John Cage : American musical milestone

The following is simply an opinion piece offered as a diversion and a temporary release from the serious news of the day. It was originally published in a kid’s newspaper several years ago.

“What was that all about?, whispered someone in the audience. Everyone in the room had just witnessed a new piece of music written for the piano. The program called it 4′ 33″ and it is arguably the most famous silent music composition in the traditional history of Western European music. In performance, the pianist sits silently at the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Ten years after the premier of 4′ 33″, a new one called 0′ 00” by the same composer, was performed. The work consisted of the performer slicing vegetables, putting them in a blender, and ending the piece by drinking the juice.

John Cage, an American composer, was interested in opening our ears to the music all around us. Rather than putting sounds together as composers before him had done, Cage decided to let things happen. Instead of following up and exploiting any of his experiments, he went from each one on to more and more discoveries.

In the process, Cage became known for his “prepared pianos”. He prepared pianos by jamming all sorts of materials into them to change the sound — everything from wood to screws to weather-stripping. He would then have the players strike the keys randomly.

Further exploration led Cage to experiment with radios, tape recorders and even microphones attached to human bodies in motion. He wanted to change the traditional role of a composer and focus instead on the activity of sounds. By experimenting on how sounds and silences affect the listener, Cage gave us something to think about. Leaving everything to chance is novel idea, but even his “chance” pieces involved planning and preparation.

However, even in consideration of all the variety of stuff that is sold for music today, as a musical milestone probably no other American musician has had more influence on the field of music, as we know it.

If you would like to hear some of John Cage’s pieces, here’s a few titles to find at a music library, Spotify or any other online available resource.

“Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano”; Maro Ajemian, Pianist, CD 700 on the CRI label; “Winter Music”, produced by Hat Hut Records, #6141; “13” with Manfred Reichert, Director – CPO 999227, and “Orchestral Works I”, performed by the Avante Garde Ensemble of the New England Conservatory, Stephen Drury, Director. Others include “Piano Works, Volume 3”, “Works for Percussion” and the ever-popular “45 34 46 776 27 10”

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