I have nothing to say and I am saying it

John Cage

I always love talking to my students about John Cage. I love the way his music steps out of the traditional realm of music.

Cage (1912-1992) was really interested in the idea of chance and many of his pieces reflect that. He even used the Chinese I Ching to create compositions. He was also a pioneer of using instruments in a non traditional way and incorporating recorded sound (electroacoustic music).

Most people who have heard of him know his famous ‘silent’ piece, 4.33. It is a piece which lasts 4 minutes and 33 seconds where the performer does not play anything.

It was partly inspired by Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber where he was amazed that when he expected to hear nothing, he could actually hear his own blood circulation. He realised that real silence is impossible for us to hear and this led to the composition of 4.33 – it is often referred to as the silent piece, but the point is that is it NOT silent.

The time can be divided into three movements however the performer likes, as long as the total makes 4.33. You can perform it on anything so here it is for piano…

And here is is performed by a death metal band…

One of my favourite pieces by Cage is Sonata V which is for prepared piano. This means the score comes with a diagram showing where objects (such as metal bolts) should be placed between the piano strings. The effect is that the piano sounds like some kind of strange percussive instrument.

This video shows the inside of the piano too so you can see the set up. I absolutely love the sound it makes but I got in trouble for trying to recreate this on my school grand piano as it is not good for the instrument! So don’t try this at home…

Organ/ASLSP, which is based on an earlier work for piano, As Slow As Possible, is a REALLY slow piece. Performances often last 12 hours, with one stretching to over 14 hours.

It is currently being performed on a specially built organ in a church in Germany. The piece started with a 17 MONTH REST! it began in 2001 and will last 639 years, scheduled to finish on 2640… That’s a pretty slow piece! Here is a tiny tiny excerpt from that performance.

Here is one of his stranger pieces, Water Walk, performed live on tv in 1960. ‘What do you make of it? Do you consider this music? Or performance art? Does it even need to be in a box?

Whatever you think of these, John Cage will always make you question your perception of music. If you enjoyed these pieces, I would recommend getting a copy of the book, ‘Silence’ which is a great collection of his letters and writings.