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A Fertile Silence



Rob Hardy


What 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"? That's the assessment by composer, music critic, and music professor Kyle Gann of the subject of his book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Yale University Press). It might be that if you know any avant-garde music this is the piece you know, though it cannot be the earworm playing in your head and you cannot dance to its beat. It is Cage's composition of three movements, adding up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I have never heard it in concert, but I have heard often about it and it seemed to me prankish and funny. It still seems funny, a turning of music on its head, but I now appreciate that there is nothing wrong with taking it seriously, and there is something wrong about being outraged by it, as many people have been over the past six decades. Gann's book does a wonderful job looking at how 4'33" can be understood by examining the derivation of the piece and its antecedents, its performance history, and its cultural context. Necessarily Gann has given also a short biography of Cage, who had one of the most interesting of musical careers. This is a delightful book with much to say about how we appreciate music, sounds, and lack thereof. 




Gann begins with the very first performance of 4'33" at the fittingly named Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, the most famous event in the history of that respected indoor/outdoor performance hall. 4'33" was included in the piano recital played by David Tudor, along with another work by Cage, and works by other composers including a very difficult one by Pierre Boulez. Tudor performed 4'33" in a way that has been a model for subsequent performers. He sat at the piano, opened the lid for each of the three movements (which are supposed to be respectively 30 seconds, 2 minutes and 33 seconds, and 1 minute and 40 seconds long), and closed it silently after each movement. He used a stopwatch to get the time right, but he did turn pages that were devoid of notes. What the audience heard was wind in the maples, and a light summer rain, and maybe some dissatisfied muttering. After the concert was a discussion with the composer, at the end of which a local artist exhorted his fellow listeners with, "Good people of Woodstock, let's run these people out of town." 




He wasn't the only one to think he had been had. There is an "emperor's new clothes" aspect of the piece that cannot be denied. It is an appealing idea, that a sensitive audience who knew what "real" art is could get the "message" of this strange piece for piano, but sensible people knew they were just being hoaxed. This is complicated by the very real paradoxical, Dadaist humor of a piano piece that has no sounds to it; it's a funny idea, but some funny ideas are serious, too. After describing the first performance, Gann lists some ways the piece should not be considered. It is no hoax; the audience members were not fooled into thinking they had heard something they hadn't. It certainly was not a trick to gain money; the piece was not commissioned, and the concert at which it premiered had all profits to charity. It was not laziness; it may have been a silent piece, but Cage had a huge volume of compositions, many of them complicated. He considered 4'33" his most important work, and he thought about it hard before and after its composition. There are those who will not accept the seriousness of the work; after one performance, even Cage's mother said, "Don't you think that John has gone too far this time?" 




But there are other aspects of the piece that show that it can be taken seriously and deserves contemplation. It could be thought of as a "metamusic" that makes a commentary about music itself. The "most directly fertile suggestion," according to Gann, is that it may be seen as an example of Zen practice. Cage was deeply affected by Zen Buddhism, and it may account for an extreme shift in his personality. When younger, he truculent and ready to argue and to shock. After the 1940s, though, he changed radically; he became calm, humorous, and charming, and you couldn't pick a fight with him. 4'33" is often interpreted as a type of koan, a clash of reason and unreason that gives way to new understandings. 




As the title indicates, the piano (or the full orchestra, for which the work has been transcribed) may not play, but that doesn't mean there is silence. Cage discovered that even in an anechoic chamber insulated from all sound, one still might hear a ringing in the ears, a heartbeat, or breathing. Not only are there interior noises, but in any performance hall, there are noises of other people (though someone noted that just as with music that has sounds, during a performance of 4'33" people tend to cough between the movements). At the original performance, there was noise of weather. There is always something to hear and attend to. Gann knows that some people scoff at the piece, but he himself has performed it. "I once performed it for a class of new freshmen, and a young woman exclaimed afterward with surprised delight, 'I never realized there was so much to listen to!' Perhaps that's exactly the kind of musical satori Cage hoped to bring about." 




Of musical forebears to this piece, Gann pays the most attention, as did Cage, to the works of Erik Satie, "arguably the most eccentric composer in the history of classical music, Cage included." Satie had died in 1925, and was largely forgotten, but Cage championed him starting in 1948, and his strange, often droll music has become well known and well appreciated since then. He composed Vexations in around 1893, a set of thirty-six notes or chords almost tuneless and mildly dissonant. The piece takes a minute and a half to play, but Satie, who often wrote amusing and unconnected instructions to the performer, wrote on the score, "To play this motif for oneself 840 times in a row, it will be good to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, through serious immobilities." Cage organized the first performance of 840 repeats in 1963, using a tag team of twelve pianists to get through the eighteen hour work.  




One of the great surprise influences in the long gestation of this piece is Muzak. In 1948 Cage gave a lecture at Vassar which included a project he admitted sounded absurd but about which he declared his seriousness. He would "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 minutes long- these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music..." It may be that the length of 4'33" originates because of the length of tunes on Muzak. Cage preserved an article from 1952 which described a scheme to put silent records into jukeboxes. Those who wanted a break from jitterbugging or rock would select a disk that played silence. Gann wonders if reading of this scheme inspired Cage to compose his piece before anyone else came up with the idea. 




That 4'33" has been enormously influential may be seen in one particular statistic. There have been two dozen recordings of musicians playing it (even though Cage didn't believe in or listen to recorded music). Frank Zappa covered it, for instance. Gann includes a two page discography. Lest you think this is all too serious, he also includes the press release of a conceptual artist who declared he was making 4'33" available as a commercial ringtone. Gann has produced an entertaining history of a curious piece of music, a book that is odd and funny and thoughtful as befits its subject.



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