An Animated Introduction to the Avant-Garde Music of John Cage

We all know music when we hear it — or at least we think we do — but how, exact­ly, do we define it? “Imag­ine you’re in a jazz club, lis­ten­ing to the rhyth­mic honk­ing of horns,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above. “Most peo­ple would agree that this is music. But if you were on the high­way, hear­ing the same thing, many would call it noise.” Yet the clos­er we get to the bound­ary between music and noise, the less clear it gets. The com­pos­er John Cage, to whose work this video pro­vides an intro­duc­tion, spent his long career in those very bor­der­lands: he “glee­ful­ly dared lis­ten­ers to ques­tion the bound­aries between music and noise, as well as sound and silence.”

The best-known exam­ple of this larg­er endeav­or is “4’33”,” Cage’s 1952 “solo piano piece con­sist­ing of noth­ing but musi­cal rests for four min­utes and thir­ty-three sec­onds.” Though known as a “silent” com­po­si­tion, it actu­al­ly makes its lis­ten­ers focus on all the inci­den­tal sounds around them: “Could the open­ing and clos­ing of a piano lid be music? What about the click of a stop­watch? The rustling, and per­haps even the com­plain­ing, of a crowd?”

A few years lat­er, he implic­it­ly asked sim­i­lar ques­tions about what does and does not count as music to tele­vi­sion view­ers across Amer­i­ca by per­form­ing “Water Walk” —  whose instru­ments includ­ed “a bath­tub, ice cubes, a toy fish, a pres­sure cook­er, a rub­ber duck, and sev­er­al radios” — on CBS’ I’ve Got a Secret.

Many who watched that broad­cast in 1960 would have asked the same ques­tion: “Is this even music?” This may have well have been the out­come for which Cage him­self hoped. “Like the white can­vas­es of his paint­ing peers” in that same era, his work “asked the audi­ence to ques­tion their expec­ta­tions about what music was.” As he explored more and more deeply into the ter­ri­to­ry of uncon­ven­tion­al meth­ods of instru­men­ta­tion, nota­tion, and per­for­mance, he drift­ed far­ther and far­ther from the com­poser’s tra­di­tion­al task: “to orga­nize sound in time for a spe­cif­ic inten­tion­al pur­pose.” Sev­en decades after “4’33”,” some still insist that John Cage’s work isn’t music — but then, some say the same about Ken­ny G.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stream a Free 65-Hour Playlist of John Cage Music and Dis­cov­er the Full Scope of His Avant-Garde Com­po­si­tions

Watch John Cage Play His “Silent” 4’33” in Har­vard Square, Pre­sent­ed by Nam June Paik (1973)

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

John Cage Per­forms “Water Walk” on US Game Show I’ve Got a Secret (1960)

An Impres­sive Audio Archive of John Cage Lec­tures & Inter­views: Hear Record­ings from 1963–1991

How to Get Start­ed: John Cage’s Approach to Start­ing the Dif­fi­cult Cre­ative Process

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Art Collier says:

    Cage’s “4:33” is nihilis­tic clap­trap, on the lev­el with paint thrown up on can­vas­es called “art.” Reflects a dis­or­dered, noth­ing­ness view of the world, and expos­es those who “get it” as frauds as well.

  • gwr says:

    Actu­al­ly Art, I’d love it if “4:33” was on every playlist in every store, restau­rant, bar, car stereo, portable speak­er etc etc. Then I could final­ly catch a break from all the crap that my ears are assault­ed by all day, every day.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.