Mouths of Babes

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.” 

However, I submit that for a 17-year-old in 1973, it wasn’t bad. I had discovered Silence, Variations IV, and the prepared piano pieces two years earlier, mystifying my fellow students by proselytizing for Cagean philosophy, and this is the speech I gave as prelude to my May 18, 1973, performance of 4’33” at Skyline High School – which may have been the Dallas or even Texas premiere, for all I know. Of course, had I really had the courage of my convictions, I wouldn’t have said anything, but would have just played the piece, letting my teachers, fellow students, and their parents wonder what the hell I was doing. As it was, they listened politely to the building air-conditioner for four and a half minutes. 
Thus by the time I went to college, Cage was no up-to-date new thing, but a repertoire composer I’d performed in high school along with Brahms, Scriabin, and Chopin. Pretty much the same with Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti. When minimalism came along, that was something new.


  1. peter says

    In saying there would be no need for concert halls, Cage is ignoring the acoustic function of the hall in marshalling sound and directing it appropriately to the audience, and the social function of the hall in marshalling an audience and directing its attention at the source of the sound. As so often with Cage, his glib pronouncements, when examined for content, are found to meaningless or false.

  2. says

    That was a pretty good essay on Cage. Would you be willing to compare it to what you are getting from freshmen these days?
    I think Cage is absolutely right about music being all around us. I take the train to work for about an hour each morning and I generally doze off from time to time as the train gently rocks me to sleep. After I had been doing this for about a year I wrote a piece that I really liked, but was not sure quite why.
    During rehearsal it suddenly hit me: it was the way the train sounded, complete with the horn blowing through all the crossings. I guess my brain was somehow absorbing this during my daily cat naps.
    Anyone have a similar experience?
    KG replies: Well, thanks. I don’t get many freshman papers to compare with, but we do get awfully good student writers at Bard lately. I don’t think we get more than one in a blue moon who knows as much about contemporary music as I did when I started Oberlin. I remember having to explain Satie and Stockhausen to my freshman music history professor, who couldn’t fathom either of them.

  3. David Kulma says

    Cage’s comment is not about concert halls. It is about the interesting sounds all around us every day that we ignore. He may have been glib, but these words are neither meaningless nor false.

  4. Samuel Vriezen says

    “if only we had ears, there would be no need for concert halls” – could also be taken to mean: since we don’t have [true] ears, we need concert halls; so concert halls are like hearing implements. Which is actually pretty much in line with what Peter is saying.