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The Story Behind John Cage's 4'33"

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In a world plagued by Muzak, John Cage needed to find a quiet way to make a powerful statement.

On August 29, 1952, at a rustic outdoor chamber music hall tucked on a wooded dirt road in Woodstock, New York, the piano virtuoso David Tudor prepared to perform the most jarring piece of music ever written. Or not written, depending how you look at it.

Tudor sat at the piano, propped up six pages of blank sheet music, and closed the keyboard lid. He then clicked a stopwatch and rested his hands on his lap. The audience waited for something to happen as a breeze stirred the nearby trees. After 30 seconds of stillness, Tudor opened the lid, paused, closed it again, and went back to doing nothing. He turned one of the blank pages. Raindrops began to patter. After two minutes and 23 seconds, Tudor again opened and closed the lid. At this point, exasperated people in the crowd walked out. Their footsteps echoed down the aisles. After another minute and 40 seconds, Tudor opened the piano lid one last time, stood up, and bowed. What was left of the audience politely applauded.

It was nearly two decades before the infamous summer of ’69, but what had transpired was arguably the wildest, most controversial musical event ever to rock Woodstock. The piece was called 4'33"—for the three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds—and it was composed by John Cage. It seemed like a joke. In fact, it would redefine music.

TALL AND SOFT-SPOKEN, John Cage had once been described as “pleasantly reminiscent of Frankenstein.” The resemblance wasn’t just physical. His compositions were of a similar mold: experimental, a bit ugly, and misunderstood. Cage was an irreverent experimenter. In his 60-year career, he composed nearly 300 pieces for everything imaginable, from conventional piano and orchestra to bathtubs and amplified cacti.

Born in Los Angeles to a journalist and an inventor, Cage learned early how powerful new ideas could be. After dropping out of college, he jetted to Europe, where he fell in love with abstract art. At 19, he returned home and started giving lectures on modern art to housewives in his living room. One week, when Cage wanted to teach the ladies about the music of Arnold Schoenberg—the father of a dissonant music called serialism—he audaciously rang one of the country’s best pianists, Richard Buhlig, and asked him to play for them. Buhlig declined, but he did agree to give Cage composing lessons. It was the start of a storied career.

Cage cut his teeth making music for UCLA’s synchronized swimming squad and established himself writing percussion music for dance companies. In 1940, when he was tasked with writing primitive African music for a dance concert in Seattle, Cage tinkered with the piano, wedging screws, coins, bolts, and rubber erasers between the piano strings, turning the keyboard into a one-person percussion orchestra. The sounds were otherworldly, and the innovation, called the prepared piano, catapulted Cage to the forefront of the avant-garde.

Discovering uncharted sounds became Cage’s trademark. Where other composers heard noise, he heard potential. Pots. Drum brakes. Rubber duckies. It wasn’t provocation; it was necessity. The world was brimming with sounds musicians had never used before—it was as if all the world’s painters had agreed to restrict themselves to only a few colors. Cage heard every squeak and honk as a possible ingredient for music.

In 1942, the renowned curator Peggy Guggenheim invited Cage to New York City to put on a concert at her new gallery. Cage agreed but naively arranged a second concert at the Museum of Modern Art behind her back. When Guggenheim found out, she canceled her event. Cage took the news with tears: A career-making opportunity had slipped away. But at that moment, a stranger puffing a cigar walked up and asked whether he was all right. The stranger was Marcel Duchamp.

The encounter was life-altering. Duchamp was America’s most unapologetically cerebral artist. The undisputed king of Dada, he derided traditional paintings as superficial eye candy and opted to make art that pleased—and befuddled—the mind. His 1917 sculpture “Fountain,” an overturned porcelain urinal, was scandalous, but it made a point: Art is subjective. The two became friends, and Duchamp’s philosophy would plant the first seeds of 4'33".

A few years later, Cage made another life-changing friend: Gita Sarabhai, an Indian heiress who was worried about Western music’s effect on her homeland. She had come to New York to study it, and Cage gave her informal lessons in music theory. Sarabhai repaid him by teaching him Indian music and philosophy. The lessons would turn Cage into a lifelong follower of Zen Buddhism.

Cage had found Dada and Zen at the right time—he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In 1945, he divorced his wife of 10 years. Their marriage had been unraveling for a while, causing Cage to pen such works as Root of an Unfocus, The Perilous Night, and Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. He was clearly distressed. But the more he composed, the more he realized that music failed to communicate his feelings. It made him feel worse.

Cage, like many artists, had taken it as a given that the point of music was to share emotions. But in one of his lessons with Sarabhai, she mentioned that, in India, music had a different purpose. “To sober and quiet the mind,” she said, “thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage was taken aback. She didn’t mention feelings at all. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed she had a point. Sounds don’t have emotions. They’re meaningless. He wondered whether Western music had it all wrong.

Cage was onto something. The idea that music should express feelings is relatively new. Before the Enlightenment, European music was functional—it didn’t gush from a brooding composer’s soul. Instead, it was a conduit for dance, song, or praise. Even in Mozart’s day, it was heavily improvised—the composer’s control was limited. But in the early 19th century, the Romantic movement—a celebration of ego and emotion—erupted, and suddenly, the artist’s feelings meant everything. Composers asserted more power over how their music was played, and improvisation practically vanished. By Cage’s time, classical composers—serialists especially—were micromanaging every detail.

Cage was convinced this rift was a mistake. Music wasn’t about the composer: It was about the sounds. So he removed himself from his work. Just as Jackson Pollock embraced the uncertainty of splattered paint, Cage started to flip coins and let heads or tails dictate which notes or rhythms came next. His “chance music” gave performers more liberty to play whatever they liked.

The technique was a perfect stew of Zen and Dada. Both, after all, teach that everything is one and the same, that labels are arbitrary. Art, non-art. Music, noise. Sound, silence. There’s no difference. It’s just perception. The croak of a frog can be just as musical as the purr of a cello if you choose to hear it that way. This wasn’t a new concept. Sitting around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau outlined the same thought, writing: “The commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears as the rarest music does. It depends on your appetite for sound.” By the late 1940s, Cage was hell-bent on changing our appetite for sound. He just needed a spark.

Enter Muzak.

JOHN CAGE (1990) THE FESTIVAL DES HORENS, ERLANGEN PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICH MALTER COURTESY OF THE JOHN CAGE TRUST

BY 1949, A CULTURAL PLAGUE was being piped into offices, train stations, and bus terminals: canned, generic background music. The brainchild of an Army general, the idea was pure packaged capitalism. The Muzak Corporation sold hundreds of businesses and cities on the promise that a wash of faint background music would increase productivity, quell boredom, and prevent people from skipping work.

Cage hated it. It was just more proof that silence was going extinct. America’s soundscape had changed drastically after World War II. Traffic drowned out birdsong. Construction clanged through the night. Before the phonograph, if you wanted music, you often had to make it yourself. Now it was like wallpaper—just another part of your surroundings. For musicians, that alone made Muzak public enemy No. 1. But nonmusicians complained that it was annoying. Commuters in Washington, D.C., despised Muzak so much that they eventually fought it at the Supreme Court, arguing that it infringed on their right to be left alone. They lost.

The revolt was the trigger Cage needed to create a silent piece. At the time, Cage wrote, “I want to ... compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be three or four minutes long—these being the standard lengths of canned music.” Tongue-in-cheek as it sounded, Cage wasn’t kidding. He may have schemed 4'33" to “provide listeners with a blessed four-and-a-half-minute respite from forced listening,” writes Kyle Gann in No Such Thing as Silence. Cage was the captive audience’s savior.

By 1950, Cage was serious about writing a silent piece of music. It wouldn’t just be a Zen experiment. It would also be a political statement: an attempt to restore, for a brief moment, the silence industrial America had lost, a plea asking people to listen closely again. Still, the idea seemed radical. Cage had a reputation to uphold, and he didn’t want people to think it was a shtick. “I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he confessed. So he approached the project as he would any new work—by experimenting. In 1951, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a foam-padded room designed to absorb every ripple of sound, to hear what silence was really like. But there, in one of the quietest rooms in the world, Cage sat and listened—and heard something: the whooshing of his own blood. It was an epiphany. For as long as he lived, there would be no such thing as true silence.

That same year, Cage walked through an art gallery and saw a series of flat white canvases by Robert Rauschenberg. The paintings were blasphemy, a big middle finger to the art establishment. There was no narrative, no gesture, no representation—just white streaked with thin black vertical lines. Cage, however, saw Zen: The paintings highlighted shadows, light, and dust falling onto the canvases. Depending on when and where you stood, they always looked different. The painter had no control—the surroundings did. “Oh yes, I must,” Cage thought. “Otherwise ... music is lagging.”

LESS THAN A YEAR LATER, 4'33" made its debut in Woodstock. It was greeted as heresy. During a post-concert Q&A session, a peeved audience member yelled, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town!” Two years later, popular reaction hadn’t changed. When the piece made its New York City debut, The New York Times called it “hollow, sham, pretentious Greenwich Village exhibitionism.” Even Cage’s mother thought it went too far. But more sympathetic listeners saw it as a perplexing thought experiment, an IV drip of instant Zen. Musicians from John Lennon to Frank Zappa to John Adams would go on to hail it as genius.

The value people see in 4'33" is best explained by bread crumbs. One day, Cage was at a restaurant with the abstract painter Willem de Kooning, arguing about art. At one point, De Kooning made a rectangle with his fingers and dropped them over some crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning piped. Cage shook his head. The frame, he argued, meant everything.

Dump a virtuoso violinist on the street corner, and nearly everyone will walk past without a second look. Put the same violinist in a concert hall and 1,500 people will hang onto every note. The concert hall is a frame—a palace for listening—and when you frame silence there, incidental sounds may froth to the foreground. The hum of the lighting. The ticking of your wristwatch. The mad ringing in your ear. If you stop and contemplate the world buzzing around you, you may realize how rich and interesting it can be.

Cage’s point has largely fallen on deaf ears. A University of Virginia study published in July 2014 put hundreds of people in an empty, quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Most participants found it insufferable—25 percent of women and 67 percent of men opted to endure painful electric shocks rather than pass the time without any stimulation.

4'33" is a gentle reminder to embrace your surroundings, to be present. If art seems severed from life—isolated in concert halls and art galleries— that’s a matter of your perception. But, as Gann says, if you pay the same attention to the hum of traffic or the rustling of wind as you would your favorite album, you just might realize that the line dividing art and life, music and noise, doesn’t actually exist. If you treat every sound as you would music, you just might hear something unexpected, something beautiful. At its core, 4'33" isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything.

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.

1. HIS EARLY LIFE MIGHT BE AN INTENTIONAL MYSTERY.

Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.

2. HE TOOK PHOTOGRAPHY CLASSES FROM THE INVENTOR OF MORSE CODE.

When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.

3. HE SET UP SHOP IN NEW YORK AND BECAME THE GO-TO PHOTOGRAPHER.

Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.

4. HE ACHIEVED WORLDWIDE FAME.

In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.

5. HE PHOTOGRAPHED EVERY PRESIDENT FROM JOHN QUINCY ADAMS TO WILLIAM MCKINLEY ... WITH ONE EXCEPTION.

The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.

6. ONE OF HIS PORTRAITS INTRODUCED HONEST ABE TO THE COUNTRY.

When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.

7. HIS STUDIO’S WORK ENDED UP ON TWO VERSIONS OF THE $5 BILL.

A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”

8. OTHER PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF HIS BEST-KNOWN WORK.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”

9. HE HAD BAD EYESIGHT.

Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.

10. HE HELPED REVOLUTIONIZE COMBAT PHOTOGRAPHY.

War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

11. HE USED A FREEBIE TO CONVINCE GENERALS TO LET HIM PHOTOGRAPH THE WAR.

Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)

12. HE WAS BLAMED FOR UNION BATTLE LOSSES.

Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”

13. HE DIDN’T JUST PHOTOGRAPH THE UNION SIDE.

Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”

14. HIS CIVIL WAR PHOTOS ALSO MADE HIM POOR.

Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.

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