The Art of Noise

By Zebrowski, Carl | America in WWII, February 2014 | Go to article overview

The Art of Noise


Zebrowski, Carl, America in WWII


THE EARLY 1940S were noisy years. Factories were humming, bombs bursting, planes buzzing overhead, cars rumbling down streets, and radios blaring. Part of the racket was war. Part was simply the modern age. All of it was music to the ears of John Cage.

You'd expect an unusual aesthetic sensibility in an artist who studied music with experimental composers. By the time the world kicked industrial production into high gear to churn out ships, planes, bullets, and other war necessities, Cage was about 30 and was busy becoming an experimental composer in his own right. Through the war years, he wrote more than three dozen pieces, mostly percussion-oriented accompaniments for dance that are not often recognized these days by their titles. His rhythmic focus in these works mitigated a substantial musical shortcoming of his: "I can't keep a tune," he said. "In fact I have no talent for music."

Cage's wartime pieces reverberated with "prepared piano"--a piano that might be described as deliberately made noisy. Cage's own invention, prepared piano was a standard piano whose strings were rigged with paper, rubber bands, and other materials to produce clanky or buzzy percussive sounds. For his 1942 work And the Earth Shall Bear Again, for example, screws were attached to the strings of 10 notes and strips of wool weaved through another octave and a half. Many listeners heard mere noise in these pieces and no hint of rhyme or reason. …

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