Music Articles

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

During the 1940's John Cage's fame would only grow, but his music would still not be as experimental as his later work. It was during this time that Cage found himself in New York among the great new talent emerging during the era. With his percussion music becoming popular among those in new music circles, he became somewhat of a household name in the art community.12

It was also during this time in the early 1940's that his now famous innovation, the prepared piano, also came into being. By altering the strings of the piano with various objects, Cage turned it into a kind of percussion instrument in which he could experiment in sound.13 John Cage would also debut some of his original compositions, although not as experimental as his later work, during this time. His most famous work being 1942's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

It was also while in New York that John Cage got the opportunity to intermingle with famous modern painters such as Marcel Duchamp, Virgil Thomson, and Jackson Pollack.14 It was artist such as these that would define a new era of modern art in the late 1940's and 1950's, and Cage would fit right in. With all of his success he experienced in his music, Cage would drastically shift his vision in the late 1940's and become the experimental composer he is now renowned for. The driving point behind this drastic shift would be Cage's discovery of the eastern philosophy of Zen Buddhism.

A big driving force for many experimental composers including John Cage was the influence of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism and eastern philosophy found its way into American consciousness when it was introduced in the writings of Japanese religious scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki in 1920. This new type of religion was hailed by many nonconformists as a perfect religion because it was founded on individual experience rather than conformity, meditation rather than ritual, and critical investigation rather then beliefs in religious dogma.15 This newfound philosophy was attractive to many living in the confines of a conservative time in America during the 1940s and 1950s who yearned to break free.

This Zen Buddhism would be embraced by many artists and intellectuals in the 1950s including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts, all of which would be characteristic of the beat generation.16 The place that would become a hub of such though would be New York City. It would be in New York that John Cage would discover this new eastern philosophy.

The place that Cage studied intensely on Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s was at Columbia University.17 Columbia University as well as other Ivy League schools would become a major hub for the introduction of Zen Buddhism into intellectual and artistic circles with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki taking a professorship at Columbia University in the late 1940s and 1950s.

12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, 23.
14 Nicholls, 29.
15 Andre Van Der Braak, "Zen Spirituality in a Secular Age: Charles    Taylor and Zen Buddhism in the West," Studies in Spirituality 18     (2008), 39.
16 Ibid, 40.
17 Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage Explained (New York: Schirmer     Books, 1996), 82.

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