First movement of 4'33"
This month the perpetual music experimenter John Cage would have celebrated his 100th birthday. A composer who was able to find beauty in the common and the mundane, creating music with toasters, cacti and garbage can lids, then transforming the sound quality of traditional instruments, as in his prepared pianos but he was also a master in his use of silence, most notably in his piece 4’33”. Alex Ross music critic for The New Yorker writes about Cage, “he accomplished something like a colossal land grab, annexing the entire landscape of sound, from pure noise to pure silence” because “as he [Cage] said, there is nothing that is not music, there is nothing that is not Cage.” Unlike any other composer, Cage’s music questions our very assumptions of what music is and what it can be.
Score for 4'33"
4”33’, the piece Cage is most well known for, questions those assumptions at the highest level. In the first performance on August 29, 1952, David Tudor sat at a piano with a score with no music written on it and played nothing. As Cage later recalled in the three movements of “silence”, “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” A dramatic way to inform the audience that there is no such thing as silence and to reconceive music as the sounds which surround us (a similar readjustment occurred with Kasmir Malevich’s 1918 painting White on White). Far from a one-time parlor trick, Cage’s silence manifesto has been performed numerous times since that premiere performance to the delight or chagrin of the audience. Ever a controversial piece, the dive of music into silence is the ultimate place music would have arrived whether or not Cage created the piece.
In a 1949 lecture (Lecture on Nothing, preceding the show about nothing by forty years) given at the Artists’ Club on 8th Street in New York City, Cage stated, “I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.” Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Cage saw “making my [his] responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices” in his music. Cage decided at this point to give up control over his music and leave the decisions up to chance operations such as the rolling of dice or pulling lots . This philosophy was further clarified(obscured?) by Cage:
Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing, and when you sing, you are where you are. All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.
It is this philosophy of nothingness which the philosopher Albert Camus saw as the means to absolute freedom, a concept Cage understood in regards to making his music. But the cost of that freedom is nothingness, emptiness, meaningless and silence.
Alternate score for 4'33"
While the best the world can offer is music of nothingness, with nothing written on the music score and nothing for a performer to play, it is at this point where the world and various religions would state that a person has reached some sort of musical “enlightenment.” Extracting this concept further, the philosophy of silence and nothingness moves beyond music and into the very fabric of life with the solution for the human condition is for a person to empty themselves, a concept touted by various religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) as well as atheists (Nietzsche, Camus, etc.). In Christianity though, the arrival to that state of emptiness is not the end in itself but rather a beginning of something new. This is what is referred to in the New Testament as “dying with Christ” (Rom. 6:8, Col. 2:20, Col. 3:3 and 2 Tim. 2:11), which occurs not only at the moment of a person’s justification but in a continuous manner in the sanctification of a believer through Christ. In a conversation with his disciples Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
A score in the opposite vien of 4'33"
But since Jesus overcame death and rose from the dead on the third day, believers who experience his death (death of themselves) will now instead be filled with Christ. This is why Paul can write with such confidence, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) It is in the silence and death that God, the author of creation and all creativity, begins a new work in a person because “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinth. 5:17) On those blank pages of music, God fills in the empty staves with melodies, rhythms and harmonies so that instead of nothingness a person has fullness in their union with Christ, performing not their will but God’s will.
 Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2002), 70.
 John Cage, “An Autobiographical Statement,” Southwest Review 76 (Winter 1990): 59-76.
 John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” given at the Artists’ Club New York City, 1949.