The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. Silence is greater than music because it is its central organizing principle, the way the negative space around an object is what gives it a shape, the way you love someone for what they are not — the person who will not break a promise, the person who will not pass a collapsed bicycle without picking it up, the person who will not interrupt your reverie but will instead wait silently beside you until you open your eyes, is a particular kind of person, and it is each other’s particularity that we love. Just as a person is composed of their nos even more so than their yeses, sound becomes music through the silences between its notes — or else it would be noise.

Four days before his fortieth birthday, John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) instantly and permanently broadened the meaning of music by deepening our relationship to silence with the premiere of his now iconic composition 4’33”, inspired by his formative immersion in Zen Buddhism and “performed” by the virtuoso pianist David Tudor in a barn-like concert hall in Woodstock, New York — four minutes and thirty-three seconds of pure silence, suddenly rendering musical the ambient sounds of ordinary life.

Writer Nicholas Day and artist Chris Raschka bring the story of this quiet revolution to life in Nothing: John Cage and 4’33” (public library) — a spare, vibrant serenade to Cage’s masterpiece and its lasting existential echoes, challenging our most basic assumptions about what makes anything itself.

The story begins and ends with Tudor sitting at the piano that fateful summer evening in 1952, but in the smallness and stillness of that moment myriad questions about the nature of sound and the nature of attention come abloom, questions about how to listen and what to listen for, about who it is that does the listening, about the very nature of the self.

In the biographical afterword, Day writes:

What is music?
What is silence?
Can silence be music?
Can music be silence?


Are there even answers to these questions?
For Cage, the questions were always the important part, because the questions were more interesting than the answers. The questions often led to more questions, instead of answers.

Like Beatrice Harrison, Cage was taken to a concert as a small child and stood in the aisle spellbound through the entire performance. He fell in love with sound long before he took his first music lesson. In a sentiment common to everyone who puts anything of beauty and substance into the world, Cage would later reflect:

We make our lives by what we love.

Complement Nothing with Kay Larson’s exquisite meditation on John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists — one of the finest books I have ever read — and Cage’s symphonic love letters to the love of his life, then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Keith Haring, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Wise Brown, Emily Dickinson, John Lewis, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Wangari Maathai, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Chris Raschka courtesy of Neal Porter Books/Holiday House Publishing; photographs by Maria Popova

Published May 13, 2024




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