Today would have been avant-garde composer John Cage's 103rd birthday (he died in 1992) — and that makes it a fitting time to listen to his most infamous piece: 1952's 4'33", a four-minute and 33-second piece in which the musicians don't play their instruments at all.
The above version, performed by the BBC Orchestra and conducted by Lawrence Foster, was part of the orchestra's 2004 retrospective of Cage's work. From the beginning, 4'33" was controversial — some critics praised it as revelatory, while others saw it as indulgent.
In an age defined by the "Rick Roll" (which we explained in this video), it's tempting to think of Cage's "silent" piece as an extended practical joke. But that wasn't necessarily his intent. As he told David Revill in 1992's The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life, "I didn't wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do, or as a joke ... I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it."
He told Revill that he worked on the concept for four and a half years, and in an interview that appears in Richard Kostelanetz's 1988 Conversing With Cage, he shared more about his motivation:
They missed the point. 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. 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.
That thinking was in tune with the vibrant, experimental art scene in the '40s and '50s at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, where Cage and other artists studied, including painters Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. As the group played with form and performance, Cage's piece emerged. He later said to Revill, "My most important work is my silent piece."
However you view Cage's work, either as a meditation on music or as an impish prank, you can still enjoy it today. If meditating on the original version isn't your speed, you can always listen to YouTube user Edo Animus's amazing hyperspeed death metal cover (the piece starts at 1:10):