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.

Stan Lee Column Calling Out the Dangers of Racism Resurfaces 50 Years Later

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Fans looking to celebrate the work of Stan Lee following his death on Monday, November 12 have a lot to choose from. In addition to his enormous impact in the worlds of comic books, movies, and television, Lee was also a vocal supporter of civil rights. Now, 50 years after it was originally published, a column by Lee denouncing the dangers of racism has resurfaced on the web.

The column, part of his recurring back-of-the-comic segment "Stan's Soap Box," first appeared in 1968, according to Mashable. In it, Lee wrote that "Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today," and "The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are."

The full piece was recently shared in a tweet by filmmaker and writer Siddhant Adlakha. You can read it below.

The column was published at the tail-end of the Civil Rights Movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Lee's words have continued to hold their relevance throughout the decades, with Lee himself sharing the article in a since-deleted tweet following the racially-charged violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.

Numerous Stan Lee stories and creations have reached icon status over his 95-year life, but there are many interesting tidbits from his life that are less well-known. Here are some facts about the late comic book legend.

[h/t Mashable]

The Anti-Spitting Campaigns Designed to Stop the Spread of Tuberculosis

A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910
A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910

In the 19th century, cities were grimy places, where thousands of people lived in overcrowded tenement buildings and walked streets polluted with trash, sewage, and the carcasses of dead animals. Unsurprisingly, these cities were also hotbeds of infectious disease.

One of the leading causes of death was tuberculosis, which spreads from person to person in the tiny droplets that spray through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. "In the 19th century, tuberculosis [was] the greatest single cause of death among New Yorkers," explains Anne Garner, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the co-curator of the Museum of the City of New York’s new exhibition, "Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis."

In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed one in every seven people in Europe and the U.S., and it was particularly deadly for city dwellers. Between 1810 and 1815, the disease—then commonly known as consumption, or the white plague—was to blame for more than a quarter of the recorded deaths in New York City. While New York wasn't alone among urban centers in having startlingly high rates of tuberculosis, its quest to eradicate the disease was pioneering: It became the first U.S. city to ban spitting.

"BEWARE THE CARELESS SPITTER"

Anti-tuberculosis pamphlets
Tuberculosis warnings from the Committee on Prevention of Tuberculosis that appeared on New York City streetcar transfers in 1908, reprinted by the Michigan Board of Health in 1909

In 1882, Robert Koch became the first to discover the cause of tuberculosis: a bacterium later named Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which he isolated from samples taken from infected animals. (Koch won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work.) He determined that the disease was spread through bacteria-infected sputum, the mix of phlegm and spit coughed up during a respiratory infection. That meant that rampant public spitting—often referred to as expectorating—was spreading the disease.

In 1896, in response to the growing understanding of the threat to public health, New York City became the first American metropolis to ban spitting on sidewalks, the floors in public buildings, and on public transit, giving officials the ability to slap wayward spitters with a fine or a jail sentence. Over the next 15 years, almost 150 other U.S. cities followed suit and banned public spitting [PDF].

The New York City health department and private groups like the National Tuberculosis Association, the Women’s Health Protective Association, and the Brooklyn Anti-Tuberculosis Committee generated anti-spitting slogans such as "Spitting Is Dangerous, Indecent, and Against the Law," "Beware the Careless Spitter," and "No Spit, No Consumption." They made posters decrying spitting (among other unhealthy habits) and reminding people of the ban. Members of the public were encouraged to confront defiant spitters, or, at the very least, give them the stink eye. While there were many other factors to blame for the spread of tuberculosis—like dangerously overcrowded, poorly ventilated tenement housing and widespread malnutrition—public spitters became the literal poster children of infection.

New York City officials followed through on the threat of punitive action for errant spitters. More than 2500 people were arrested under the statute between 1896 and 1910, though most only received a small fine—on average, less than $1 (in 1896, that was the equivalent of about $30 today). Few other cities were as committed to enforcing their sputum-related laws as New York was. In 1910, the National Tuberculosis Association reported that less than half of cities with anti-spitting regulations on the books had actually made any arrests.

Despite the law, the problem remained intractable in New York. Spitting in streetcars posed a particularly widespread, and disgusting, issue: Men would spit straight onto the floor of the enclosed car, where pools of phlegm would gather. Women wearing long dresses were at risk of picking up sputum on their hemlines wherever they went. And the law didn’t seem to stop most spitters. As one disgusted streetcar rider wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1903, “That the law is ignored is evident to every passenger upon these public conveyances: that it is maliciously violated would not in some cases be too strong an assertion.”

The situation wasn’t much better two decades later, either. “Expectorating on the sidewalks and in public places is probably the greatest menace to health with which we have to contend,” New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan said in a 1920 appeal for citizens to help clean up the city streets.

THE BLUE HENRY

A blue sputum flask
New York Academy of Medicine Library

Spitting laws weren't the only way that health authorities tried to rein in the spread of TB at the turn of the century. Anti-tuberculosis campaigns of the time also featured their own accessory: the sputum bottle.

Faced with the fact that sick people would cough up sputum no matter what a poster in a streetcar told them, in the late 19th century, doctors and health authorities all over the world began instructing people with tuberculosis to spit into pocket-sized containers, then carry it around with them. “A person with tuberculosis must never spit on the floor or sidewalk or in street cars, but always into a cuspidor or into a paper cup, which he should have with him at all time, and which can be burned,” advised the New York City Department of Health’s 1908 publication Do Not Spit: Tuberculosis (Consumption) Catechism and Primer for School Children. These containers were known as cuspidors, spittoons, or simply sputum cups or sputum bottles.

Among the most well-known of these sputum-carrying receptacles was the “Blue Henry,” a pocket flask made of cobalt-blue glass that was originally manufactured by the German sanatorium pioneer Peter Dettweiler, who himself had suffered from tuberculosis.

“The sputum bottle was like a portable flask that could be used to collect this sticky phlegm that was produced by the irritated lungs of a person suffering from tuberculosis,” Garner says. While they came in various shapes, sizes, and materials, the fancier versions would have a spring-loaded lid and could be opened from both sides, so that you could spit into a funnel-like opening on one side and then unscrew the bottle to clean out the sputum receptacle later.

Dettweiler's device and the similar devices that followed became popular all over the world as doctors and governments sought to contain the spread of tuberculosis. These receptacles became a fixture in hospitals and at sanatoriums where tuberculosis patients went to recuperate, and were a common hand-out from anti-tuberculosis charities that worked with TB-afflicted patients.

In the early 1900s, the New York Charity Organization Society was one of them. Its Committee for the Prevention of Tuberculosis raised money to buy its New York City-based clients better food, new beds, and of course, sputum cups. (Likely the paper kind, rather than the glass Dettweiler flasks.) The generosity wasn't unconditional, though. The society would potentially pull its aid if charity workers showed up for a surprise home inspection to find unsanitary conditions, like overflowing sputum cups that were not being properly disinfected [PDF].

Eventually, the city itself began handing out sputum cups. In an effort to reduce the contagion, by 1916 a large number of cities—such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston—dedicated part of their municipal budgets to paying for tuberculosis supplies like paper sputum cups that would be handed out to the public for free.

A ad for anti-TB supplies from the Journal of Outdoor Life
An advertisement that ran in the Journal of Outdoor Life—which billed itself as “the anti-tuberculosis magazine"—in 1915

Though paper sputum cups could be burned, glass or metal flasks had to be cleaned regularly. Doctors recommended that the sputum bottles contain a strong disinfectant that could kill off the tuberculosis bacilli, and that the receptacles be cleaned and disinfected every morning and evening by rinsing them with a lye solution and boiling them in water. As for the sputum itself, burning was the preferred method of sanitizing anything contaminated with TB at the time, and sputum was no exception—although rural consumptives were encouraged to bury it in the garden if burning wasn’t practical.

In an era where infectious disease was often associated with poor, immigrant communities, sputum bottles made it possible to go out in public without drawing the same attention to your condition that hacking up phlegm into the street would. “You could discreetly carry them around and then take them out and people wouldn’t necessarily know that you were suffering from the disease,” Garner explains. Or at least, somewhat discretely, since they soon became widely associated with consumptives. A Dr. Greeley, for one, argued that ordinary sputum bottles were “so conspicuous as to be objectionable," and suggested people spit into toilet paper and put that in a pouch instead. That idea didn't quite take off.

And while hiding your infectious status is not good for public health, the sputum flasks did lower the risk that you were infecting the people around you as you coughed and sneezed. “As long as you were doing it into the bottle, you probably were not infecting other people,” Garner says.

Not many of these sputum bottles have survived, in part because it was standard practice to burn everything in a tuberculosis patient’s room after they died to prevent germs from spreading. Those that remain are now collector's items, held in the archives of institutes like Australia's Museums Victoria; the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Canada; and the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

TUBERCULOSIS TODAY

Unfortunately, neither anti-spitting propaganda nor sputum flasks managed to stop the spread of tuberculosis. Real relief from the disease didn’t come until 1943, when biochemist Selman Waksman discovered that streptomycin, isolated from a microbe found in soil, could be an effective antibiotic for tuberculosis. (He won the Nobel Prize for it, 47 years after Koch won his.)

And while carrying a cute flask to spit your disease-ridden phlegm into sounds quaint now, tuberculosis isn’t a relic of the past. Even with medical advances, it has never been eradicated. It remains one of the most devastating infectious agents in the world, and kills more than a million people worldwide every year—the exact number is debated, but could be as high as 1.8 million. And, like many infectious diseases, it is evolving to become antibiotic resistant.

Sputum flasks could come back into fashion yet.

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