John Cage and the sound of silence

Composer pointed out that it’s louder, and more musical, than you think

Pendulum New Music
Photo courtesy of Laima Haley

“If someone says ‘can’t,’ that shows you what to do.”

This was advice the inventor John Milton Cage gave to his son, the future composer and musical provocateur John Cage, Jr. The father could hardly have imagined how his advice would bear fruit and transform the musical landscape in the second half of the 20th century.

The younger Cage’s 100th birthday was about a month ago, and the College of Music at the University of Colorado Boulder is joining many others in the musical world with a festival celebrating his music and ideas. The celebration will be wide-ranging, since the list of Cage’s contributions to the post-war avant-garde musical world is lengthy: recognizing the musical potential of all sounds, both planned and accidental; introduction of chance in the composition process by using the Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching; adding variability to performance by leaving some compositional choices to the performer; music for prepared piano, with objects placed in the piano to change the sound of the individual pitches; and one notorious piece in which the performer never plays a note.

All of these innovations will be represented in the festival events, which includes lectures by Cage scholars, performances by CU faculty and guest artists, CU’s Pendulum New Music ensemble, Third Coast Percussion from Chicago, and CU students (events are free; see the list accompanying this article or check the College of Music October Calendar at

Throughout his unpredictable and often controversial career, Cage maintained a puckish sense of humor. Indeed, the vegan, Zen Buddhist iconoclast would probably as soon be remembered as a mushroom lover as a musician.

“Part of the festival is just celebrating this eccentric, wildly interesting person and keeping that spirit alive, because those are rare figures that can cause such a stir,” Daniel Kellogg, composer and co-director of the Cage Festival, says.

One of the more wildly interesting things about Cage is that he is one of the most influential, and at the same time one of the least performed, composers of the 20th century. Indeed, it is likely than many in Boulder’s audiences — frequent concertgoers who never miss the Boulder Philharmonic or the Takács Quartet — have never heard a note of Cage’s music performed live.

In spite of his music’s silence (ironically a quality he notoriously valued and advanced in music), most who know the contemporary music scene agree on Cage’s importance. “Without him clearing the way for a broader perspective of what is music and what is art, I think a lot of the things that we have today would not have happened,” Hsing-ay Hsu, pianist and director of Pendulum New Music, says of Cage.

Kellogg is quick to note that Cage is important for his music as much as for his ideas. “Some of the people I worked with when I was a student would say that he was more of a philosopher than a composer, but I would say he’s both,” Kellogg says. “He certainly wrote some great music, even in the conventional sense of here’s a beautiful piece of music. But then he began to ask questions that were just huge, questions about what’s the nature of sound, what’s the nature of the concert experience, what is music.”

If Cage is known to audience members today, it is for those questions. Nothing he did better expresses that side of the inventor’s son than his famous — or infamous — piece “4’33” (pronounced “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”).

This is the piece where the performer comes on stage and sits before the piano and doesn’t play a single note for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds. This piece, on the program for the Oct. 9 concert (7:30 p.m., Grusin Music Hall), was greeted by many listeners as a stunt when it was first performed in 1952.

But Cage had something very serious in mind: to make listeners think about what constitutes a piece of music or a performance, and not incidentally, to demonstrate that we are always immersed in ambient sound that becomes part of every performance — whether the rumble of subways in New York, the sound of the wind outdoors, or the rustling of our neighbors just about anywhere.

The piece relates to at least two other ideas that Cage championed: that any sound can be music if you listen to it that way; and that a composer could give up control over the way a composition would sound.

“It’s such a simple idea and yet it had never been done,” Kellogg says of “4’33”.” “It did provoke so many people to think, to argue, to wrestle with all kinds of issues.

“That performance is one part of the festival that I’m really excited about. It will be a completely unique experience to see it performed with (a large audience) present. That’s a completely different experience than sitting on your porch and being still for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.”

Another highlight for Kellogg will be Wednesday, a concert by Pendulum New Music and Third Coast Percussion (7:30 p.m., Grusin Music Hall). “We’re going to be presenting his construction pieces for percussion quartet. And the third piece I think is really, truly a masterpiece. Any composer that’s skilled enough to leave behind even one masterpiece is a composer of note.”

Cage’s legacy is hard to assess, because the controversy around his music sometimes obscures his more serious aim in writing it. But his notion that any sound can be music has crept into the musical world without necessarily calling attention to itself.

Kellogg, an admittedly traditional composer, observes, “As a young student I would have been encountering Cage’s concept that everything, every noise is music. Silence simply does not exist, and that certainly has influenced the way that I think about landscape and how I represent it in music, which is something that I’m drawn to.”

Mark Phillips, an award-winning composer and distinguished professor of music at Ohio University, another traditional composer, agrees that Cage “really played a large role in opening up a broader sound world and creating a landscape that offered a lot more possibilities to composers.”

The use of chance — or what Phillips calls Cage’s “divorcing the process of composition from the conscious will of a composer” — has been important too. At its most extreme, few after Cage have embraced the idea of using pure chance to create a score. But the idea of leaving some aspects of a performance to the performer is widespread today. “That’s something certainly that I’ve kept in a lot of my music,” Phillips says.

But if these ideas are so important, why isn’t Cage’s music performed more often?

The music is complicated to present, Kellogg says.

“We’re doing a piece called Sonatas and Interludes,” he says. “It’s for prepared piano, and it’s gorgeous. You hardly get any sound out of the piano that you would expect, so it’s a wild experience. But it takes one to two hours to set up that piano. So we had to find a piano that we could leave prepared for several weeks, we had to find a room where we could put it, then when it gets moved it has to be unprepared, moved, tuned, put in Grusin Music Hall, re-prepared. So it’s gorgeous music, but it’s not the kind of thing that a graduate student can say, ‘Oh, let me put 10 minutes of Cage on my recital.’”

Considering how rare Cage is in the concert hall, Kellogg has some advice for the audiences next week: “Come in with a smile, and ready for a completely unexpected experience.

“There are people who come to that concert hall regularly to hear their Beethoven and their Mozart. Probably many of those folks will show up, and I hope that they walk away delighted by the richness of the musical experience that they can have at the College of Music.

“Some of them may be frustrated, but I hope that they come with a smile and a sense of adventure.”

John Cage Festival Schedule:

Musicology Colloquium, 1 p.m. Monday, Oct. 8, Grusin Music Hall

5th Annual Robert & Ruth Fink Lecture by Tim Page, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, Grusin Music Hall

“Imaginary Landscape”: Tuesday faculty performance, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, Grusin Music Hall

“Under Construction”: Pendulum New Music and Third Coast Percussion, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, Chamber Hall (C199, Imig Music Building)

“Concert About Nothing”: Pendulum New Music and Third Coast Percussion, 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, Atlas Black Box Theater

“Cheap Imitation”: CU Composition seminar and guests, 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, Pearl Street Mall