From No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”
John Cage’s 4’33” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well.
From Chapter One, 4′33″ at First Listening
John Cage’s 4′33″ is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.
What was this piece, this “composition” 4′33″? For so famous and recent a work, the number of questions that still surround it is extraordinary—from its lost original manuscript, to its multiple notations, to unexplained deviations in the lengths of the movements, to the peculiar process of adding up silences with which it was composed, to the biggest ambiguity of all: How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of 20th-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior? Let’s try the hoax hypothesis. Here are some definitions for hoax:
1. An act intended to deceive or trick;
2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means;
3. Deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage (synonym: fraud);
4. A deception for mockery or mischief.
In what was Cage trying to deceive the audience? Attempting to make them think they had heard something when they hadn’t? The audience was fully aware that Tudor was sitting onstage and neither touching the keyboard nor making any audible sounds. If Cage was trying to fool the audience into thinking he had written a piece when he really hadn’t, who was deceived? One could argue that Cage was mocking the audience, but he wasn’t doing so by deceiving them. There was no attempt to cover up what 4′33″ was: a man sitting at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing. There was no moment following the performance at which listeners learned that what they’d heard was not what they thought.
Perhaps it was trickery intended to gain an advantage? Ah yes, the advantage! And what was that advantage? Why, money, of course! Every time I have ever played or explained 4′33″ to a class, one student has always exclaimed indignantly, “You mean he got paid for that?” According to the common understanding of how musicians lead their careers, the musician makes some music, it gets played, and the musician is given some money through some means or another. But Cage wasn’t paid for writing 4′33″; the piece wasn’t commissioned. The concert was a benefit for a good cause. The money people paid to hear David Tudor play did not go to Cage, or even to Tudor.
And in fact, while songwriters usually get paid for their performances and receive royalties for the use of their songs, classical composers like Cage sometimes compose for commissions, but also often write pieces with no commission at all. Often they compose simply because they have an idea, or they’re building up a portfolio for future performances, or they’re trying to advance their careers by doing something impressive, or—quite often—they compose for the sheer love of composing, which can be an enjoyable and fulfilling activity. At that time, Cage was, as he said, “poor as a church mouse,” and he had been so for many years. He had spent the year 1951 composing his piano piece Music of Changes on the sidewalk and on the subway, and asking friends and strangers to support him by buying shares in his music in case it ever did actually make some money. The year following the 4′33″ premiere, the old Lower West Side apartment house Cage was living in was scheduled for demolition, and he was forced to relocate. Not affluent enough to find another place in the city (even with cheap 1950s rents), he eventually moved with friends to an artists’ collective upstate at the community of Stony Point, where he could enjoy two small rooms for $24.15 a month (about $194 in 2008 dollars).1 Not until the 1960s would Cage gain any measure of financial security. The idea that he might have made any money off an avant-garde gesture like 4′33″ is a raw caricature of a composer’s life. (In the 1960s, however, when he was much more famous, Cage did sell the manuscript of 4′33″ for a large sum of money, much as one might sell any document that had come to have historical significance.)
Or perhaps Cage was just lazy, “writing” a piece that took no work at all and hoping to make some money off it later. Any such impression is belied by the sheer volume of Cage’s lifelong output, the detailed complexity of many of his scores, and the loving care he put into copying his manuscripts. He would later say that 4′33″ took longer for him to write than any other piece, because he worked on it, as a concept, for four years. And in 1951 he had written the tremendously virtuosic and complex Music of Changes, more difficult to conceive and compose than anything a lazy person would have ever contemplated.
In 2004 the BBC broadcast an orchestral version of 4′33″—which meant that the BBC Symphony Orchestra sat onstage for four and a half minutes without making sounds, and people listened to their silence in the hall and over the radio. Some of the comments the BBC received over the Internet played into the “hoax” theme:
I’m sorry, but this is absolutely ridiculous. The rock ‘n’ rollers and the punks were wrongly bashed in their day, but this genuinely deserves a big thumbs down.
This is clearly a gimmick, when he ‘wrote’ this piece he was testing who was stupid enough to fall for it. I think you’ll find he wrote it on 01 April 1952.
I find it quite patronising and disturbing that self proclaimed intellectuals are trying to convince us that this is art—just another nail in the coffin for the world of art!
Is this how our licence fee money is being used? I’ve never heard of such a stupid thing in my life! God rest his soul, but this ‘composition’ by Cage smacks of arrogance and self importance . . .
Emperor’s new clothes anyone?2
Yet for the rest of his life, Cage talked about 4′33″ as his most important work, the one he returned to again and again as the basis for his other new works. He knew what it consisted of and was well aware of the range of receptions it generated.
How about the “joke” theory? Well, Cage was certainly afraid it would be taken as a joke, which is why it took him four and a half years (nice coincidence) from conceiving the piece to actually presenting it publicly. (“I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he once told a critic.)3 In a 1973 interview he admitted, “I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it would appear as if I were making a joke. In fact, I probably worked longer on my ‘silent’ piece than I worked on any other.”4 Cage explained the “joke”: “I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements, and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.”5 For a joke, this is an awfully earnest philosophical program.
How about Dada? Dada was an art movement, or perhaps anti-art movement, associated with the period during and after World War I. Disillusioned by the great world of European culture being plunged into war, artists like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Tauber, Erik Satie, and others dove into a world of nonsensical art that eschewed reason and logic in favor of chaos, randomness, and paradox. In the foreword to his seminal early book Silence, Cage acknowledges a debt to Dada, and Satie was one of his favorite composers. Cage also notes that “what was Dada in Duchamp’s day is now just art,” but on Cage’s own authority the possibility that 4′33″ was a Dada-inspired gesture, even if also more than that, cannot be entirely dismissed.
How about theater? One of the crucial aspects of 4′33″, at least in the first performances, is that there was a pianist onstage, whose presence, and whose behavior in the previous pieces on the program, clearly led the audience to expect that his hands would at some point engage the keyboard, and that they would hear deliberately made sounds coming from the stage. That this did not happen, that the listeners’ expectations were deliberately flouted, cannot be entirely divorced from the sonic identity of the piece, even though the way Cage talked about 4′33″ later in life—claiming, for instance, that he often “performed” the piece while alone—seems to suggest that it can. As New York Times critic Edward Rothstein suggested in a rather unsympathetic obituary of Cage, had Cage simply wanted his audience to listen, he could always have instructed them to do so.6 In fact, following 4′33″, Cage’s music, by his own enthusiastic admission, began tending more and more toward theater, and during the 1960s in particular he became very interested in the physical and cognitive relationship between performers and audience members.
The description of 4′33″‘s theatrical recontextualization can hardly be phrased more delicately and thoroughly, I think, than Douglas Kahn has done:
Ostensibly, even an audience comprised of reverential listeners would have plenty to hear, but in every performance I’ve attended the silence has been broken by the audience and become ironically noisy. It should be noted that each performance was held in a concert setting, where any muttering or clearing one’s throat, let alone heckling, was a breach of decorum. Thus, there was already in place in these settings, as in other settings for Western art music, a culturally specific mandate to be silent, a mandate regulating the behavior that precedes and accompanies musical performance. As with prayer, which has not always been silent, concertgoers were at one time more boisterous; this association was not lost on Luigi Russolo, who remarked on “the cretinous religious emotion of the Buddha-like listeners, drunk with repeating for the thousandth time their more or less acquired and snobbish ecstasy.” 4′33″, by tacitly instructing the performer to remain quiet in all respects, muted the site of centralized and privileged utterance, disrupted the unspoken audience code to remain unspoken, transposed the performance onto the audience members both in their utterances and in the acts of shifting perception toward other sounds, and legitimated bad behavior that in any number of other settings (including musical ones) would have been perfectly acceptable. 4′33″ achieved this involution through the act of silencing the performer. That is, Cagean silence followed and was dependent on a silencing. Indeed, it can also be understood that he extended the decorum of silencing by extending the silence imposed on the audience to the performer, asking the audience to continue to be obedient listeners and not to engage in the utterances that would distract them from shifting their perception toward other sounds. Extending the musical silencing, then, set into motion the process by which the realm of musical sounds would itself be extended.7
Kahn is right: 4′33″ cannot be bracketed as a purely sonic phenomenon. It called upon the audience members to remain obediently silent under unusual conditions. The pianist’s refusal to play calls a whole network of social connections into question and is likely to be reflected in equally unconventional responses on the part of the audience.
How about a “thought experiment,” a kind of “metamusic” that makes a statement about music itself? For many people, including me, 4′33″ is certainly that, if not only that. One story about Cage recounts his sitting in a restaurant with the painter Willem de Kooning, who, for the sake of argument, placed his fingers in such a way as to frame some bread crumbs on the table and said, “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art.” Cage argued that it indeed was art, which tells us something about 4′33″.8 Certainly, through the conventional and well-understood acts of placing the title of a composition on a program and arranging the audience in chairs facing a pianist, Cage was framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived. One of the most common effects of 4′33″—possibly the most important and widespread effect—was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art. Perhaps even more, its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between “art” and “non-art” is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions. A person who took away nothing from 4′33″ but this realization would, in my view, already be taking home something revolutionary.
From a broader perspective, how about 4′33″ as the apotheosis of twentieth-century music? There is something intriguing about the piece’s position as a kind of midpoint of the century. The years just following World War II had seen a resurgence of the twelve-tone music invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Milton Babbitt were expanding the twelve-tone idea from the realm of pitch to include rhythm, dynamics, and timbre, and in the process creating music of unprecedented complexity. Such hyperstructured music began to verge on the realm of incomprehensibility, a kind of perceptual chaos arising paradoxically from rational processes.
It’s true that most of this development appeared in the years just following 4′33″, but in the 1960s it became common to talk about how little different the super-controlled music of Stockhausen and Babbitt sounded from the totally chance-controlled music Cage was writing. And indirectly 4′33″ led to the developments from which grew the simpler and more accessible new style of minimalism. As a locus of historical hermeneutics, 4′33″ can be seen as a result of the exhaustion of the overgrown classical tradition that preceded it, a clearing of the ground that allowed a new musical era to start from scratch.
And how about 4′33″ as an example of Zen practice? This, I think, may be the most directly fertile suggestion. Cage first spoke of the possibility of a silent piece in 1948, and several steps in his thinking led him, over the next four years, to the inevitability of presenting such a work in public. There are many levels on which 4′33″ can be understood, and many simultaneous meanings to be grasped within it—which, after all, is one of the signs by which any great work of art can be recognized as such.9
2. “Radio 3 Plays Silent Symphony,” BBC News, January 19, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3401901.stm (accessed April 9, 2009).
9. Philip Gentry has theorized that 4′33″ might have represented for Cage, or for some of the audience, an appropriation or expression of the silence that gay men were forced to maintain (even more than usual) during the repression of the McCarthy era, when gays were being fired from government and institutional jobs—and that the audience’s anger may have had to do with the inherent homosexuality of the gesture, given Cage’s persona. However this may be, the anger does seem disproportionate in a way that begs for further explanation. See Gentry, “Cultural Politics of 4′33″.”