What is the point of John Cage's 4'33"?
The story of when John Cage bemused New York with the sound of his silent new composition, 4'33"
When was the premiere of John Cage's silent 4' 33" piece?
On the evening of 29 August 1952, David Tudor stepped onto the platform of the aptly named Maverick Concert Hall, a historic timber-hewn venue nestling in forest near Woodstock, New York to play John Cage's new piece 4'33".
Seating himself at the piano he placed a score on the stand, set a stopwatch, closed the lid – and sat quietly for 33 seconds. Briefly opening then re-shutting the lid, he re-set the stopwatch and sat for two minutes 40 seconds, occasionally turning the score’s pages. He repeated the process, this time for one minute 20 seconds. Finally he stood, bowed to polite applause from the remaining audience and walked off stage.
So passed the premiere of John Cage's 4'33", the three-movement ‘silent piece’ titled for its chance-determined total duration and marked ‘Tacet, for any instrument or combination of instruments’. It would confirm John Cage as one of the most controversial – and significant – composers of the 20th century.
At the post-concert discussion, shock and bemusement gave way to anger. Cage had seemingly thumbed his nose at the entire western concert tradition, even at music itself. Amid the uproar, an irate local artist shouted, ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!’
What is the point of John Cage 4' 33"?
Cage offered some intriguing insights when asked afterwards about the event: ‘They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’
Many assumed 4'33" was some kind of Dadaist publicity stunt; indeed, a critic dismissed a subsequent New York performance as ‘Greenwich Village exhibitionism’. While undoubtedly subversive, however, it was far from renegade for its own sake, but sprang from many years spent pondering the nature of silence, intentionality, listening and performance. Another critic would later declare it ‘the pivotal composition of this century’.
Cage’s ideas had begun to coalesce in 1948, when he first mooted a silent piece. This, he said, would be dubbed ‘Silent Prayer’, and he joked semi-seriously about submitting it to the Muzak company in protest at what he saw as their sonic intrusion of public spaces. The same year he embarked in earnest on a study of Zen Buddhism and eastern philosophies that set him on a path ‘from making to accepting’, and the possibilities afforded by openness to environmental and unintended sounds.
Is John Cage's 4'33" considered music?
In 1951, two encounters helped shape his thinking: with the artist Robert Rauschenberg and with the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Cage was especially taken with the former’s White Paintings, describing them as ‘airports for lights, shadows and particles’. Emerging from the complete, echoless silence of the latter, he expressed surprise at having been able to hear two sounds, one high and one low, which an engineer informed him comprised the sounds of his own nervous system and blood circulation. Hence that famous conclusion above, ‘There’s no such thing as silence’.
For many composers and artists at the time and since, 4'33" signalled a seismic re-imagining of the very stuff of art and life, and the constructs that too often divide them. Tudor called it ‘one of the most intense listening experiences you can have’. Arguably, that remains as true now as it was in 1952 – and the piece remains just as enigmatic, brimming with questions still pertinent today.
Top image by Getty Images