The one thing John Cage is remembered for more than anything else is sitting silently at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and calling that a composition. He titled it 4’33”, of course, and I have seen it reproduced as sheet music (“…rest…rest…rest…”), heard it “covered” by various artists who did everything from generate pure binary zero files on a CD to simply put a mike in an empty room, and so on. I even had the pleasure of watching Professor Bullough of my 20th Century Music class perform it live. Sort of.
Cage was the most placidly iconoclastic of modern composers. He didn’t deliberately put wrecking balls through buildings, so to speak; the buildings were just in his way. He did what he had to, and if that meant ditching music as we knew it in pretty much every form, then fine. He embraced randomness as a methodology and applied it rigorously in music-making, if only to show that randomness was not something in us, but a property of the world that we could disregard if we just listened closely enough. One of his favorite Zen aphorisms contains the distillation of his approach to music: “If in Zen something is boring, do it for two minutes. If it is still boring, do it for four minutes. If it is still boring, do it for eight minutes, sixteen, thirty-two. Eventually you’ll find it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” He bored more than his fair share of people. Read more
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