John Cage’s Place at the Center of the Century

We could start at the beginning.

Chronologically speaking, the first piece on our list of 101 Essential 20th Century Pieces is the Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1901). The piece begins with the piano alone, simply stating a series of chords built on f, which in the key of c can be heard as leading away from c or towards it. At the end of this progression the piano lands solidly on c and the orchestra begins the highly expressive main theme. Rachmaninoff’s musical style is typical of Late- and Post-Romanticism — resolutely tonal, with expanded harmonic, structural and expressive resources. The Second Concerto is also typical, with its dramatic, impassioned melodies, lush harmonies and pianistic heroism from the soloist.

At the same time, this Concerto looks forward to the century it was born with in some telling ways.(1) The piano begins the piece as a still, small voice, and though the orchestra is often “supportive” over the course of the piece, the soloist remains apart, an individual amongst a crowd. Most significantly, the soloist never plays the main theme that is introduced immediately after the chordal introduction — a great early example of 20th century alienation.

We could start at the end.

Chronologically speaking, the last piece on our list is Elliott Carter’s Symphonia: Sum Flexae Pretium Spei,(2) a large orchestral triptych that sums up musical modernism as well as the composer’s career (he was 87 when he completed it). The three panels of the triptych are roughly analogous to the first three movements of a traditional symphony — dramatic and fast, slow and expressive, fast and light. The open-ended, finale-less structure is just one touch of the irony with which Carter infuses his music.

The music of the third panel, “Allegro scorevole” (“fast, scurrying”), as the title implies, flies up and down through musical space with incredible speed. The predominant mood of the piece is that of serious lightness, with music that flows and tends to be soft rather than loud.

The trajectory of the scurrying music is upwards, with contrasting lyrical passages that are rather more earthbound. After a climax of the lyrical material, a coda briefly combines the lyrical and the scurrying until a lone piccolo quietly ends the piece in its highest register. The century ends, then, the way it began: with a still, small voice.

We could start in the middle, or to be more exact, in the center.


For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.(3)

Silence had played an important role in John Cage’s music even before his experience in the anechoic chamber. His pieces of the 1940s (including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano) were conceived in terms of rhythmic structures that Cage filled with sounds (notes) and silences (rests). He was not first composer to make expressive use of silence, but he certainly was one of the first to make extensive structural use of the empty musical space of silence.

Cage walked into the anechoic chamber looking for nothing. Though he didn’t find it, he didn’t come away empty-handed either: “Until I die there will be sounds.” He knew then that when he filled the empty spaces in his rhythmic structures with rests, he wasn’t really filling them with silence. In order to give an audience an experience in some way analogous to his own in the chamber, Cage wrote a piece with nothing but empty musical space.

The score of 4'33" (1952) consists of one page, with indications of three movements, each marked “TACET.” Tacet is a standard musical term that is usually used in individual instrumental parts to indicate that that instrument does not play in the movement in question. The word itself is Latin for “be silent.” The title of the piece is the total amount of time pianist David Tudor devoted to the three movements in the first performance. These timings are included in Cage’s note with the score, but are not part of the score itself. 4'33" can be performed by any combination of instrumentalists and/or singers.

Given my intention to discuss these pieces in terms of what they sound like, how does one discuss the sound of a piece of music that contains no notes, no intentional sounds(4) whatever? Well, like almost any other piece of music, it depends on the performance.

The role of the performer(s) in 4'33" is to let the audience know when the movements have begun and when they are over. That is, a performance of 4'33" is concerned with establishing a frame around the piece.

In traditional concert music (including the vast majority of “avant-garde” music) that part of the frame that separates the piece from that which is not — the piece is straightforward: Everyone gets quiet and then the music starts. But even in traditional music there’s more to the frame than that.

In the long-running critical discussion about the decline-demise-death of concert music much is made about the supposed “stuffiness” of concerts and how that may be keeping people away from the concert hall. This stuffiness includes the formal dress of the performers (and a significant portion of the audience) and the expectation that the audience will not make sounds during the performance.

For me, though, the formal dress of the performers is an important part of the concert as an event. It communicates that what you are about to experience is a kind of heightened reality, something beyond the everyday that reflects back and deepens that everyday.

And the requirement for the audience to be quiet during a performance leads back to 4'33". The emptiness of Cage’s structure is filled with the unintentional sounds of the audience, the heating/air conditioning machinery, outside noises, etc. These sounds occur during performances of other pieces, too, but we work (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to keep them from our consciousness. Cage asks us do the opposite in 4'33", and a good performance makes that easier to do. If a performer camps up the beginning and ending of the movements, the effect is lessened, much as the effect is lessened in a performance of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata if the important structural points aren’t articulated, for example. I’ve seen such a performance, and the piece is reduced to an undergraduate prank.(5)

In a good performance, where the frame is given with serious lightness, the result is magical. Sounds that are normally irritants are now in the foreground. Cage gives us the opportunity to hear the unintentional sounds around in a new way, the same opportunity he gives us to hear the intentional sounds in his other pieces — as new sounds.

And that is why 4'33" is in the center of the century’s music. Like Rachmaninoff (with his alienated soloist/hero) and Carter (with his light “finale”), Cage wants us to have a new experience in the concert hall, to “breathe the air of different planets,” as Stefan George put it. These composers challenge us, they ask a lot of us as an audience, but in the end it comes down to one thing: