Most of John Cage’s music comes preloaded with a preposterous affront and philosophical challenge of some kind: a concert of transistor radios tuned to different frequencies; a sonata performed by a skilled cellist while the composer himself retunes the cello his teeth; barrels rolled down the aisle at concert halls; and of course the “piano for no hands” anti-classic 4’33”, in which a tuxedoed pianist sits at a piano with gloves on for that precise interval, doing nothing. Cage’s piece, as it were, is performed by the audience, the venue’s HVAC, the crickets, and whatever else should happen to happen within that fixed frame. “Just listen,” he said.
Of all the outrages that century’s art throws at us, why does it seem the most offensive one is Cage’s assertion that literally anyone could do it.
“Of course they can,” he said, “but they don’t.”
Cage also wrote stunning minimalist music for percussion and for toy piano and prepared piano (he pioneered the latter). It’s not all conceptual touche, gadfly theatricality, and Buddhist-inflected philosophy passing for music.
He was the most celebrated but by no means the only composer to mess with really bonkers alternative notation systems, which in his case often came in the form of oblique written instructions distributed to the ensemble. These scores are freestanding visual and textual art in their own right, and curated as such these days.
Cage studied with Nadia Boulanger, teacher of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Astor Piazzolla, and many more. Nadia told Cage he had no talent for harmony (he agreed), and that he’d never make it. Cage said, “I guess I showed her.”
Among certain musicians and music lovers, 4’33” is a bad joke, the ultimate fleecing of the pompous class by the avant-garde. Hey, they might ask, have you heard it on guitar?
Cage the instigator, the trickster, must have loved the actual sound, of people arguing over what is and what is not music. It is hard not to view the intellectual hubbub that attends his work — the debates, the defenses, the visceral disgust, and the dense rationales — as a movement of the work itself, part of the tune, like rain on the roof.