The Story Behind John Cage's 4'33"

istock
istock

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.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER