No Such Thing as Silence: John Cages 433


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Make a tax-deductible donation today and help us continue to publish online and in print. No contribution is too small. One late evening in August of , in a half-open barn cum theatre hidden somewhere in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and through the intermittent rain, a man opened and closed a piano lid three times before a silent audience. All this, Cage seems to say, can be called music—if only one will listen. Whatever else it may be, it is also a lens through which one can read the major trends and movements of the twentieth-century art world. Why, for instance, did it have to be exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, if all it was meant to do was encourage one to listen in a new way?

A notion Cage surely took to heart was that writing and talking obscure the fundamental nature of the world; only through contemplation and meditation could it be made apparent. Whole chapters enumerate events and figures linked to the creation of the piece, ranging from the immediate to the merely suggestive. Gann, who has worked both as a music professor and a journalist, and also runs a classical music blog, seems to struggle with the difficulty of writing for a mass audience while delving deeply into music he is passionate about.

The marriage of a frequently journalistic tone with the extensive employment of endnotes and bibliographic references adds to the confusion. The stranger was Marcel Duchamp. The encounter was life-altering. The undisputed king of Dada, he derided traditional paintings as superficial eye candy and opted to make art that pleased—and befuddled—the mind. She had come to New York to study it, and Cage gave her informal lessons in music theory.


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Sarabhai repaid him by teaching him Indian music and philosophy. The lessons would turn Cage into a lifelong follower of Zen Buddhism. Cage had found Dada and Zen at the right time—he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In , he divorced his wife of 10 years. He was clearly distressed. But the more he composed, the more he realized that music failed to communicate his feelings.

It made him feel worse. Cage, like many artists, had taken it as a given that the point of music was to share emotions. But in one of his lessons with Sarabhai, she mentioned that, in India, music had a different purpose.

Kyle Gann. No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4'33".

The more he thought about it, the more it seemed she had a point. He wondered whether Western music had it all wrong. Cage was onto something. The idea that music should express feelings is relatively new. Instead, it was a conduit for dance, song, or praise. Composers asserted more power over how their music was played, and improvisation practically vanished.

Cage was convinced this rift was a mistake.

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So he removed himself from his work. Just as Jackson Pollock embraced the uncertainty of splattered paint, Cage started to flip coins and let heads or tails dictate which notes or rhythms came next. The technique was a perfect stew of Zen and Dada. Both, after all, teach that everything is one and the same, that labels are arbitrary. Art, non-art. Music, noise. Sound, silence. The croak of a frog can be just as musical as the purr of a cello if you choose to hear it that way. It depends on your appetite for sound.

He just needed a spark. The brainchild of an Army general, the idea was pure packaged capitalism. The Muzak Corporation sold hundreds of businesses and cities on the promise that a wash of faint background music would increase productivity, quell boredom, and prevent people from skipping work. Cage hated it. It was just more proof that silence was going extinct.


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  5. Traffic drowned out birdsong. Construction clanged through the night. Before the phonograph, if you wanted music, you often had to make it yourself. Now it was like wallpaper—just another part of your surroundings. For musicians, that alone made Muzak public enemy No. But nonmusicians complained that it was annoying. Commuters in Washington, D. They lost.

    The revolt was the trigger Cage needed to create a silent piece. It will be three or four minutes long—these being the standard lengths of canned music. By , Cage was serious about writing a silent piece of music. It would also be a political statement: an attempt to restore, for a brief moment, the silence industrial America had lost, a plea asking people to listen closely again. Still, the idea seemed radical. So he approached the project as he would any new work—by experimenting. In , Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a foam-padded room designed to absorb every ripple of sound, to hear what silence was really like.

    But there, in one of the quietest rooms in the world, Cage sat and listened—and heard something: the whooshing of his own blood. It was an epiphany. For as long as he lived, there would be no such thing as true silence. That same year, Cage walked through an art gallery and saw a series of flat white canvases by Robert Rauschenberg. The paintings were blasphemy, a big middle finger to the art establishment. There was no narrative, no gesture, no representation—just white streaked with thin black vertical lines. Cage, however, saw Zen: The paintings highlighted shadows, light, and dust falling onto the canvases.

    Depending on when and where you stood, they always looked different. The painter had no control—the surroundings did. It was greeted as heresy. But more sympathetic listeners saw it as a perplexing thought experiment, an IV drip of instant Zen. The value people see in 4'33" is best explained by bread crumbs.

    One day, Cage was at a restaurant with the abstract painter Willem de Kooning, arguing about art. At one point, De Kooning made a rectangle with his fingers and dropped them over some crumbs on the table. Cage shook his head. The frame, he argued, meant everything. Dump a virtuoso violinist on the street corner, and nearly everyone will walk past without a second look. Put the same violinist in a concert hall and 1, people will hang onto every note.

    The concert hall is a frame—a palace for listening—and when you frame silence there, incidental sounds may froth to the foreground.

    No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” (Icons of America) - Harvard Book Store

    The hum of the lighting. The ticking of your wristwatch. The mad ringing in your ear. If you stop and contemplate the world buzzing around you, you may realize how rich and interesting it can be. A University of Virginia study published in July put hundreds of people in an empty, quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Most participants found it insufferable—25 percent of women and 67 percent of men opted to endure painful electric shocks rather than pass the time without any stimulation.

    If you treat every sound as you would music, you just might hear something unexpected, something beautiful. Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

    4'33" by John Cage

    Jack-O'-Lanterns , which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits. Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain , which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth.

    Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year. With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits.

    To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

    John Cage’s art of noise.

    There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink. Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising , itself a secular version of souling.


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    4. Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling , a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them. The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil.

      This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game.

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