson’s equally “American” music, which was based on hymn tunes and homely material rather than on indeterminacy. Places Thomson among the pantheon of composers who “have done what they had to do without pretense and in defiance of the general run of Teutonism and neo-classicism.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholls, David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Chapters explore Cage’s worldwide reception as an artist and composer, his writings, his work from the 1940’s to the 1960’s specifically, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, David W., ed. John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950. New York: Routledge, 2002. Part of the Studies in Contemporary Music and Culture series, this collection surveys Cage’s life and work from the early days with Arnold Schoenberg to Cage’s aesthetic development as a composer to his embracing of Asian philosophies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockwell, John. All-American Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Notes admiringly Cage’s assimilation of European and Eastern ideas and commends him for his genius, but complains about Cage’s alleged “disturbing indifference to how his music actually sounds”—a statement that oddly ignores Rockwell’s repeated point about the listener’s role in creating music from Cage’s do-it-yourself packages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, Virgil. A Virgil Thomson Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Contains Thomson’s essay “Cage and the Collage of Noises.”

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