Today’s posting is by guest blogger Sophia Vastek. She is a pianist, based in New York City, who just happens to be my daughter. I think you will enjoy her insights into a composer whom you have likely not given much serious thought to before.
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“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
This quote is by American composer John Cage, from a book of his writings (linked below) that sits permanently on my nightstand. I started learning about John Cage several years ago, but I became increasingly drawn to him soon after my father had died. I realized I was asking, and struggling with, many of the same kinds of questions that Cage did back in the middle of the last century. Why do I make music? What purpose does it serve ultimately? At a time when my own musicality felt like an empty shell, John Cage was an important part of the inspiration that kept me going.
Whether you have some knowledge of John Cage or not, you’ve most likely come across references to him. In particular, his “silent” piece, 4’33”– in which a pianist sits silently at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – has echoes in all reaches of our popular culture. If you didn’t notice before, you will now! It’s a trope that gets parodied and used again and again. It’s also a profound work of art, and profoundly misunderstood, much like the man who created it.
“Everything we do is Music.”
Imagine this scene: An audience has gathered just south of Woodstock, New York on August 29, 1954 at Maverick Concert Hall, a barn-like, open air venue. David Tudor, a soon-to-be well-known pianist of his day, is about to perform an exciting program of music by current, leading composers. John Cage’s 4’33” is on the program (listed incorrectly as a work of 4 movements). When it comes time, Tudor sits down at the piano, closes the piano lid, and takes out a stopwatch. After 30 seconds he stops the stopwatch and opens the lid, then closes the lid and restarts it. 2 minutes and 23 seconds later he stops it again. Then restarts. And after the final minute and 40 seconds, the original three movements of 4’33’’ were given their first performance. During this “silent” stretch of time, the leaves were rustling, audience members grew restless, some started whispering and talking to each other, some walked out.
It started to rain lightly.
This is one of those moments in cultural history… the reverberations are still being felt. John Cage lost friends and colleagues following that concert. In fact, more than 60 years later, one can still find conversations, and arguments, being had about what this piece means and what in the world John Cage was trying to say.
Like all brilliant pieces of art, there are infinite ways to think about and experience 4’33’’. Truly. But contrary to what may have initially popped into your head, it was not a publicity stunt. The more one learns about John Cage the more impossible that idea seems. He had come up with the idea for a silent piece years before the actual premiere, but it had taken him that time to muster the courage to present it for fear of not being taken seriously as a composer.
On a side note, it’s important to know that John Cage didn’t pull the length of 4’33’’ from thin air. He arrived at the 3 movements – totalling 4 minutes and 33 seconds – by piecing together a series of smaller lengths of time. Those smaller increments were arrived at by chance operations – a method he developed through the I Ching (an ancient Chinese text, also known as the Book of Changes).
An important theme throughout John Cage’s life was that silence doesn’t exist. This idea stemmed from a profound experience he had in an anechoic chamber (a room in which all sound is completely absorbed, leaving it “silent”), in which he was initially confounded that he was hearing sounds! – only to realize it was his heart beating and blood pumping. That day of the concert in 1954, the outdoor scene at Maverick Concert Hall became the music. The rustling of people’s bodies in their seats became the music. The rain became the music. The murmuring became the music.
When we stop to think about it, what actually is music? When you start defining it, you quickly realize that the parameters you’re using are, in a sense, expendable. Of course, we could argue for days about this. But in my mind, what truly defines music, and indeed all art, is communion – a shared moment. A moment that sheds light on some small piece of humanity, which, ultimately, is people gathering in shared beauty. And before you argue that 4’33’’ isn’t beautiful, or that a piano with a bunch of screws stuck in between its strings isn’t beautiful (Cage was a pioneer of the prepared piano), consider the first quote at the top of this post. When you believe in beauty, you see it, even in unexpected places.
As a shared singular moment, the beauty of music isn’t found just in those fleeting sounds, but in each and every experience that leads up to the performance of those sounds, in both the creator and the listener. As a young man, John Cage had deeply questioned his art, sexuality, and whole being. He was married to a woman for ten years, and by all accounts it was a fairly happy and friendly relationship. But ultimately it wasn’t who he was, and when he met dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, that became abundantly clear. After divorcing his wife, Cage and Cunningham spent the rest of their lives together in a wonderfully happy, romantic and creative partnership. 4’33’’ is a shared moment of inward realizations, of our need to express the inexpressible. And it is the culmination of Cage’s entire life until that moment. Each and every performance of 4’33’’ is an invitation to quiet our minds and truly listen, both inwardly to ourselves and outwardly to the world. And what could be more beautiful than that?
In my mind, John Cage essentially gave us the truest definition of art through a piece that’s a blank canvas. Isn’t that remarkable?
Through Cage’s deeply-felt spirituality and exploration of zen Buddhism he realized that when we truly listen, we arrive at something profound. I urge you to take a moment today and listen quietly – maybe even for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – and see what you discover. There is an infinite amount of beauty around you, as well as within you, yet to be discovered.
“Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.”
I just finished an incredible 3 days recording my first solo album with Grammy-winning engineer and producer Adam Abeshouse. On the album are 3 gorgeous John Cage pieces, along with raga-based works by Michael Harrison with tabla and tambura, and a fabulous work by Donnacha Dennehy! If you’d like to stay in touch and find out when it’s being released, fill out the form on my contact page. I send out email updates very infrequently, so it will certainly not be a strain on your inbox!
One of the pieces that will be included on my recording:
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I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a slow journey, but there is so much wisdom and heart within its pages. This is the one I keep on my nightstand and which I find myself returning to again and again.
This book is also an amazing and beautiful read, and a perspective on John Cage that hadn’t been fully explored in book form prior. Highly recommended! http://www.amazon.com/Where-Heart-Beats-Buddhism-Artists/dp/0143123475/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460754312&sr=1-1&keywords=where+the+heart+beats
5 thoughts on “Communion”
Thanks for this piece on John Cage – an artist who is known to me having heard some of his compositions. However, your commentary enlarges both my knowledge and appreciation of his work. I had forgotten about his life with Merce Cunningham whose dance group I enjoyed at several performances while living in NY. Richard Parkins
Wonderful! Yes, Cage and Cunningham collaborated for the rest of their lives together. Much of Cage’s music was written to accompany dance, or was inspired by the rhythms of Cunningham’s choreography. The youtube link (Dream) is one such piece.
Sonya — Sophia writes beautifully. She led me along in her commentary and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thank you Christian! Glad you enjoyed it.
Sonya and Sophia– Thanks for circulating this. I’ve admired and listened for Cage’s music for years–since encountering that movie score (“Thin Blue Line”???) long ago. But had not encountered this silent piece….. Apropos, I Ching has a curious (modern) history. It was published by a small highbrow shop, Bollingen Press, which was named for Carl Jung’s summer retreat. The founder and his wife had been in therapy with Jung just before WWII, and were smitten with his cultural philosophy. Being beyond wealthy, they decided to publish his writings; then the war intervened, the wife died, and the widowed husband (a friend of mine years ago) pursued the publishing venture in her memory. He picked good people to run it, and the books they published were typically arcane, esoteric and over-the-moon erudite, save for two spectacular sellers: I Ching and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. All best, Phil Kopper
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