John Cage’s 4’33” Is probably the single most talked about work of the 20th century. For those of you not “in the know” John Cage was a composer in the middle of the last century that was most interested in Eastern Philosophies, thinking about the question “what is music?” and using the Tao Te Ching as a guide to his compositions. There is much more to this multi-faceted composer (and mycologist…a combination that doesn’t exactly come up all the time.). He utilized chance as a means to composition and developed interesting ways of notating his intentions through the use of graphically representational scores.
Cage was concerned with aleatory in his music, and argued that it appeared in all music whether it was intended by the
composer or not. Differences in tempo, slight gaffes, changes in articulation, accidentally missing a cue, coming in too late, coming in too early, these are the obvious and very slight (arguably) changes that any piece is subject to in a live performance. Nobody is perfect right? The score, as written by a composer, must be accepted as how the piece should sound if everything goes as planned, “In a perfect world”. Honestly though, how often is that even possible? Is it possible at all? What about sounds made by the audience? Cell phones ring, people cough intermittently, programs are dropped on the floor, the conductor may smack the baton on the stand accidentally and so on. Should these things be accepted as part of the piece? Are we smart enough, as listeners to know what to separate out from the actual music?
Along with his constant curiosity about “What is music?” he wondered, perhaps more importantly, “what is silence?”. Does true silence even exist? Throughout Cage’s life he was concerned with the issue of silence. He even titled his first collection of writings and lectures Silence. His work, 4’33” stands as a testament, through arguments that still go on to this day, of the important philosophical implications of a work, and what a work of music is, among many other things.
The work is written for any instrument or combination of instruments to remain tacet for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, divided into 3 movements. What does the performer do during this time? What is the performer thinking about? What about the audience, what role are they playing? I think that this work is at once the most ridiculous piece of “music” and at the same time the most amazing and, undoubtedly, the most thought provoking. Here is a piece that didn’t really require any writing, doesn’t really require any practice, it doesn’t even require an instrument. Does this imply that any silence that we hear, anywhere, is part of Cage’s work? Did he effectively “copyright” silence? Another important thing to think about is, why was this simple piece never thought of before?
While composers were concerned with other means of manipulating notes, organizing them, disorganzing them, searching out new timbres, using electronics and other machines to create new sounds (which Cage was also an important part of, through several sound experiments with David Tudor). Here was a man that went in completely the opposite direction that everyone else seemed to be going. Cage was almost alone in his crusade or thinking about music. He was thought of, by some, as a joke of a composer. I personally believe that Cage was the most important musician/philosopher of the 20th century. There is nobody that has created a more thought provoking collection of works than him. 4’33” is at once a piece that is extreme in its simplicity and complexity. The audience is left questioning not only the music, but themselves, and what they just “heard”. What is hearing? Are we all hearing the same things during a performance?
It is interesting that 4 and a half minutes of silence can generate so many thoughts about anything and everything. It is also interesting that so many words need to be used to describe silence, yet they never even come close to truly describing it.