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Express Yourself: Taking the Leap to Go Against Mainstream Culture with Knowledge of Music History

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JOHN CAGE, A PORTRAIT OF THE MUSIC COMPOSER, IN 1991.

My composition was based on a piece by John Cage titled “In a Landscape.” Cage started composing in the early-mid 20th century and was a vanguard for experimental piano music. The start of the modern era invited people to think, listen, and see music in a different way than before, especially in terms of classical piano music. Cage opened the door for people to express themselves through music in any way that is. I wrote my piece based off of his music because I wanted not only to challenge myself to create music differently than I would have originally approached it, but also to remind people that there are no boundaries to music.

My original composition, titled “In a Mindscape”

There is lots of “wiggle room” when one is discussing musical eras and time periods. Many historians and musicians have their own views of when periods start and end and how many there are. I like to think of music, primarily piano, as being placed into four categories: the baroque period ranging from 1600-1750, the classical period from 1750-1820, the romantic period from 1820-1900, and finally the modern era which stated in 1900 and is still going on today. 

The baroque and classical composers are known for sticking to strict rhythmic clarity terraced dynamics. Three words commonly used to describe classical music are balance, unity and refinement. However, romantic composers were some of the first to stray away from these unspoken rules with the introduction of rubato and emotionalism in their pieces. Romantic music started to tell stories, with clearly defined moods in each section of a piece. 

John Cage was involved in music as well as the start of the modern dance movement we know today. He was a self-titled artist, music theorist, and philosopher too. Though he was a pioneer of the avant-garde era in all ways, his most famous composition has been highly contested.  

William Marx playing Cage’s “4’33””

Ask a group of people this question: is silence a form of music? Today, you will probably find that there are more people who think of silence as a form of music than those who don’t. But, in 1952 when Cage wrote 4’33”, the sentiments were not the same. The piece is a full four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The player is instructed to simply sit on the piano bench and leave their hands hovering above the keys. While this is how Cage originally intended for the piece to be performed, there have been numerous interpretations of it, such as William Marx’s above. The intent of the song was to force audiences to make music about of natural sounds around them, be them cars driving outside, coughing, whispering, or complete silence. 

As a New Orleans native, I am so stranger to the history of jazz music. It is odd to think that in their time, American icons such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and others were regarded as players of “the devil’s music”. Jazz incorporated new rhythms and stories, mainly of the black-American experience. It was not until many years after the birth of jazz that mainstream audiences appreciated the art form like many do today. Though the public has come a long way since the 1920s, new music emerges every day and is met with the same kind of criticism that jazz once did.

Though Cage and other vanguards of the mid 20th century were hotly contested, their impact still lasts today. These visual artists, dancers, musicians and thinkers opened the door for other artists to express themselves in whatever way they wished. They serve as a reminder to push the boundaries of one’s environment; just because your ideas are not popular with your own time, you never know which ones will be as timeless as those who came before you.

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COMMENTS: 1
  1. April 25, 2019 by Isabella Bohlen Reply

    Hey! Your project is super cool and unique. Where’s your favorite place in New Orleans to go to listen to jazz? Also you seem very well-versed I’m curious if you play an instrument? The part that struck me the most was that silence can actually be considered a form of music I’ve never thought of it that way before

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