Four and a Half Minutes

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To many, John Cage was one of the most influential American composers of the 20th Century; many critics have described him as being a pioneer of the post-war avant-garde. His landmark work in the field of electronic music, his deviation in the use of musical instruments and his use of chance to compose music led him to become one of the most controversial and polarising composers of recent years.

Born in 1912 in Los Angeles, California to an inventor father and a journalist mother, Cage began playing the piano in the fourth grade, although it had been noted that from even an early age he had little regard for the accepted institutions of music, apparently paying little attention to composition. Such traits would become more apparent later in his life, when many of his compositions developed from his desire to create work that digressed away from traditional artistic forms to embrace a new and original way.

Disillusioned with the academic pursuit of writing Cage travelled to Europe, believing it to be of more use to him than education. While travelling, Cage managed to try his hand at various forms of art, such as architecture, painting, poetry and music; he eventually decided to dedicate his life to music as ‘the people who heard my music had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings.’ Under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg, who later described Cage as ‘an inventor – of genius’, Cage learned not only about the art of composing music but also how to live life as a composer. After two years, Cage parted ways with his mentor, more determined than ever to write music.

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In 1942 Cage moved to New York, staying with the painter Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim. Through them he was introduced several luminaries of the art world, such as Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian and Andre Breton. Duchamp in particular represents a major Minimalist influence not just for Cage, who is himself considered a precedent for the Minimalist movement, but for the artform as a whole. Duchamp’s ‘readymades’, pieces consisting of found objects slightly altered in some way, represented the most extreme form of Minimalist art at the time; they featured the least amount of physical interaction between the artist and the work itself.

The Cagean representation of this is his appropriation of chance to compose music. Through correspondence with Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician who had come to America to study Western music, Cage learned about the I Ching, or Book of Changes; more commonly used for divination purposes, this Chinese classic text was used by Cage to decide the arrangement of his compositions for nearly every piece after 1951.

Cage also began to look to everyday objects for musical merit; Oskar Fischinger, an abstract film-maker and animator, told Cage that all things have an inherent ‘spirit’ that can be released through its sound, an idea that lead Cage to experiment with everyday objects as musical instruments and, later, to adapt proper musical instruments to achieve different effects. Cage’s experimentations with music became less concerned with conventions of notation, structure or rhythm, and more to do with an appreciation of sound itself.

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To Cage, the conveyance of a particular message or emotion through music was irrelevant and redundant: ‘When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking… I love the activity of sound… I don’t need sound to talk to me.’

On 29th August 1952, in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor performed a piece entitled ‘4’33”’, written earlier that year by Cage. The piece caused uproar – not due to its content, more due to its perceived lack of it. In possibly the most overt example of Minimalist composing ever made, the score for ‘4’33”’ instructs the performer to sit at the piano for four minutes, thirty-three seconds and play nothing. The concept behind this ‘silent song’ is that the sound comes not from the performers, but more from the ambient environmental sounds that the audience hear in their immediate surroundings.

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This bridge into such avant-garde thinking proved to be a significant factor in Cage’s career, though not necessarily a positive one. Many members of the music press, even those who were fans of Cage’s earlier works, disliked his newer material and ignored it, resulting in Cage’s effective exclusion from the musical community. He suffered a similar fate at the hands of many of his peers, who disagreed with his use of chance in composition.

In later life Cage worked on mixed-media pieces – the most conspicuous of which was 1969’s ‘HPSCHD’, which ran for over five hours and included recorded music, slideshows comprised of thousands of images and over forty projected films. Cage’s youth experiences of travelling around Europe informed this new multimedia attitude towards performance, particularly a theatre visit in Seville that showed Cage the beauty of both visual and audible stimulation combined together in one piece.

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The late Sixties and Seventies also heralded a return to conventional notated work and also the recording of a piece entitled ‘Cheap Imitation’; Cage never liked making recordings of his work, meaning that this piece marked yet another landmark shift in his career direction. John Cage, through his influence of fine art and sculpture, re-defined how music could be created and understood by its audience.

Rather than being the representation of one person’s feelings, thoughts or beliefs, Cage reminded the world that sound is organic and therefore is at its best when untouched and un-manipulated. His work with electronic music and the ideas it put forth indirectly informed the dance music scene of the Nineties through its use of repetitive instrumental structure; in many ways, Cage’s work has said more than most composers ever will, even if some of it was silence.

James

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One Response to “Four and a Half Minutes”

  1. singinon Says:

    A fascinating man with a provocative “slant” on music. I have immense respect for his genius and courage in charting his own course in music….but I do struggle a bit with the idea that sound is “at it’s best when untouched and un-manipulated.” Language and sound are one and the same… communication is inevitable. So why not manipulate it to intentionally communicate? I’ve enjoyed reading this.

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