The following is a not entirely accurate introduction to John Cage’s thought:
In order to even begin to understand the music of John Cage, it is necessary to examine some of his most important philosophies and ideas whether you agree with them or not. First of all is his use of silence. Cage considers silence a very integral part of a piece of music, given equal important with the sounded notes. And in conjunction with this I would like to remind you that there is no such thing as total silence, except in a vaccuum; that wherever there are people or any life at all, there is some kind of sound. Cage therefore never uses in his pieces absolute silence, but instead, the varieties of sound such as those caused by nature or traffic, which ordinarily go unnoticed, and aren’t usually regarded as music.
Second, and perhaps harder to accept, is Cage’s use of noise, or, quote, “unmusical sounds,” in his compositions. He does not limit his pieces to sounds produced by conventional instruments. Instead he expands the definition of music, using such sounds as the tinkling of glasses, laughing, and even radios, as elements of composition. Thus his definition of music is the art of music, and not just the art of combining instruments.
Third is Cage’s conviction that music should change, that it should provide the listener with a different experience every time he hears it. Because of this he has introduced the element of chance into his music, allowing certain privileges to be taken by the performer, and sometimes even by the audience, so that no one can tell beforehand what’s going to happen in a piece. This is done by allowing a performer to play musical segments in any order he desires, picking notes and instruments according to a roll of dice, and even by tuning a radio to a certain station at any particular time. The term for this kind of music is “aleatory music.”
Finally, Cage minimizes the importance of the composer. Music, he feels, should not be written down and straightjacketed by a composer. It should be allowed to happen naturally. 4’33″ is one of Cage’s most famous and most controversial compositions, and it is a showcase for all the ideas I’ve just mentioned. Those of you who listen with open ears and open minds are about to hear four and a half minutes of completely unintentional and unplanned sound and noise, or, if you prefer to call it, music. Before I allow this music to happen, I would like to mention a quote of John Cage’s: “Music is all around us; if only we had ears, there would be no need for concert halls.”