John Cage’s 4’33”

I don’t think there are many who don’t understand the point of Cage’s 4’33”. Having read a lot about it, I think I do.

In my opinion it was an interesting idea, a novel way of thinking and a useful piece of thought-provoking philosophy for which Cage deserves full credit.

What I object to is the pretence that it is a piece of great music – or even that it is music at all. It isn’t: it’s an experiment concerning silence and sound. It’s also a great piece of showmanship and marketing and a good little earner.

I’d say it’s an invitation to listen to the sounds that are going on anyway even when the instrumentalist on stage is not playing. As such, saying it’s not music is not so much a description of the piece as a way of declining the invitation. The invitation is precisely this: an invitation to see what happens if for a moment we don’t divide sounds into “music” and “extraneous noise”, an invitation to appreciate the sounds around us which we so often ignore.

Silence as such has little to do with it – the piece consists of the sounds which can be heard in the concert hall even though the pianist (or other performer) is not playing.

It’s also a neatly explicit manifestation of Cage’s ideas about the audience being as responsible as the composer or the performer for the musical experience. (The composer abdicates responsibility for providing coded sound, the performer is instructed to remain silent, the audience provides the “art” by interpreting whatever it is they do hear for a specified length of time. It’s the exactness of the time-frame, 4’33”, that’s the clever bit.)

There is a score, in fact – and the piece is in three movements!

There’s another aspect to 4’33” as well … that question of “the anticipation of the start of a piece of music”. In the world of conductorless chamber music, quite a few players – especially those who work frequently together – will vouch that there is a “feeling” when it’s the right moment to start.

It is performance art, or conceptual art, and a gimmick, but I suppose it is to make people question the difference between music and a “performance” among other things. Is noise when structured, highlighted or directed by a human, a piece of music, or is it still noise but art?

Cage is more famous (or infamous) than other avant-garde composers because of it but his other works and philosophy would guarantee some interest in him without 4’33” I would have thought … and there was only one “composition”, it wasn’t the start of a genre of silence or non-music.

As regards Cage’s status, he’d already written more than enough to be highly regarded by the time of 4’33”, and continued to write prolifically after it. So his status had he not written the piece would probably not be too different amongst fans of modernism. The chances that the general public would have heard of him are slim, but then we all know that matters not a jot really.

I find it hardly credible that a work by Cage from over 50 years ago, still creates controversy.

This is all water under the bridge by now and music has moved on.

That is not to understate the importance of 4’33” as an artefact that has changed the way so many musicians have conceived their work subsequently.

By its title Cage is reminding us that in essence all music is about time. Strip away everything that we normally associate with music – melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumental colour, narrative and, yes, even proscribed sound, and all you are left with is the articulation of time.

Stravinsky said that music’s sole purpose was to articulate time and St Augustine spent many years wrestling with the fact that God could not hear the prayers and hymns directed to him since they could only take place in time and he lived in eternity, where there isn’t any!

So to me Cage’s absolute zero work is as elemental to contemporary thinking about music as Einstein’s theories are to physics.

Here’s what Hans Keller said about Cage in 1970:

John Cage, on the other hand, gets as near to communication-less stimulation as the unmusical mind can: I am not offending him with this remark, for he does not, in fact, regard himself as a musician. When he “writes” a piece for several loudspeakers, each tuned to a different wavelength, he makes absolutely sure that he communicates nothing, and that any meaning which arises is the work of the listener who, with the help of Cage’s stimulation, thus turns into a do-it-yourself composer. But Cage’s influence on highly musical composers is vast: in what we have behind us in the second half of the twentieth century the stress has lain heavily on stimulation at the expense of communication.

I don’t know how valid his views are today, or even how valid they were in 1970, but perhaps he had a point.

Cage didn’t believe silence was possible. He tells the story of being in some sort of super sound proof room at Harvard and still hearing his heart beat and pulse.

Cage was obviously on to something, otherwise people wouldn’t still be arguing about whether 4’33” is or isn’t music more than fifty years after it was conceived.

Surely part of the point of it was to say that the boundary between what is and isn’t music is more a line in the sand than a strict division. If the question “where is the boundary between music and non-music” were to be treated as a “koan” as in Zen Buddhism, 4’33” could be imagined to be the response, not an “answer” which can be reproduced, but a response which needs to be experienced.

Apart from which, there’s enough categorisation in the world.

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