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our ears are / now / in excellent condition

August 29, 2008, 12:01 am

[Editor's Note: Vance Maverick, the real original maverick, returns for another guest post. Thanks, Vance, for doing this. We very much appreciate it.]

On August 29, 1952, at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, David Tudor gave the first performance of John Cage’s composition 4’33″ — consisting, notoriously, of nothing but silence. It remains Cage’s best-known piece: many more people have been provoked by it (take our own Dave Noon) than have ever attended a performance. In one sense it’s unrepresentative of Cage’s work — he wrote many, many pieces before and after it, full of all kinds of sound — but it’s a landmark, and understanding it does shed light on his extraordinary career. Further, it’s the representative extreme of a tendency in his work which is well worth learning to listen to — and in the right frame of mind, it’s 4’33″ well spent.

John Cage was born in 1912 in Los Angeles, the son of an inventor. He was the valedictorian of Los Angeles High School, and went on to Pomona College. But he soon dropped out, and traveled the world as a young bohemian would-be writer. On his return to Los Angeles, he decided to devote himself to music, and studied composition, most notably with Arnold Schoenberg. There was admiration and resistance on both sides — Schoenberg called him “not a composer, but an inventor, of genius.”

In the later 1930s, he made a name for himself with a series of percussion pieces. Cage was not the first composer to work with percussion alone (Varese, for one, was there first), but he made good use of found instruments like automobile brake drums, and was a witty showman and spokesman.

His next, and richer, innovation was the “prepared piano”. This is a piano temporarily modified by attaching various small objects to the strings, each one adding a characteristic buzz or jangle, or muffling the note, turning the piano to a one-man percussion orchestra. It was a provocative gesture to tinker with the grand piano, master instrument of the European nineteenth century — but a gentle provocation, making the piano quieter and less resonant, and less standardized, and setting it back to rights again after the performance.

At the same time, Cage was growing more interested in composition by system, and under severe procedural constraints. (One rewarding example is the String Quartet in Four Parts, of 1950.) The obvious inspiration for this is the twelve-tone system he learned from Schoenberg. But Cage’s purpose was the opposite of his teacher’s, or of the latest refinements in serial technique (Babbitt or Boulez). Rather than seeking to control his music in all its details, to maximum expressive effect, Cage realized that he wanted to get away from direct conscious control, in order to open his ears, and his audience’s, to something beyond what an individual could intend.

His next steps in this direction, in 1951, were to use chance procedures in composition and performance. For Music of Changes, he used the I Ching to make compositional decisions. And in Imaginary Landscape IV, he specified what the performers should do, but gave them an intrinsically unpredictable instrument, the radio. (At the premiere, the concert ran so late that most stations were off the air, and the realization was mainly silence and static. Cage took this in stride, but his advocate Virgil Thomson was not amused.)

From there, it was only natural that Cage should take the step of not making any sound at all. He had been interested in silence for years. On the one hand, it’s worth listening to: we’ve all experienced highly charged silences between musical sounds, or between words, or in special physical places. And on the other, silence is never truly silent — there are always “incidental” sounds, which we generally bracket out of our experience of music. The concert environment, with its social ritual to focus the attention collectively, is an opportunity to bring the listening skills we’ve trained on Beethoven to bear on silence. And in the outdoor setting at Woodstock, there were plenty of ambient sounds to listen to. That evening, though, Cage didn’t do much to prepare the audience (the program was terse). Some were irritated, and some walked out.

Having done 4’33″, Cage had no need to repeat it. He developed his toolkit of chance techniques in a seemingly endless series of pieces and improvisational events. His influence at home and abroad, already considerable in 1952, only continued to grow. He branched out into other arts. His books, particularly Silence, are very well worth reading; he has rightly been anthologized among poets, and he was a master of anecdote. And he also did strong graphical work — his music scores were better looking than anyone’s, and in the 1980s he made a beautiful series of prints. But of course his main work remains musical: he changed the way we all hear and make music, by making it and by writing about it.

The only performance of 4’33″ I’ve attended myself was in a Cage tribute concert at Mills College in Oakland, a year or two after his death in 1992. The concert was four hours thirty-three minutes long, a kind of continuous variety show, with many Bay Area avant-gardists (including Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley) performing in groups. It began and ended with 4’33″ itself. The audience was warm, and well in tune with Cage (and one another), and the silences were rich. The first rendition felt a little long, but the second rang with all the sounds of the evening, and with the history of all the experimental music Cage inspired.

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