Each month we bring you a post to help you keep your brain fit. It’s our contribution to your total well being.
This month the focus is on providing cognitive challenge. This composer requires us to stretch our understanding of the word music. We hope you will accept the challenge even if it threatens to blow your mind (written with a smile).
His high school yearbook said of him: “Noted for: being radical.”
Composer, writer, inventor, philosopher, and ultramodernist, JOHN CAGE would have been 100 years old on Sept. 5, 2012.
The acknowledged father of Multimedia art, he collaborated closely over many years with many of the movers and shakers in dance, theater, and painting. If you happen to be in New York City, check out the north end of the pedestrian island in Times Square, between 45th and 46th Streets. You will hear a Cage-inspired piece by Max Neuhaus, appropriately called Times Square, which processes sounds coming from the subway tunnels below.
To say that Cage upset the status quo in music would be a gross understatement. He rocked it to its foundation. He taught us that the Sound of Silence is a literal reality (pace Paul Simon). This revelation came in 1951 when he entered an anechoic chamber (i.e., one free of any echoes). As he says in Silence, his 1961 book of philosophical musings: “There is no such thing as silence. Get thee to an anechoic chamber and hear there thy nervous system, and hear there thy blood in circulation.”
Cage himself was a persuasive and charming proponent of his art, as you can see in this video.
He famously said, “My purpose is to eliminate purpose”– a composing philosophy that he acknowledged owes much to the Zen Buddhist teachings of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and the idea that Nirvana is achieved through direct intuitive insights. In sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian view that we are created in the image of God and are here to subdue nature, the Zen Buddhist view posits that we humans are only one of many species living in a world of randomness rather than order.
Probably his most famous work is the one entitled 4′ 33″, in which a pianist sits motionless at the piano for exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. This “silence” actually has a three-movement structure whose proportions –30″, 2′ 23″, and 1′ 40″–are determined by random processes Cage learned from the I Ching which strongly influenced his art.
P.S. If you are open to it, this listening experience can be savored as a spiritual exercise that quiets the will and offers “infinite possibilities.”
Since 4’33” works best when you’re sitting with other people in a hall, we thought you would appreciate one of his more lyrical compositions instead. Dreams is a very accessible example of his aesthetic philosophy.
For Cage, we are all equals when we listen to music. “Everyone is in the best seat,” in that we are all potentially creative artists if we allow ourselves to hear and experience the inner and outer music that is always present in life.
Here is an illuminating experiment:
Choose a place to sit, close your eyes, and just listen to whatever is around you for 5 minutes. Try this in various locations at different times of day. Each time write down what you hear and what your mood is after listening.
There is “music” in the universe around us that has a profound effect on us. But most of the time we are not conscious of it. What happened when you became more aware? What did you discover? Let us know.