John Cage

Essays and posts on the music of American composer John Cage (1912-1992)

What is your silent piece?

Each of us has an image of John Cage’s silent piece, an idea—or many ideas—of what he created, why he created it, and what it means. This series will be my story of Cage’s silent piece—or silent pieces, since there are four of them.

How I happened upon the Happenings

For me, there is a more personal history of the Radio Happenings: the story of how they came to light and were preserved. It all happened because of procrastination and the pre-Internet digital social world of Bulletin Board Services in New York City. It was a rare musicological adventure.

9 — Opening up another world

Morton’s Feldman’s graph music—a music that was silent about which pitches should be played—changed Cage’s work forever. Cage expressed his understanding of Feldman’s radical act in a new lecture, the “Lecture on something”.

8 — Letting go completely

Morton Feldman’s “Projection” showed John Cage the destination of his musical-spiritual journey. It was a revelation, the opening of a door to an entirely new world, “not just the musical world outside of you”, as he later described it, “but the musical world inside of you.”

7 — Following the master

By 1950 Cage had arrived at a style that celebrated emptiness. Paradoxically, by letting go any strong self-expression, he discovered a truer musical voice. His next major work, the Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra, was to explicitly present this release from self-expression.

6 — The poetry of sounds

Energized by the discoveries of the quartet, Cage created his first really great piece of writing in 1950, the “Lecture on nothing”. It eloquently presents Cage’s belief that self-negating discipline produces insight.