Rain, Blow, Rustle

Nick Richardson

  • No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4'33" by Kyle Gann
    Yale, 255 pp, £16.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 13699 9

On the evening of 29 August 1952 a crowd of avant-garde aficionados and local music enthusiasts filed into the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock to hear a piano recital by the young virtuoso David Tudor. That they should be here, tucked away in the Catskills, was already extraordinary. The Maverick is more hermitage than concert hall: a wooden, barn-like structure, set – in 1952 at least – in several acres of woodland. Water Music by John Cage, a Californian composer whose recent work had been feted in New York, opened the programme and baffled its audience. It involved Tudor performing various actions at seemingly random intervals: blowing a duck-call, tuning a radio, shuffling and dealing playing cards. After subdued applause, Tudor sat back down at the piano. He played pieces by Christian Wolff, an 18-year-old student of Cage’s, and by Morton Feldman, Cage’s friend; and thundered through Pierre Boulez’s fiendishly difficult first sonata. The penultimate piece on the programme was Cage’s latest, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples. Half a minute later he reopened the lid, then shut it. The summer rain could be heard falling on the Maverick’s wooden roof. Another couple of minutes – Tudor opened and shut the lid again – and muttering broke out in the hall. People began shuffling towards the exit. Four minutes and 33 seconds without a note played and Cage had stamped himself on music history with the most radical contribution of his generation. At the end of the concert, a local artist drew himself up and bellowed: ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.’

Cage had been thinking about silence from an early age. In 1928, as a geeky 16-year-old high-school pupil in LA, he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest with a speech on Pan-American relations entitled ‘Other People Think’. It ran:

One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created, and finally to have everything stopped that runs, until everyone should hear the last wheel go round and the last echo fade away … then, in that moment of complete intermission, of undisturbed calm, would be the hour most conducive to the birth of a Pan-American Conscience.

The speech has since been enshrined as the founding document of Cage’s aesthetics, though at the time there was little indication he would choose a career in music. His childhood had been awkward, shadowed by his father’s failure: John Cage Sr, an inventor, had been bankrupted trying to develop a submarine for use in the First World War; an accident sustained while working for an aircraft company, in which he lost the full use of one of his arms, compounded the disappointment. John Jr started school under a cloud. He was bullied so badly that his parents were forced to transfer him to an experimental school at UCLA, but he suffered there, too. On top of the bullying his teachers disapproved of his bookishness and nagged him to play sport and be ‘better adjusted’. Still, Cage was a brilliant student: he excelled at Latin and Greek and finished high school as valedictorian of his class. He also took piano lessons, from his aunt Phoebe and from an eccentric composer called Fannie Dillon who was obsessed by birdsong. But his voice was thought so terrible that he wasn’t allowed to join the school glee club, and he hated practising technical exercises. Indeed he hated practising at all, preferring to pound his way, sight-reading, through the staples of the repertoire.

Cage continued his studies at Pomona College in nearby Claremont, where, by the end of his second year, his rebellious nature began to show. Rather than plough through the reading list assigned by his professor, he went into the library to read the first book he could find written by an author whose name began with Z – his first recorded flirtation with chance as method. He was given an ‘A’ in his end of year exams anyway, which convinced him there was something wrong with the system, and he left Pomona for Europe, abandoning his plan to follow his grandfather into the Methodist Church. In Paris he studied architecture with Ernö Goldfinger, then continued his wandering. Capri, Biskra, Madrid, Berlin, Italy, North Africa: as the world blurred by, Cage made his first faltering attempts at composition, using knotty mathematical systems inspired by Bach.

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