John Cage, the 79-year old composer who died of a stroke in New York yesterday, wrote the most famous piece of music you never heard.
It was called "4'33"," and the reason you never heard it was that the musicians (or musician) performing it weren't to make any sound at all. They would simply sit, poised as if to play, without making a sound. And they would do this for four minutes and 33 seconds (hence the title).
Needless to say, writing a work that called for mere silence made Cage the butt of more than a few jokes. (Igor Stravinsky cracked that he hoped other avant-garde composers would follow Cage's lead and compose more silence).
Still, there was a method to his madness, for by making the audience listen for sounds that weren't going to come from the stage, Cage hoped concert-goers would begin to hear the sounds they traditionally ignore -- the muffled sound of traffic through the walls, for instance, or the squeak of chairs, or the hum of an "EXIT" sign.
To Cage, there was no such thing as "silence." Sound was always there, and all composers and musicians ever did was provide some kind of context and arrangement for it.
Naturally, he was regularly excoriated for such efforts, and the classical music establishment tended to see his avant-gardist aesthetic as an affront to the very notion of the classical tradition.
But Cage never had any use for traditions that put rules in the way of a listener being able to hear what was going on around him. Ten years ago, I interviewed the composer in a room backstage at the Kennedy Center, and as we talked, we could hear a violinist warming up in one room while a pianist rehearsed in another.
"They go well for me," he said of the seemingly unrelated sounds. "But I don't relate them to something that is not there, whereas most musicians do exactly that." In other words, because he didn't expect the notes to meet some preconceived logic or structure, he could appreciate them for what they were.
It's tempting, when a great musician dies, to suggest his passing will somehow leave the world a little quieter. It's doubtful Cage would have appreciated such sentiment. But it might be worth stopping for a moment just to listen, anyway. Because no matter what you hear, there's a chance it could be music.
/# At least, John Cage thought so.