4’33 Deconstructing Music through the Life of John Cage

Music has been in our system for quite some time now. It is a wonder that it still plays a huge part in our daily lives. During travels on the road, we would usually turn on the radio and shift from station to station to listen to the kind of music we like, whether it be the catchy contemporary songs or the soothing classics while we’re stuck in traffic.

Music is something that you cannot box into a single definition. Technically, it is an artistic expression in the form of sounds that, when combined, produce rhythm, harmony and melody. More than that, it has the power to captivate the mind, heart and soul of even those who don’t have the gift to make their own music.

The foundation of any good music lies in the creator. There can be no music without the musician. This blog post would like to focus on one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century — John Cage.

If you think music is all about jamming, notes, sounds, harmonies, and melodies, then you may need to get that mindset out of your system. John Cage, also known as John Milton Cage Jr., was an American composer that redefined the beauty and meaning of music. He was especially renowned for his three-movement piece entitled “4’33”.

People usually interpret the performance as 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, but it was originally designed for John Cage and his fellow musicians to do nothing throughout the time as specified by the title. There were simply no music, no sounds, no instruments — just their presence.

Of course, everyone was baffled. Why weren’t the musicians playing? Was the music coming any time soon? Given our pre-established notions of music, we may then ask, where was the music in all that silence?

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“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence,” said John Cage during the premier of the piece back in 1952. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
(from Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage (2003), via Wikipedia).

John Cage intentionally arranged the piece with an absence of all music and instruments because his inspiration stems from his personal encounter with East and South Asian cultures. Influential musicians such as Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg played an important part in Cage’s quest for deconstructing music, but it was essentially his studies on Zen Buddhism and Chinese and Indian philosophy that urged him to provide a different perspective in music. This was what led him to the concept of Aleatoric music.

Cage’s “4’33” is an example of aleatory music in which the composer somehow lets the music happen by chance. John CageThe musicians don’t have any impact on the piece because it relishes the unpredictability of music through the process of random selection of elements. Upon studying the Chinese classical texts, chance music became his standard for the rest of his compositions.

A lot of music experts and critics claim that Cage’s “4’33” symbolizes how music can transcend the constructed social norms and realities during his time. The 20th century was an era when the attempt to arrange and structure music was popular among composers. However, John Cage was lauded for his way of breaking away from social standards through the removal and absence of the composer from his music.

Although John Cage may have faded into oblivion among 21st century music enthusiasts, his music has redefined the way we listen to music. We just haven’t realized it yet. Music is not all about the capacity of sounds to touch the hearts of an audience, but it is also about waking our souls to the life around us, which is sometimes achievable by finding the music in our every day silence.

That’s why our blog aims to redefine the meaning of music, as well. Any music lover will enjoy the opportunity to write about their favorite topics and themes in music. Writing about our favorite musicians from various timelines is just one of the many topics we have here.