blank billboard

What 4’33” Teaches Us

Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act. Andy Costello explores stories of silence—both inside and beyond the traditional classroom—that have little to say and plenty to teach.

Written By

Andy Costello

I would like to begin anecdotally. My primary activity in music, aside from performing, is educating. I teach ferociously, intrepidly, and passionately. I teach 12-month olds, 24-month olds, 3-year olds, 4-year olds, pre-teens, teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, retirees. I teach the mentally challenged, the exceptionally gifted, undergraduate music majors, undergraduates with a hobby in music, pre-collegiate young artists, and all ages under 18 as a glorified babysitter. I teach in classrooms, in lecture halls, in concert halls, in orchestra, choir, and band rooms, in my home, in students’ homes, in public libraries, on the street, in shopping malls, and remotely via Skype or email. I teach in English, in French, in Spanish, and sometimes in two at the same time. I teach piano, guitar, dramatic theater, voice, contemporary music, ear training, sightsinging, theory, harmony and counterpoint; I teach pop music, hip hop, jazz, classical, rock, R&B, boogie woogie, or a bizarre combination of all of the above at the student’s request; I teach friends, friends of friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, lovers, family, strangers; I give career advice, school advice, work advice, relationship advice, marriage advice, family advice, tentative advice, adamant advice, and refuse to give advice at all;  I teach as early as 4 a.m, and as late as 1 a.m.; I teach 12 hours straight, I travel over an hour each way to teach for 30 minutes; I teach by course syllabus, by textbook, by photocopied handouts, by total free improvisation; I teach the hearing impaired solely by visual cues, linguistically impaired solely by ear… These are all the ways I’ve taught and continue to teach—this is a window into the lifestyle and profession of education. It is a living, breathing, shifting shape that transfers thought from one body to another, in real time and in real space. The act of teaching, that is, the dynamic means of transferring knowledge, mimics the shape—a shape that is perhaps unknowable, ungraspable, and unconquerable—of knowledge itself.

This introduction was meant to astound; I begin my discussion in this way because education truly is astounding. Astounded, I will position myself behind the work of Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed I find relevant, profound, and articulate in expressing the need for education in the ongoing struggle for liberation of the unprivileged and oppressed peoples of the world.[1] This form of education takes shape beyond the restrictive nature of a classroom; pedagogy is indeed omnipresent, and potentially omnipotent. Pedagogy as a performative gesture can ignite political action, or embody a campaign for social justice in the good, raw form of the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, if we simply make the effort of acknowledging, receiving, and reinvigorating pedagogy’s potential role.

all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

I will treat John Cage and, in particular, his momentous work 4’33”, which engages the performer(s) of the score to refrain from playing their instrument(s) for the entirety of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as a pedagogical act. Willful silence, in all its performative manifestations, will be treated as pedagogical as well.

In order to understand the premise of this essay, the reader is required to welcome the assertion that all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and that all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

All performative acts are pedagogical in nature. Paulo Freire transgresses beyond the boundaries of the classroom in his discussion of pedagogy when he begins a chapter with the sentence: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, [emphasis mine] reveals its fundamentally narrative character.” “At any level, inside or outside the school” is an attempt to transgress the classroom—that is, to move against and beyond the boundaries of what we properly view as education.[2]

Art is something even when it is nothing; silence is something. Cage did say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” but he also said that art is a form of complaint.[3] A complaint is external negativity—an un-externalized complaint is not a complaint at all. The uttering of words or production of bodily sound is what launches a critical thought or gesture into the externalized world, thus giving birth to a complaint. As we will explore deeper through examples, silence can be employed when sound is expected, as well as subverted when one expects silence. Later in the essay, this will be referred to as subverting silence / silently subverting.[4]

4’33” is an externalization, and powerfully so, of a deliberately shared thing, even if that thing happens to be silence, even if that thing happens to be no-thing. The thing, in this context, is a classical music composition, and the willful absence of that thing—the nothing—is 4’33”. Silence in a performance of 4’33” is knowledge willfully shared, willfully externalized; in short, a complaint. Silence, too, is a form of complaint, when conventions expect sound.

Empty frame on the wall

In classical music, silence is a loud complaint against the expectation of sound. Equally so, in a climate that values and expects explication from the artist, to say nothing is a loud, theoretical critique of the desire/need for critical theory that legitimizes one’s own artwork.

In pedagogy, silence can be understood as a fundamental explicative absence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière acknowledges the role of teacher in conventional classroom education:

In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.[5]

What happens when Rancière’s “essential act of the master” disappears? What happens when teachers—that is any individual or group of individuals who transmit knowledge (knowingly or not)—no longer explicate? Can the power of silence debunk the expectation for the (school)master’s explication? If silence and absence are powerful educational tools, what purpose will explication serve? What power structure does the need for explication promote and non-explication silently subvert? As Rancière asks, “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?”[6]

I will briefly read scripts of silence that have little to say and plenty to teach. The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher. The tenor of these tales is the notion of subverting silence / silently subverting—that is, the subversion of silence when externally imposed, and the use of silence in order to subvert the expectation of sound. These stories breathe new life into the memory of John Cage’s 4’33”, while suggesting relevant pedagogical acts we can learn from today, and use tomorrow.

Democrats (not) in the House

In this particular iteration of silence, the House conducts a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims. What is not fascinating is that there was indeed a moment of silence given to the Orlando shooting victims, nor was it fascinating that the House erupted in protest immediately following that silence; what is notable is what Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did and said about the event, and why they were not there for it.

Announcing his boycott of the moment of silence the day before, Jim Himes contemned “silence. That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week’s massacre of its citizens […] Silence. Not me. Not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity, and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.” Nancy Pelosi offered her view, “The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is not a license to do nothing.” By refusing to be silent, Himes and Pelosi create a vocal opposition; by creating absence where presence is expected, Himes and Pelosi become more performatively present than anyone else in the House.

“[A moment of silence] is not a license to do nothing” is an intriguing statement that illuminates the complexity of silence, subversion, and their dynamic pedagogical possibilities.

Moment of “Silence”

A common Black Lives Matter protest is 4.5 minutes of silence, to represent the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street following his murder. The moment of silence is not what is fascinating here—these moments of silence for Michael Brown were held throughout the country. What is fascinating is how Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, and her fellow BLM activists use vocal dissent to coerce their way onto the stage and onto the microphone, only to again subvert expectation with silence. When obedience to the scheduled speaker (Bernie Sanders) was expected of them, they were most vocal. Once in control of the microphone and expected to speak, they employed silence. These events express their progression from subverting silence to silently subverting, using both presence and absence through their presence, and playing the role of non-explicative schoolmasters.

A meaningful use of breaking silence is shown in the privileged protest of anonymous hecklers. This is an iteration of 4’33” that perhaps Cage could have conceived of in his lifetime. Cage’s 4’33” originally subverted the establishment (at the time, Eurocentric, academic, classical music composition), while here at a 2015 rally, BLM Seattle’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence was a subversive act against the will of the audience. It was met by hecklers that represent establishment’s response to being subverted upon, a complaint upon a complaint, art upon art. Would Cage welcome this? Here, he claims that he would simply listen to some rude bodily noise, so perhaps the answer is yes. A year ago on my blog, I was moved to transcribe the unintentional participatory performance from this particular camera perspective, in honor of John Cage and in solidarity with BLM.

The Silver Tongued Poet Exercises His Right To Remain Silent

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, it is more than appropriate to look back upon his legacy as a teacher through the willful silencing of his Black voice, specifically his trip to Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967 (14 years after the premiere of 4’33”). Ali did not have to take this trip. After receiving a letter from the U.S. Army, Ali could have simply filed as a conscientious objector like many others silently did, but instead, he used his celebrity to stage an important and unforgettable lesson. Ali flew from Chicago to Houston, took all physical and mental examinations, was tormented by doctors and army personnel, only to remain silent and motionless when his name was called. His name was called many times as “Cassius Clay,” and once, finally, in desperation, as “Muhammad Ali.” Each time, Ali did not respond. Ali, a man with the most agile of bodies, remained motionless. Ali, a man with the quickest, sharpest, and most eloquent of tongues, remained silent. In that moment, his pedagogical practice transgressed words and movement, and the oppressors’ expectations of them.[7]

Me in Middle School

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

education, elementary school, learning and people

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I thought about the willful silence on my part as the (school)master as my authority was subverted on a more and more profound level with each passing movement. I thought about the willful subversion of silence on the part of the classroom, despite their unanimous desire to take the challenge of remaining silent. And finally, I thought about $35,100—the cost of yearly tuition at that school. I thought about what these kids must have thought and felt when they laughed, talked, and threw objects across the room, during a moment we collectively agreed upon as “silence.” I wonder if some day, perhaps much much later from now, they and I will find clarity in this silent lesson. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we, as a classroom, already do understand the lesson as best we can. When the lesson willfully explicates nothing, is there anything up for regurgitation—the classical evidence of having learned? Like any performance of 4’33”, perhaps it is only the feeling and the experience itself that we can walk away with. Perhaps there is nothing to say, and I am saying it, as an educator, as a thinker, as an artist.

This sentence was written as I prepare in Chicago for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but notice how much darkness looms around me: personally, two friends’ parents have suddenly died; citywide, a scandal erupts in the theater community by the way of misogyny and abuse; statewide, a debilitating standoff is occurring on the state budget level; and nationally, an armed civilian killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. And another more banal, neutral—yet essential—piece of news: another school year has come to a close. This is all floating in the air as these words fall upon the page.

A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

Reflecting on pedagogy, as well as current events, it is perhaps now more than ever that we need a pedagogy that is simple, direct, and a fundamentally positive influence upon society. We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy.[8] We need a new pedagogy that responds alongside the boundless dynamism of political struggles in wealth, race, gender, and sexuality, yet endeavors to liberate the circumscribed dynamism of power, currently—and wrongfully—defined by haves and have-nots.[9] Just as 4’33” incited negative reactions from its first audiences, truly liberatory education incites resentment and anger from many of those who already enjoy full liberty. A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

I believe this pedagogy can often manifest in silence, whether it is the silent subverting of the expectation of sound, or the subverting of silence itself by creating sound when it is not desired by an oppressor/oppressive force. Learning from 4’33” as a musician, performing silence can liberate or oppress, assuage or provoke, subvert or comply—education can do all of these things too. 4’33” mimics the unknowable, ungraspable, unconquerable shifting shape of knowledge itself. Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.

Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Dedicated to the music of living composers, Andy Costello’s solo repertoire champions works by living composers all over the world. He is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago, and he previously served as a visiting artist for the composition department at The Boston Conservatory and as a guest artist at Time Forms / Formes Temporelles, Columbia College Chicago, Laboratoire de Musique Contemporaine de Montréal, and Scotia Chamber Music Festival.

In Spring 2014, Andy founded the Morton Feldman Chamber Players (MFCP), a non-profit organization devoted to programming the solo and chamber works of Morton Feldman in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, MFCP has been partnered with the Experimental Sound Studio and Iarca Gallery since the Fall of 2014.

1. The related authors and books of the type of pedagogical theory I’m particularly interested in, arguing for the liberation for the oppressed, include Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

2. I am particularly drawn to bell hooks’s definition of transgression in her work Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom: “With these essays, I add my voice to the collective call for renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices. Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

3. The statement “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is from page 109 of Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The notion of art as complaint comes to Cage, as far as I can tell, from Jasper Johns, whom Cage quotes as saying, “all art is either a complaint or an appeasement.” Subsequently, Cage writes a mesostic on the subject, “art is either a complaint or do something else.”

4. The baggage behind the word subversion is deep and complicated. Ali mentions on page 177 of his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story that he was on a list of “undesirable subversives” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The context, however, was amidst an experience with a college student, where the college student, in a particularly touching experience, encouraged Ali warmly: “See, you’re number one on the list.” (Though the list was simply in alphabetical order, as Ali noticed.) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that to the oppressor, “the pursuit of full humanity” is identified as subversion, and labeling someone a subversive is a denial of the basic need of the oppressed to achieve full human potential: “Humanity is a ‘thing,’ and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pur­suit of full humanity, but as subversion.”

5. Quote found on page 3 in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

6. Quote found on page 4 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

7. A chapter in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body by Harvey Young deals brilliantly with the stillness and silence of Muhammad Ali in this particular event in Houston.

8. I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not.

9. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledges oppressors for their “strictly materialistic concept of existence. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’” On use of the word “power,” I do believe power has potential to be a liberatory word, but when defined in terms of to be is to have, it is a destructive notion for society.