Quick: What do you hear right now? Take a moment. What sounds are your brain processing? Is any of it music? Is all of it music? What about the silence?
If you took any of the above questions seriously, you have John Cage to thank. Born a century ago, Cage was a quirky, wise, naive, and above all fearless interrogator of sound, art, and life. Among his many achievements was to upend, almost completely, what we mean when we talk about music, sound, and silence, as well as what it means to be a composer and artist. "I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas," he famously said. "I’m frightened of the old ones." Thanks to Cage, four minutes and thirty-three seconds will never again be just four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is observing John Cage Day today, with a full complement of performances and discussions of Cage's work and intellectual context. We are happy to take note - after all, we were the original publisher of John Cage's Silence, his landmark collection of lectures, writings, and provocations. (The book has since moved on to another publisher.) And last year we published a collection of papers inquiring about Cage's relevance to the art world.
So what's the proper way to celebrate John Cage Day, assuming you can't be in New York for MoMA's potpurri? Here's a simple suggestion: Listen. Listen carefully to what you hear, what you don't hear that you expect to, what kind of music is formed by the strange everyday sounds you never really took notice of. It is everywhere - an strange, unpredictable soundtrack to the strange, unpredictable lives we all live. Try to hear it.