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Silence
John Cage

Silence
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“Everything is music.” How do we reconcile this often quoted philosophy of composer John Cage with his most famous work, 4'33", a 4-minute and 33-second song of silence?

John Cage, born September 5, 1912, was writer, visual artist, musical theorist and composer, and one of the 20th century's most influential artists. He is most well known for his work in music, but his interests ranged across diverse topics. He learned piano in high school, but was initially intent on writing. He went to college for theology, but dropped out after realizing the  classes were of little use to the writing he wanted to do. He decided to travel instead. His travels in Europe allowed him to dabble in painting, architecture, poetry, and music, creating a solid foundation of contemporary art. 

While he would not settle into music until coming back to America in 1931, a permutation of the future composition of 4'33" already emerged in a speech he gave as valedictorian of his high school. In it, he proposed a day of silence saying, "by being hushed and silent, we should have the opportunity to hear what other people think."

Along his artistic endeavors, two main events condensed his silent interests. The first  happened when Cage saw Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, a series of paintings using only white. The second was Cage's visit to a anechoic chamber at Harvard University. In his his of essays Silence: Lectures and Writings, Cage describes his visit: 

For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. (p.8)
In 1952, 4'33" was performed for the first time by piano virtuoso David Tudor. Tudor sat down at the piano, opened the keyboard lid, and sat in silence for thirty seconds. Then he closed the lid, reopened it, and sat in silence for two minutes and twenty-three seconds. Then he once more closed the lid, reopened it, and sat silently for one minute and forty seconds. Finally, he closed the lid, and walked off stage. 

This radical performance was no homage to silence, but a transformation of environment itself into song, proving that humans cannot experience real silence. In later interviews, Cage was quoted, "No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work ... More than anything else, it's the source of my enjoyment of life." Cage also acknowledged influences from Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Yoko Ono said of him, "History of Western music can be divided into B.C. (Before Cage) and A.C. (After Cage)." This was true for many musicians after him, as Cage's work is cited as freeing music from the restraints of classical instrumentation to everything that makes a sound.

By Thad Higa



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