Norges musikkhøgskole Norwegian Academy of Music
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Magnus Andersson: Elaborating nothing. John Cage's Aesthetics of Silence

How do you to play "nothing"? How do you listen to a pause? Can silence have its own history and aesthetics?

Field of study: Performance Practice


How can Cage’s aesthetics of silence be understood as an affirmative and creative practice? Cage did not set out to prove philosophical or aesthetical points with his practice, but with his works, he invited the performer and listener to act and experience. His musical works are not objects to contemplate, but ‘processes’ to take part in.

This basic premise is scrutinized through a combined reading of Cage’s prose and musical works. In a time frame from “Other People Think” (1927) to One with 103 (1992) specific recurring themes are identified, such as silence, selflessness, nothing and attempting to let the function of art [be] to imitate nature in her manner of operation. These are elaborated through a modernist approach, Indian aesthetics, and Zen, but most significantly, in 1952, their significance stabilizes in what is called ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’. The most radical change in the latter half of Cage’s life was discovering the work of Henry David Thoreau, which imbued his aesthetical ideas with political implications.

With ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ as a chronological narrative, the dissertation makes a parallel reading of Cage’s oeuvre and the literature he read, most prominently Suzuki’s writings on Zen. It also questions key facets of his aesthetics: is there a relevant ‘work’ concept which can encapsulate his compositional outcomes; could the constant striving towards the ‘new’ be other than in vain; could Cage really free himself of his ego through chance operations; if chance made the decisions, how was chance put to work; how did Cage’s changing (religious) world views affect his understanding of his practice?

Through scrutinizing ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, it is suggested that Cage’s diverse artistic expressions can be read as parts of one practice.

The dissertation

Title: Elaborating noting. John Cage's Aesthetics of Silence.

The dissertation is a monograph, written in English. The dissertation is available in NMH's library. It is not available digitally.

Published: Jan 10, 2017 — Last updated: Aug 2, 2022