The Silent Noise of John Cage - Essay

The Silent Noise of John Cage - Essay Excerpt



When John Cage asked Aragon, how one created history, he replied, "You have to invent it." Cage then set out to create his own musical history, that of experimentalism (Cage, Autobiographical 1). This movement included composers Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and many others who, along with Cage, stretched the boundaries of music composition and broke away from the East Coast post serialists. Largely because of geographical location, rock music and Oriental thought influenced experimental music. They revolted against Occidental music, embracing the plurality and percussive nature of Eastern Music.

Cage believed that "IN THE UNITED STATES THERE ARE AS MANY WAYS OF WRITING AS THERE ARE COMPOSERS" (Cage, Silence 52). Cage did not study music in a formal institution and was unable to hear melodies in his head. For him, listening to a performance of his compositions and the actual composing involved two different processes. Arnold Schoenberg discouraged the young Cage, telling him, "You'll come to a wall and never be able to get through." To which Cage replied, "Then I'll spend my life knocking my head against the wall." (Cage, Autobiographical 2).



Zen Buddhism entered Cage's life after the failure of "The city wears a slouch hat". Dejected, he fled to Seattle and taught at the Cornish School of Design, where "he tempered his worldly ambition and sought tranquility through a more modest art of acceptance." (Pritchett, Story 3). Unlike other postmodernists, who endeavored to achieve success by assimilating into popular culture, Cage fought against "THE DUALISTIC TERMS OF SUCCESS AND FAILURE OR THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE UGLY OR GOOD AND EVIL." (Cage, Silence 47).

The Eastern idea of a goal-less society left Cage to introduce a type of music that lacked a tonal center (not unlike Schoenberg's serial music ) and lacked exact rhythmic meter. As Pritchett stated, " he's following a system -- but he has no idea where he's going (Six 40). Cage rejected the evaluation of music because it defeated its overall purpose. He saw music as "processes essentially purposeless, " where "sounds are just sounds" (French 391).

Cage and his followers refused to imitate Westen composers who "write...the same piece over and over again" (Willaims 63). He decided to base his music on rhythm. Excited with the unlimited possibilities unleashed with this new concept, quickly began radical experiments in rhythm and sound. Complex mathematical patterns gave birth to micro-macrocosmic structure, in which the "large parts of a composition had the same proportion as the phrases of a single unit." (Cage, Autobiographical 2). Once he discovered this musical form at the Cornish School, he began to employ other complex mathematical theorems to music. Reactions to his music were mixed. After a performance at the Chicago Arts Club, the Chicago Daily News stated, "People call it noise--but he calls it music." In a sense, both Cage and the audience had the right idea, for Cage utilized noise and created music out of it (Pritchett, Story 20.)



Cage discovered the beauty of silence in percussion, whether through the rustle of leaves or the footsteps at a child at play. He utilized the "power of the pause", embracing Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's belief that "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influence." (Cage, Autobiographical 1). Cage's 4'33" epitomized this quest for simplicity. The bewildered audience created the music in this piece by random coughing, shuffling of feet, or snickering as the whir of the air conditioner painted the musical context of the piece. 4'33" reached the final frontiers of silence.

This quote from Cage's book Silence states it best:

I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY AND I AM SAYING IT

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BRIEF BIBLIOGRAPHY

Born, Geogina. Rationalizing Culture.

Cage, John. An Autobiography.

Cage, John. Silence.

French, Richard F., Twentieth Century Views of Music History.

Kostelanetz, Richard. John Cage: Writer.

Otto, Allen. "Speaking to and through around and about for and against John Cage-A Musical Tribute." Percussive Notes, June 1993.

Pritchett, James. Six Views of Sonatas and Interludes.

Pritchett, James. The story of John Cage's "The city wears a slouched hat"

Williams, Michael. The Early Percussion Music of John Cage.

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