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.”
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