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John Cage, 4'33", and Experimental
Music in 1950s America
(Page 4 of 5)

by Melissa Fallon

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki would influence many artists including Cage in which Zen became a contributing factor when it came to his compositions. It was this relationship between Zen Buddhism and composition in which Cage connected his world of sounds in silence to the Zen concept of "unimpededness and interpretation."18 It was this concept of silence and Zen philosophy that would be the driving force behind his most famous work, 4'33".

It would be 4'33" that Cage would be the most remembered for and it would become a perfect reflection on his Zen philosophy. To Cage, an application of Zen Buddhism, when it came to the arts, was the acceptance of all sounds including silence, and it was 4'33" that perfectly demonstrated this principle.19 It would also be one of the most controversial and least understood compositions ever written. When the piece debuted in Woodstock, N.Y. on August 29, 1952, for example, although everything was going well during the first two movements, during the third, the audience began to talk and started walking out of the performance because they could not grasp the concept Cage was going for.20 Although the work was panned by many critics at the time, Cage still regarded the piece to be among his favorite work. It was this belief that 4'33" was his single most important work as well as the most influential, upon his later compositional pieces, that remained with Cage to the end of his life.21 From works such as 4'33", Cage would leave a lasting legacy in the world of experimental composition.

Long after the composing of 4'33", Cage would go on to influence many artists in different genres of music. For example, when it comes to composers of the English experimental school of music, all of the composers including Michael Parsons, Christopher Hobbs, and John White acknowledge Cage as an influence in terms of his early percussion and prepared piano work.22 Even in the genre of Rock, Cage is touted as an influence. Bands such as Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and even rock guitarist Frank Zappa have all used Cage as an influence in their music. As new bands emerge, Cage's experimentation in the art of music will always be a source of inspiration.

Although Cage has been gone for nearly 20 years, his work will always live on. From his humble beginnings as an art student to his rise as icon in American music, Cage has left quite a legacy on the American consciousness. Although he incorporating some experimentation into his earlier works, it would not be until the late 1940s that his true genius would emerge through the introduction of Zen Buddhism. It was this Zen Buddhist philosophy that was a major influence of many modern artists and Cage would be no exception.

With his adaption of Zen philosophy into his compositions, Cage would revolutionize the way music could be interpreted in the art of sound and it would be his 1952 composition 4'33" that would make the greatest use of this concept of Zen philosophy. Without this introduction into the Zen philosophy that became all the rage in late 1940s and 1950s New York, who knows if John Cage would still be regarded as the great musical innovator he is today. One thing that is for certain is that Cage will remain an immortal figure in the art of experimental music in America.




18 Pritchett, 74.
19 Kostelanetz, 26.
20 Nicholls, 59.
21 Kostelanetz, 26.
22 Michael Parsons, "Systems in Art and Music," The Musical Times     17, no. 1604 (October 1976): 816.


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(See page 5 for Bibliography and more.)