Music News
3:30 pm
Wed September 5, 2012

Music Is Everywhere: John Cage At 100

Originally published on Wed September 5, 2012 5:05 pm

OK, let's get the elephant out of the room right away. John Cage's most famous, or infamous, work is "4'33"," in which a musician walks onstage and sits at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

The "music" in this seemingly silent composition is all of the sound that occurs in the concert hall — the coughs, the rustling, the noise coming in from outside. In a 1963 interview with public radio station KPFK, Cage described a revelation he'd had 15 years earlier, when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University: a room that's supposed to be completely silent.

"In that room, I heard two sounds, whereas I expected to hear nothing," Cage said. "So when I got out of the room, I asked the engineer what those two sounds were. One was high and one was low. And he said, 'Well, the high one was your nervous system in operation. And the low one was the circulation of your blood.' Therefore, even if I remain silent, I was, under certain circumstances, musical."

Kay Larson is the author of a new book called Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. She says Cage's ideas had a huge influence, especially on the visual arts.

"The point is to look around you and see what's present in the world, and what that music of the world sounds like, and then make music out of that," Larson says. "He changed the entire culture of the arts in America and Europe."

Reaching A Greater Musical Community

Larson says Cage spread his ideas about art and life at an abstract expressionist hangout in Greenwich Village called The Club, as well as in the class Cage taught at the New School. The young artists listening included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Yoko Ono.

"Because of his friendship with these artists, there was this tremendous outpouring in the art community, through the early '60s, of brand new forms," Larson says. "Happenings, pop art, minimalism, performance art, installation art, process art — I could go on and on. And if you look at who created those forms, they all had come in contact with John Cage at some point in the 1950s."

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, says Cage had an equally momentous impact on musicians.

"What so many people said at different points was that Cage allowed them to think differently, just by clearing away all the rules," Ross says. "For example, the musical movement known as minimalism was something that was very much a departure from Cage's practice — something that Cage himself actually didn't like. But I think it's something that couldn't have happened without Cage, without everything having been cleared away."

Cage made up his own rules in his art, as well as in his life. He was valedictorian of his Los Angeles High School class, but he quickly dropped out of college because of what he saw as a lack of original thinking. When he was 22, he married a Russian artist from Alaska, but he preferred the company of men. He lived with choreographer Merce Cunningham for the last 45 years of his life.

In the 1930s, Cage studied with the 12-tone modernist Arnold Schoenberg, but he never composed in Schoenberg's style. When Cage did begin writing music, he distinguished himself with pieces for percussion instruments alone.

"His intricacy of rhythm is really astounding," Ross says, "and the quality that separates him from a great many other composers, even some of the greatest in the classical canon."

Ross says Cage was constantly coming up with new ways to make music. He was one of the first to use a "prepared piano."

"This fabulous instrument which really turns a piano into a percussion instrument by inserting objects between the strings," Ross says. "Which creates this fabulous sound."

Inventions And Innovations

In the 1940s, Cage pioneered electronic music, creating works out of randomly assembled snippets of audiotape. But perhaps Cage's greatest invention was his approach to music and art. After two years studying Zen Buddhism, Cage came up with the idea of using chance to compose his music. He used the I Ching and literally rolled the dice to determine which elements went where, freeing the music from the composer's preconceptions. Cage said he wanted to see each act as new, as a fresh experience — even something you do every day.

"Gradually, and through a study of Oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations," Cage said, "I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind."

Cage was a self-taught expert on mushrooms. Early in his career, he made a living gathering mushrooms in the country and selling them to gourmet restaurants like the Four Seasons. In 1982, Cage said that mushrooms reminded him of the ephemeral nature of life.

"That's one of the beautiful things about hunting mushrooms," he said. "They grow up and they're fresh at just a particular moment, and our lives are actually characterized by moments."

John Cage taught that music is everywhere in the ordinary moments of life. We just have to learn to hear it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Composer John Cage was born 100 years ago today. The occasion is being marked with festivals and performances around the world, but music is only part of his legacy. As Tom Vitale reports, Cage's most lasting influence may be in his ideas: about the boundaries between music and noise and the artistic freedom that comes from breaking the rules.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: OK. Let's get the elephant out of the room right away. John Cage's most famous or infamous work is "4'33"," in which a musician walks on stage...

(APPLAUSE)

VITALE: ...and sits at the piano for four minutes and 33 seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4'33"")

VITALE: The music in this seemingly silent composition is all the sound that occurs in the concert hall - the coughs, the rustling, the noise coming in from outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN CAGE: Silence actually doesn't exist as something which that doesn't have sounds in it. In other words, there always are sounds, and there's no silent situation without them.

VITALE: In a 1963 interview with public radio station KPFK, Cage described a revelation he had 15 years earlier when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a room that's supposed to be completely silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CAGE: And in that room, I heard two sounds, whereas I expected to hear nothing. I expected, quote, "silence," unquote. So when I got out of the room, I asked the engineer in charge what those two sounds were: one was high, and one was low. And he said, well, the high one was your nervous system in operation, and the low one was the circulation of your blood. So then I realized that even if I remain silent, I was, under certain circumstances, musical.

KAY LARSON: The point is to look around you and see what's present in the world and what that music of the world sounds like and then make music out of that.

VITALE: Kay Larson is the author of a new book called "Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists." She says Cage's ideas had a huge influence, especially on the visual arts.

LARSON: He changed the entire culture of the arts in America and Europe.

VITALE: Larson says John Cage spread his ideas about art and life at an abstract expressionist hangout in Greenwich Village called The Club, as well as in the class Cage taught at the New School. The young artists listening included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Yoko Ono.

LARSON: Because of his friendship with these artists, there was this enormous outpouring in the art community of brand-new forms: happenings, pop art, minimalism, performance art, installation art, process art, I could go on and on. And if you look at who created those forms, they all had come in contact with John Cage at some point in the 1950s.

ALEX ROSS: What so many people said at different points was that Cage allowed them to think differently just by clearing away all the rules.

VITALE: Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker magazine, says Cage had an equally momentous impact on the musical community.

ROSS: For example, the musical movement known as minimalism was something that was very much a departure from Cage's practice, and something that Cage himself actually didn't like. But I think it couldn't have happened without Cage, without this moment of everything being cleared away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In today's (unintelligible) concert is the "Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major" by Schubert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN B FLAT MAJOR")

VITALE: John Cage made up his own rules in his art and his life. He was valedictorian of his Los Angeles high school class, but he quickly dropped out of college because of what he saw as a lack of original thinking. When he was 22, he married a Russian artist from Alaska, but he preferred the company of men. He lived with choreographer Merce Cunningham for the last 45 years of his life. In the 1930s, Cage studied with the 12-tone modernist Arnold Schoenberg, but he never composed in Schoenberg's style. When Cage did begin writing music, he distinguished himself with pieces for percussion instruments alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSS: His intricacy of rhythm is really astounding. And the quality separates him from a great many other composers, even some of the greatest in the classical canon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: New Yorker critic Alex Ross says Cage was constantly coming up with new ways to make music. He was one of the first to use a prepared piano.

ROSS: This fabulous instrument which really turns a piano into a percussion instrument by inserting objects between the strings and creates this fabulous sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: In the 1940s, Cage pioneered electronic music, creating works out of randomly assembled snippets of audio tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: But perhaps Cage's greatest invention was his approach to music and art. After two years studying Zen Buddhism, Cage came up with the idea of using chance to compose his music. He used the "I Ching" and literally rolled the dice to determine what elements went where, freeing the music from the composer's preconceptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CAGE: At first, I began putting the sounds together as I'd been taught, into motifs and repeating them and varying them. But gradually and through a study of oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations, I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind.

VITALE: John Cage said he wanted to see each act as new, as a fresh experience, even something you do every day. Cage was a self-taught expert on mushrooms. Early in his career, he made a living gathering mushrooms in the country and selling them to gourmet restaurants like the Four Seasons. In 1982, Cage told WHYY's FRESH AIR that mushrooms reminded him of the momentary nature of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CAGE: One of the beautiful things about hunting mushrooms is that they grow up and are fresh at just a particular moment. And our lives are actually characterized by moments.

VITALE: John Cage taught us that music is everywhere in the ordinary moments of life. We just have to learn to hear it. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You'll find more on John Cage's music and can read what contemporary musicians have said about his influence at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program