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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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