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.
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.