Today, guest scientist Andrew Boyd goes silent. The University of Houston
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"When people know only one name in contemporary music,"
writes author William Duckworth, "That name is usually John Cage."
Born in 1912, Cage wasn't the first composer to break with the traditional
constructs of western music; but his name is all but synonymous with
experimentalist music -- music that pushes the boundaries to such
extremes that we're left to question if it's really music at all. From early
on Cage knew he didn't have an ear for music and realized his contribution
would be, in his own word, "invention."
And invent he did. When he couldn't get a full orchestra of percussionists
in the same room to perform his compositions, he invented the prepared piano.
Bolts, rubber bands, pieces of paper, and anything else he could imagine were
attached to the strings inside a piano.
After a life-changing introduction to Eastern philosophy in his mid-thirties,
Cage began purposely incorporating randomness in his music. He tossed coins,
rolled dice, and used the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching to create what
he called "nonintentional" compositions. Randomness later became part of the
performance, too. In 1961, Cage would compose the Atlas Eclipticalis,
written with eighty-six instrumental parts to be played
"in whole or in part, any duration, in any ensemble, chamber or orchestral."
In 1959, Carol Lienhard participated in the second performance of Cage's
Imaginary Landscape Number Four. The piece was performed with twelve
radios and twenty-four musicians, one for each frequency and volume knob.
While things had gone well in the rehearsal facility, the metallic structure
of the performance hall blocked all incoming radio signals, leaving nothing but
static. Cage was delighted. Earlier, during Landscape's premier
performance, recordings capture the audience clapping wildly in response to a
brief fragment of a Beethoven quartet.
Novel music demanded novel notation. The score for one piece consisted of the single sentence:
"In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action."
Cage's most famous work, however, was the controversial Four Minutes and
Thirty-Three Seconds (4'33"), consisting of a musician sitting in front of
a piano playing absolutely nothing. Cage had conceived of the work many years
before it was actually performed, delaying its debut because he rightly believed
that people wouldn't take it seriously. In fact, it was intended to make people
aware of listening to the sounds that occur around us all of the time. Cursing
patrons, crying babies -- they're all part of life's music, and the backdrop against
which Cage invented.
"No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work,"
proclaimed Cage. "I listen to it every day. Yes I do."
There are those who claim Cage is the most important composer of the twentieth century,
just as there are those feel his life's work was intended as a joke; an audio version
of the king's new clothes. For myself, having been exposed to Cage's "inventiveness,"
I know of only one thing for certain: I've never since listened to any piece of music
quite the same way.
[5 seconds of awkward silence]
I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of provider of
pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin
College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research
from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten-year career as a university
Many thanks to John Whiting for his eyewitness details regarding performances of Imaginary
Landscape No. 2. Some of the material for this essay was taken from William Duckworth's
interview with John Cage late in the composer's life as captured in Talking Music, Da
Capo Press, 1999, first published by Schirmer Books, New York, 1995.
For a chronological list of Cage's major works, see
Prepared Piano (Image by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.