How It Happened (said John Cage): A Moment of Silence
Are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things?
A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.
What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)
I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.
I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.
A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”
Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.
I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.
Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.
So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.