NYU Alumni 
Magazine Spring 2011


The Sound of Silence

Biographer Kenneth Silverman places an American composer among the icons

by Eryn Loeb / GSAS ’07

A recent Facebook campaign that has garnered more than 90,000 “likes” aimed to get John Cage’s 1952 composition “4’33””—which famously consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence—to the top of the music charts at Christmas. Though the effort was more tongue-in-cheek prank than earnest tribute, it speaks to the composer’s enduring influence. And it’s the kind of quirky homage that Cage, who died in 1992 just shy of his 80th birthday, would have probably loved.

In Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Knopf), a rigorous, understated biography of Cage, Kenneth Silverman opens a window into the man who created that landmark avant-garde composition and other similarly challenging works. Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and professor emeritus of English at NYU, makes a convincing case for Cage as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. “The modern musical world just would not sound the way it does today without Cage,” Silverman explains. His impact stretches to the music of Frank Zappa, Stereolab, and Sonic Youth, as well as that of hip-hop DJs, whose methods were prefigured by a 1939 work, “Imaginary Landscape No. 1,” which Cage wrote for turntables.

Experimentation was a hallmark of Cage’s life starting in his teenage years. As a boy in Los Angeles, he was a voracious reader and a winning orator who began playing piano in the fifth grade. Valedictorian of his high school class, Cage enrolled at Pomona College when he was just 16 but dropped out after only two years and headed to Europe; there, for about 18 months, he immersed himself in painting and poetry. Upon his return to the States in the early 1930s, he channeled his interests in art and literature into musical compositions inspired by Aeschylus, Ecclesiastes, and later, Eastern philosophy. Cage’s forward-looking works for various instruments were always shaped by his insatiable curiosity, what he once described as “the incessant desire…to explore the unknown.” When he wasn’t composing he pursued a range of interests as a printmaker, a poet, and, rather endearingly, an avid collector of mushrooms—he even co-founded the New York Mycological Society.

Cage was such an innovator, Silverman argues, that his role in American culture “places him beside such self-reliant individualists as Henry David Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, and especially Walt Whitman.” And his impact can be seen beyond just music. Cage’s bold eagerness to use art to make people uncomfortable was a key influence on Yoko Ono’s confrontational performances, and he frequently collaborated with Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde dancer and choreographer who was Cage’s creative and romantic partner for 50 years. Though Cage—who received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and American Academy of Arts and Letters—focused mostly on music, it was his inquisitiveness and anarchic spirit that thrilled other artists and inspired their own envelope-pushing work. When Ono, a former concert pianist, first met Cage, she turned to her then-husband, Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, and said, “Do you realize this is it?”

It took Silverman seven years to research and write Cage’s story, but he says that’s what he’s come to expect after spending decades writing in-depth biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel F.B. Morse, Harry Houdini, and the Puritan minister Cotton Mather. It may seem unlikely, but a distinct thread runs through this list—Silverman believes that all his subjects are uniquely American figures made so “by their antagonism toward the way things have been done in the past—especially the way that they’d been done in Europe.”

As reflected by the book’s title, Silverman appreciates Cage’s enthusiasm for reinvention perhaps more than anything else. “You never could [anticipate] what he was going to do because everything he did was always fresh…you had never heard or seen it before,” he says. He particularly admires Cage’s “HPSCHD” (1969), so named as an abbreviation for “harpsichord,” which Silverman describes as “a sort of musical love-in for seven harpsichords, more than 50 tape machines, and 64 slide projectors—to mention only three of the many giant ingredients.” It was the product, as Cage told a TV interviewer at the time, of his interest in “going to extremes.” This “gargantuan multimedia jamboree,” Silverman notes, best illustrated Cage’s broader goal: “Bringing people together and breaking down barriers.”

Ultimately, Cage’s complex, often esoteric work was about finding new ways to get people to listen—to music as well as to the world around them. That’s the essential point of “4’33”,” which captures a different slice of time in every performance. What Silverman calls Cage’s “musical sermon” can also be seen as the composer’s groundbreaking statement of purpose: All sounds are worth listening to, and there is music even in silence.

John Cage’s musical impact stretches from Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth to hip-hop DJs, whose methods were prefigured by his 1939 work, “Imaginary Landscape No. 1.”