John Millicent Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer, artist, and pretension seeker who enjoyed moderate success in the 20th century. He was best known for his unique style of "writing" odd and unusual "pieces", such as "Piano Falling Down Five Flights of Stairs in 'A' Minor", "Piano Played with Drumsticks Attached to Cymbals Attached to Horse", and the classic "Set of Bagpipes Driven by the Exhaust from a Saturn V Rocket's First Stage".
Cage was hailed as a "master of the unique", and his "work" was regarded as "a refreshing change from music that actually makes sense". However, his success got the better of him, and in his later life he descended into madness, going through several stages of insanity before finally committing suicide via an overdose of kittens.
Cage's parents knew early on that they had a child prodigy on their hands. When he was only six months old, he performed a legendary dance routine involving absolutely no motion for roughly four and a half minutes. Cage improved on his act throughout his childhood, until he was playing eight hour shows to sold-out arenas every night.
It wasn't long before the public began to see Cage as a one-trick pony. His dance performances began to lose steam, especially when he started to forget the finer intricacies of his routine: he would often turn over in his sleep and sometimes even yawn and stretch, to the utter disgust of fans. People eventually stopped going to see him altogether, and he faded back into obscurity.
This went on for a while, until one day, over dinner, his father made him an ultimatum—that he had to find something else he was good at, or be thrown out of the house. Cage, who was distraught, started hitting his cutlery off the table whilst stamping his feet for five whole minutes. His father was shocked and yet captivated by this performance, and, thinking quickly, recorded it and sent it to the local music professor. Everyone who heard what later became known as Cutlery Concerto no. 1 loved it and Cage's swift rise to fame led to him being labeled the "next big thing" in the music scene.
For a good few years after Cutlery Concerto no. 1, Cage was a mega-star of his time producing hit after hit of songs using never-before-used instruments, pitches, keys, and time signatures. Examples of this include several pieces in the key of Z-flat rounded, a piece for a 10" length of string in Up/Down time, and a piece with a negative tempo.
Descent into Madness
Soon, however, his concerts began to flop, and the only people who would pay for them were rich old ladies whom John would seduce. He and his accountant later formed a plan that was guaranteed to make them filthy rich: simply raise more money from the concert than it takes to produce it, and walk away with the difference.
This plan was a resounding success, and worked for several years. However, his amassed wealth inevitably led to a life of chain kitten huffing. His health deteriorated, and was eventually diagnosed with raid.
His mental condition did not stop him composing, however. In fact, he developed an unstoppable urge to create the worst piece of music in the world, and so his output of music doubled, though the pieces got progressively worse and worse. Some examples of his music from this stage include An infinite number of monkeys playing an infinite number of notes all at once, My Penis in A minor, and the ever popular Crazy Frog.
Cage deliberated for months trying to come up with the absolute worst song in the history of music. He wanted something that wasn't just bad, but was an insult to music itself. In a moment of inspiration, Cage wrote 4'33": a piece of complete silence... in stereo.
4'33" - Silence... in stereo
What you have just not read is actually music, and that's a fact. Unfortunately, 4'33" turned out to be a resounding success. Critics praised its "bold and daring" approach, which "challenged the definition of music" and was the "epitome of Zen-like simplicity". Most fans agree that the highlight of the song is the 2:15 mark, where the trumpets don't come in.
The song was also noted as being the first song to use stereo to its full potential. Cage had this to say about it in an interview -
“It's like the silence is all around you, man. It's, like, you're in the middle of it and you can feel it swirling all around you, and like, you're really listening to your own soul. Hey, go and pass me that kitten, dude.”
4'33" first wasn't played in 1935, and then continued to not be played for years after. The 4'33" fiasco is widely attributed as being the cause of his descent into über-madness. He stated that it was driving him round the bend because he couldn't stop listening to it or turn it off, even while at work, and that it was playing in his ears 24-hours-a-day, preventing him from sleeping. Even when he put his hands over them, he said that he could still hear the blood running through his veins and the sound of his heart-beat. He would randomly attack people he caught humming the tune as he passed them in the street, in an obvious attempt to mock him. His eventual suicide was his final effort to get the song out of his head.
Several remixes of 4'33" have been produced, including one in 7.1 surround sound, and the extended dance remix, 9'42". For the anniversary of his death, a large orchestra led by acclaimed superconductor Leonard Bernstein set the world record for the longest time spent continuously playing 4'33", managing to play for a staggering 92 days, fourteen hours and twenty seven seconds.
4'33" copyright problems
Cage's publishers recommended that he copyright the work, which has led to widespread paranoia due to numerous legal actions taken against members of the general public. An undercover policeman recently filmed and timed a midget from downtown Manhattan who stood still without permission on a street corner and made no physical noises for exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds. In court, a district judge told him he was "a very foolish man indeed. Couldn't you have just waited for one more second?" In another case, a high-school teacher from Abu Dhabi was secretly videotaped by a student, and subsequently fired, for not speaking or moving for 4 minutes 33 seconds. The teacher claimed it was purely co-incidental, however a judge declared, "You've got a watch haven't you? Use it!"
Originally, 11 of November was supposed to be remembered with a full public performance of 4:33. However, due to copyright issues, only a 60 second sample can be heard without buying.
British anarchist groups have now taken up the cause and are holding secret underground silence parties in dingy venues across the UK, during which they stand still and make no noise for 4 minutes 33 seconds, in a big two-fingered salute to the authorities.
Recently, riot police nearly had to break up a demonstration outside Downing St. by a group called "Silence is Golden", who attempted to stand there in silence for 4 mins 33 secs to protest the draconian law, and test the authorities' resolve. However, the demo was called off after 2 mins 48 secs when a pigeon from Trafalgar Square flew down Whitehall and shat on the organizer.
Shoddy ambient musician Andy Hersden of Two Humps was prosecuted for selling illegal downloads of the track over the internet and narrowly evaded prison by claiming stupidity. Indeed, this track was the only piece of music he could play faultlessly.
In 2002, British spoof Tibetan chanting troop 'The Gurtus Monks' were approached by mostly armless percussion group ‘One Hand Clapping’ to create a collaborative piece reminiscent of their home country. The result could be described as both innovative and confrontational as they decided to forego conventional wisdom and recorded ‘The Sound of Silence’, a piece featuring neither voice nor instrument.
Unfortunately when it first appeared for sale on a World Music compilation cd [‘Various Vocals, Variously Vocal’, on Cavendish], it clocked in at 4 minutes 33 seconds. The record company representing the John Cage estate accused the group of copying his legendary track and initiated legal proceedings. Cleverly, the Monks denied being party to the recording on the grounds that it was not possible to prove they had ever been present at the session and countersued for defamation of character.
At the trial, their cause was greatly helped by several famous World musicians [Peter Gabriel, alter-ego Phil Collins and legendary Two Humps dancer Portia] who spoke on their behalf. It took the jury less than an hour [techniquely 4 minutes and 33 seconds plus an extended coffee break] to find in favour of the Monks, who were awarded sufficient damages (after costs) to fund the cost of a new set of microphone stands. In a state of great excitement, the Monks instantly decamped to their studio and recorded the Cage-taunting 'Music for Prepared Thumb Piano'.
In February, 2012, in response to objections from the Cage estate, US Congressman Ron Paul changed his presidential campaign rally song from 4'33" to Borbetomagus' saxophone skronk freakout classic, "Barbed Wire Maggots".
Much of Cage's later life was spent in Alcatraz, having been convicted for crimes against music whilst still in his "composing really bad music" phase. He was given a life sentence, but later managed to escape, distracting the guards with a performance he put on for the whole prison - setting fire to a nitroglycerin-filled French horn whilst dressed as Zsa Zsa Gabor, with full upside-down orchestral backing.
He escaped to the countryside, where he lived in solitude, tormented by his illnesses, and his constant affliction of being unable to get 4'33" out of his head. He wrote only a few pieces in this time, though the monumental "G O D S A V E T H E C U R R E N T I N B R E D G E R M A N R O Y A L L E A D E R" was one of these few. It considered one of his best accomplishments, and is still used as the national anthem of Britain today.
His eventual suicide came as a shock to many who had come to regard many of his pieces in the same way as one regards a bat fuck insane, but otherwise harmless relative. A mass funeral was held, with a minute's silence, followed by a hearty rendition of 4'33" with Oscar Wilde on the piano, of which several encores were played.
Even in the afterlife, Cage's troubles were not over. He was denied access into Heaven after a jury of angels convicted him of plagiarism, citing that Cage's 4'33" was a shallow imitation of an ongoing song written by God, tentatively entitled 1.05x10^16' 33". Appalled at this allegation, Cage presented the jury with Exhibit B:
13 billion years
True to form, Cage is having another masterpiece posthumously performed from beyond the grave. 13 billion years consists of all the sounds and silences currently occurring in every part of the entire Universe being broadcast in "real time", as they happen. The work is written (or "non-written" as Cage called it) in a unique, cutting-edge style (or "non-style") of modern music called a "continuously evolving spontaneous Universal composition" and will continue playing for eternity.
The unfathomably, mind-bogglingly and incomprehensibly grandiose "performance" is being produced and sponsored by the environmental pressure group "The Brothers of John Cage the Divine". They hope to bring attention to the threats currently facing the Universe, including continual, unchecked expansion, random supernova, solar winds, asteroids hitting planets, and the preponderance of unidentified, unseen "Dark Matter".
A spokesman for BJCD said: "Despite the media attention given to the problems facing the Earth at the present time, these are troubling times indeed for the Universe at large. We hope that the performance of this unique and historical work will alert people to the impending cosmic catastrophe unfolding on their doorstep."
What the critics say
A veritable tour de force. (The Times)
If you thought you'd heard it all, wait till you hear this! Cage's latest masterpiece draws on the entire gamut of cosmological intonations to create a work that is vast in scale, unparallelled in variety of timbre, and mind-boggling in its range of influences - guaranteed to leave you begging for more! (Washington Post)
The furthest limits of musical expression have been reached. 13 billion years of musical evolution and innovation have finally culminated in John Cage's 13 billion years, the composition to end all compositions. Staggering. (Classical Music magazine)
I was lucky enough to get a front row seat for the premiere of 13 billion years. After the first few moments of the work, I was having convulsions. By the next moment, I was rolling around on the floor, bodily fluids ejecting themselves from every orifice. However, during the following moment, a strange calm came over me. And by the next moment, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at one with all creatures and all things. Since then, the feeling I get listening to the work can only be described as a truly blissflul Nirvana (Shop assistant from downtown Los Angeles)
If 4'33" flipped your switch, then 13 billion years will blow your brains out! Cage has built on the compositional foundations established in 4'33" and expanded them into something truly unique. And all this from a guy who liked nothing more than to collect mushrooms in his local park. Buy it today! (Reader's Digest)
Pompous toffs waste tax-payers' money again. (The Sun)
Highly recommended. The sound of another galaxy colliding with Andromeda is phenomenally exquisite, while the continuing roar of the vapour trail of Halley's comet never fails to send shivers down my spine. (Norman Lebrecht)
Notable Works by John Cage
- An Infinite Number of Monkeys Playing an Infinite Number of Notes All at Once
- Piano Falling Down Five Flights of Stairs in A Minor
- Piano Falling Down a Mine Shaft on A Miner
- A minor, visibly inebriated, playing a piano
- 4'33" (of Ear-splitting Silence)
- My Penis in A Minor (I swear, he was 18!)
- Set of Bagpipes Driven by the Exhaust from a Saturn V Rocket's First Stage
- The Detroit Symphony Orchestra Drowning in a Piranha-infested Swimming Pool in B-flat Major
- 537 Obese Nuns Screaming Random Obscenities at Intellectually-Inferior Art Critics
- Howler Monkeys Being Administered Battery Acid Enemas Whilst Scratching Their Claws Across Chalkboards in A-sharp Minor
- The Sound of One Bloody Stump Clapping
- Fuck You Stockhausen
- Soul Man
- Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
- The Crazy Frog
- Variations MCLXVI: For Any Number of Performers Making Any Sounds by Any Means in Any Number of Locations for an Unspecified Length of Time With or Without Recognising That They Are Doing So, and With or Without an Audience, Aware or Unaware That a Performance of Variations MCLXVI is Under Way.
- Sonatas and interludes for unprepared pianist
- Suite for toy piano
- Blues for a discolored donkey
- May Cause Discoloration Of The Urine Or Feces
- Variation on a theme from 4'33
- Naaffin'!!! (a revised version of "Nothing" for the London Cockney Tramp Choir)
- Sonata for Sausage-mincer and Prepared Water-tank
- The Sound of a Dry Twig Snapping Under the Weight of Nuked Earth
- Rainforest Escapades in F-sharp minor (composition for the Woodblock)
- I Major - In Math At Harvard
- As Slow As Possible, 693-year-long song. 
- BBC News. (2003). Retrieved December 27, 2007, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2728595.stm. For an update, see Wakin, D.J. (2006, May 6). John Cage's long music composition in Germany changes a note. Retrieved December 27, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/06/arts/music/06chor.html.
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