Jesse James and John Cage Match!

Roger Reynolds, Brian Ferneyhough, and John Cage in Warren Studio A, UCSD. Photograph by Bonnie Harkins.

“You probably know the one about the two monks, but I’ll tell it anyway.” –John Cage, Indeterminacy.

Sunday, September 5th marks the birthday of two legendary Americans: outlaw Jesse James and composer John Cage.

The astonishing range of Cage’s works is just hinted at by the names of the diverse artists he worked with: choreographer Merce Cunningham; pianist David Tudor, on their wonderfully spoken-word and music recording Indeterminacy ; and even avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra. But Cage’s most famous work, and the one he declared his favorite,  is certainly 4’33” , which is performed in three movements with no music.  But it is not, as is often assumed, 4’33” of silence. Cage told John Kobler of the Saturday Evening Post,”

There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement [in the premiere]. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” [1]

Remember Cage today by playing one of his works for prepared piano, or honor his memory by paying attention to silence, whether that silence is broken by the sound of your neighbor’s dog barking or of wind blowing through the leaves; or the meditative sound of your own breath.  For a more sonorous exercise in musical time, you could follow the example of the internet meme recently mentioned by New Yorker music critic  Alex Ross and create a 4’33” playlist.  Here’s my list of songs that are four minutes and thirty-three seconds long:

  • The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner,” by sensitive indie rockers Belle and Sebastian
  • I Don’t Want You on My Mind,” by Bill Withers, who recently graced the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium with his classic songs and great story-telling
  • Property of Jesus,” by Bob Dylan
  • Light a Candle,” by Swedish pop star Harpo, whose biggest hit was the ridiculously catchy “In the Zum Zum Zummernight”
  • Atlanta Blues,” from Louis Armstrong‘s tribute to W.C. Handy
  • Cold, Cold World,” by the late R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass
  • Bad Baby,” by Public Image Ltd., fronted by bad boy John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten

What’s on your list?

Read about Cage’s composition “The Wonderful Widow of  Eighteen Springs” in the Moldenhauer Archives in American Memory. As for our other birthday celebrant, listen to songs about Jesse James in The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip and Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941 in American Memory. And please, stay within the law.


[1] Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2003. 

4 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    September 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Alas, not the most impressive list, and some I’m kind of appalled to realize that I have:

    The Cool, Cool River 4:33 Paul Simon
    Unlove You 4:33 Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women
    Angie 4:33 The Rolling Stones
    Tit For Tat 4:33 KokoTaylor
    Heaven Help Us All 4:33 Ray Charles & Gladys Knight
    Roxanne ’97 (Puff Daddy Remix) 4:33 Sting & The Police
    Rikki Don’t Lose That Number 4:33 Steely Dan
    Track 05 4:33 Christy Snow
    Undercover Of The Night 4:33 The Rolling Stones
    Words Can’t Describe 4:33 Sarah Vaughan

  2. Pat Padua
    September 28, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Thanks lentigogirl!

  3. Gene
    December 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    A couple of Jimmy Buffet’s songs: School Boy Heart and Scarlet Begonias

    Marcia Ball’s Sparkle Paradise

    Sammy Kershaw’s Southland

    If Mr. Cage had been a bit less ambitious and composed 3’44”, i’d have a more extensive and interesting list.

  4. Terry Pittman
    May 3, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    While studying TV and film in 1980 at UNC-Chapel Hill, I directed a live TV performance of John Cage’s “Water Walk” that called for a bathtub filled with water to douse a vibrating gong in (the engineers were not pleased with the bathtub part but allowed it anyway). Even though it was 1980, the TV studio used by the RTVMP program was still B&W (RTVMP has since been incorporated into the Journalism and Communications program.) Sadly the recording was destroyed in a flooded storage space so there’s no longer any record of the bizarre performance, but I found a recording of John Cage himself performing the piece on live TV in 1960in a popular show called “I’ve got a secret” Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/gXOIkT1-QWY

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