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John Cage, 4'33", and Experimental
Music in 1950s America

by Melissa Fallon

If you were to ask the average American what comes to mind when one thinks of experimental music, a probable answer would most likely involve things that pertain to drug use, rock, and the era of the 1960s. Even though the use of drugs was no doubt a major contributor to the advent of new sounds in music, the advent of experimental music can be found in the previous decade of the 1950s and, surprisingly, in the genre of classical music. The most well known of classical composers in the era of the 1950s is John Cage.

John Cage, unlike many of the others in the tradition of experimental music, developed ideas on his own rather then relying on the influences of others.1 Along with being a well-known composer and musical theorist, Cage was also well known for being a writer, philosopher, and artist. It was this type of philosophy that would be a driving point behind many of his most famous works. The most famous of course his 4'33" (pronounced "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds") composition written in 1952, in which no music is played and only silence can be heard, if silence is something that could be heard at all. Although to Cage, in response to if absolute silence does exist, "Hearing would be there and seeing too, if you have your eyes open."2 It is this thought process when it came to Cage's creativity that would define his art. The piece of music 4'33", although controversial at the time, would be the foundation when it came to experimentation in music.

The question however is why? Why would someone create such a work and how did they come up with such a concept in an era that seemed to most to be a conservative time in America. This question is raised even further when we examine Cage's earlier work in the previous decades leading up to the 1950s, which is tame in comparison to his later works such as 4'33". To better answer this question, one must look into the historical context that would play a role in the coming about of experimental music from composers such as John Cage and how eastern philosophy would play a prominent role in its creation.

Radical or experiential approaches to music find their roots much earlier then the era of the 1950s and John Cage. Even before and after World War I, attempts at music experimentation in America became a way for many musicians to remove themselves from the uniformity of the ensembles they found themselves with. It was these attempts at experimentation to music that were formulated out of ignorance and as a way for musicians to preform in the absence of external control by purposely making errors while playing.3 As time passed, this early attempt at experimentation would become more refined and have reason behind their creation. As the avant-garde movement emerged, artists such as John Cage burst onto the scene introducing the world to sounds and concepts never heard before which would change the concept of music forever. Before we examine the contributing factors behind Cage's shift into the art of musical experimentation in which works such as 4'33" came into being, we must first examine the man himself.



1 Christopher Shultis, Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), xvi.

2 John Cage, Michael Kirby, and Richard Schehner, "An Interview with John Cage," The Tulane Drama Review 10, no. 2 (Winter, 1965): 50.

3 Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Ian Pepper, "John Cage, or Liberated Music," October 82 (Autumn, 1997): 48.


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