Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


John Cage (1912-1992) was born in Los Angeles, the son of an inventor. He quit college for independence and travelled in Europe in 1930. On returning, he studied with one of Schoenberg’s students, Adolph Weiss, studied counterpoint with Schoenberg, was involved in a dance group, and moved to Seattle in 1937. Early work combined 12-tone method with jazz and applied serial technique to the organization of rhythm. In 1938 came his first experiments with prepared piano and with a percussion orchestra. In 1939 he was doing percussion work in San Francisco, 1941 in Chicago, and he came to New York in 1942. He collaborated with Merce Cunningham and picked up some Eastern philosophy from a professor, so that chants became important to him. In the ’50s he was composing and performing. His work is not improvisational, but he did stand against the “fixation of music” — recording, expectation, preconceptions, predictability. He became in the 1950s the “Undisputed leader of … experimental music” (Hitchcock 243). He reduced the composer’s dominance over the performance, letting music “happen.”

Bacchanale (1938) is the first prepared piano piece, meaning “the alteration of the instrument’s tonal quality by inserting between the strings various bits of material” (Hitchcock 214).

Toss As It Is Untroubled (1943) features a prepared piano. It’s got an eastern minimalist-like sound with its monophonic five-note melody. Rhythmically the music is unpredictable.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948)

4′ 33″ (1952) — Cage discovered in 1951 that there is no silence. He entered a soundproof and anechoic chamber but heard the high sound of his nervous system and the low sound of his blood circulation. Emerging from his realizations is this three-part conceptual art piece for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the musician is seated with stopwatch nearby and plays nothing. The audience is tacitly invited to listen to the sounds that occur anyway, as intensely as they would a traditional recital, in what amounts to a meditation. Originally, the work was presented by pianist David Tudor. The piece

may be taken as a frame for the natural sounds of life, a segment of time isolated and defined in order to trap, for a moment, the experience of the haphazard, “real” world. Or it may be taken as the zero point of perception where total randomness and aleatory meet total determinism and unity in the literal experience of nothing. (Salzman 153)

I have found that it also throws listeners back on themselves: Americans uncomfortable with their own place in existence, who are likely not to feel comfortable with silence, project their unease into railing about the piece as a gyp, revealing ugly capitalist notions about music as a product, even when they have lost no money through any concert charge.

Works Consulted

Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974.