When John Cage started out on his career as a composer he was all for noise—for creating “more new sounds.”
In 1937, Cage developed his ideas about noise in an essay The Future of Music: Credo in which he said:
Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
Noise was the spur. Cage wanted a “revolution, a healthy lawlessness.” He thought this possible by “hitting anything”—tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes, whatever came to hand—something he later demonstrated on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960.
Not only hitting, but rubbing, smashing, making sound in every possible way.
All this changed when Cage met musician Gita Sarabhai in the 1940s who told him:
The purpose of music is to quiet and sober the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences.
It was a major epiphany for Cage. It changed his ideas about “noise” and led him to pose the question why do humans compose music? He said he was “embarrassed” by his search for new sounds and by 1948 had conceived of an idea of creating a piece of music called Silent Prayer consisting solely of “uninterrupted silence” performed for about three or four-and-half minutes (the length of most “canned muzak”) the ending of which “will approach imperceptibility.”
Cage realized silence was as important as sound in composition—but silence shared only one characteristic with sound—time. Silence can not be described in terms of pitch or harmony but only in duration of time. This led—by one composition and another—to his composing 4’ 33” in 1952.
This wasn’t the first time Cage had used silence in his music—his Duet for Two Flutes from 1934 opened with silence. Similarly in his Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) and Waiting (1952) silence was integral to their musical structure. The idea of “silence” had been percolating in Cage’s mind for some time.
4’ 33” was first performed by pianist David Tudor at a recital of contemporary music at Woodstock, New York on August 29th, 1952. It was performed in three parts of 33’, 2’ 40” and 1’ 20”—each section timed by use of a stopwatch. Tudor indicated the beginning and end of each part by closing and opening the keyboard lid.
Hear 4’ 33” performed on a refrigerator after the jump…