In 1952, pianist David Tudor entered a performance hall in Woodstock, NY, lifted the piano lid and sat down for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a single note, as an understandably confused audience watched. Tudor was performing a piece titled, simply, 4'33", by John Cage. The music, Cage explained, was whatever sounds the audience heard in the background. Silence, he said, does not exist, when one listens carefully.
A "polyartist," Cage created influential and groundbreaking work in many fields, as a composer, writer, and visual artist. While 4'33" has become his most notorious piece, it is only a sliver of his vast body of work. Like his friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp, who proposed the idea that even everyday objects are art when placed in museums, Cage believed that music could be found wherever one wants to hear it. For example, in his Imaginary Landscapes series, composed between 1939 and 1952, he featured such sounds as turntables playing test recordings at varying speeds and radio sets being continuously retuned. For his 1961 performance of Cartridge Music, he amplified the sounds of various household objects.
Cage frequently employed chance operations in his compositions and poetry. He often consulted star charts, street maps, and the I Ching (or Book of Changes)--one of the fundamental books of divination of Confucianism--to determine how a piece should be composed. "As his scores became more colorful and graphic," writes Mark Prendergast in The Ambient Century, "he spent nine months tossing coins, as outlined by the Chinese oracle the I Ching, to create charts for his forty-six-minute piano piece Music of Changes."
Cage injected these same chance operations into his poetry and prose. With the use of mesostics--compositions similar to acrostics, but with the initial set of letters placed in the middle, instead of in the beginning or at the end--he created poems from the texts of Henry David Thoreau and James Joyce. For his piece Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, he wrote a long series of mesostics based on Joyce’s novel, using the letters J-A-M-E-S-J-O-Y-C-E as the starting point of each composition. Onto the text he superimposed sounds referred to in the novel, along with traditional Irish music. His book, M: Writings, '67-'72, is a collection of mesostics inspired by Marcel Duchamp, music, mushrooms, Merce Cunningham--and other "M" words. In one poem, he declares:
Syntax, like government, can only be obeyed. It is
therefore of no use except when you
have something particular to command
such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.
Throughout his life, Cage gave numerous lectures, and these were anything but conventional. His 1959 talk at Columbia University's Teachers College was made up of ninety stories--each one recited in one minute--accompanied by a ninety-minute piece using several radios. "The continuity of the 90 stories was not planned," Cage explained. "One lady, at Columbia, asked during the discussion following the talk, ‘What, then, is your final goal?’ I remarked that her question was that of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to applicants for fellowships, and that it had irritated artists for decades. Then I said that I did not see that we were going to a goal, but that we were living in process, and that that process is external."