Tuesday 5th September marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of John Cage. Here at MusiCB3 we wondered if there should be a particular way of celebrating this most quirky of composers? Perhaps there should be a blank post – a visual equivalent of the famous 4′ 33″ (MRS.8.540)? This idea may not be quite as daft as it sounds, as curators of museum installations have mused upon similar ideas. An exhibition organized by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2009 initially thought about having an empty room at the centre of their John Cage celebrations. They subsequently decided on a different approach deciding that the empty room might be too confusing for visitors (Is it meant to be empty? Could the art-works have been stolen? Am I lost?). There’s a fascinating post about the background to the exhibition here.

Ironically to think of 4′ 33″ as being about silence is to misunderstand the piece. It is as much about sound as it is about silence.

Robert Rauschenberg with Four-panel White painting, ca. 1951. Fair use – copyright the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

In the early 1950’s, Cage became intrigued by Robert Rauschenberg‘s paintings, especially the all-black and all-white sequences. Rather than being a uniform colour Rauschenberg’s all-white paintings were (in Cage’s words) “landing-strips” for light and shadow; this inspired Cage to build on earlier ideas of a “silent piece”; which of course would not be totally silent, but would be informed by the sound around the listener (and performer).

The John Cage Trust has explored this in a fascinating way by introducing the 4′ 33″ app in which performers around the world are able to record their own very personal explorations of the work (there’s even one performance recorded in King’s Parade).

Search for “4′ 33″ John Cage” on YouTube, and you’ll come up with some pretty bizarre performances: from Nola the cat to a Death Metal cover and a jazz arrangement. Of course many of these are poking fun at the original work, but sometimes even intended comical versions can have elements that refer back to the work as it was originally intended. Cage said “I didn’t wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do or as a joke. I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it.” The bassist of the Death Metal group would probably be surprised to hear that the unintended feedback from his guitar formed a perfect part of the piece – as David Revill, Cage’s biographer, comments “Since no sounds are to be intentionally produced in the piece, the structure is illuminated only by the sounds which accidentally occur.” (The roaring silence / David Revill. London: Bloomsbury, 1992. M557.c.95.433)

The three movements of 4′ 33″

4′ 33″ was first performed at the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock, NY on August 29 1952 (another anniversary – 65 years ago this week). Ironically this most modern of modern work’s premiere was only 20 minutes away from what was originally planned as the Woodstock Music Festival site, which ended up taking place in Bethel and White Lake, NY, 1 1/2 hours to the south west.

At the Cage premiere there was confusion amongst the audience “a hell of a lot of uproar”, while one artist suggested “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town.”

Since the premiere, 4′ 33″ has constantly been a source of argument – Is it music? And arising out of this – If it is music, what constitutes music? Cage himself thought that it was his most important work: “The most important piece is my silent piece…..I always think of it before I write the next piece.” This seems to me peculiarly fitting, for surely there can be no music without silence?

But what is silence in music? Are rests the shadows of notes? (This can sometimes be a helpful way of explaining them to young pupils who are finding it hard to comprehend why there are, apparently, sounded and un-sounded versions of, for example, crotchets). Is silence important in its own right? How do the sound and the silence fit together? In this century there has been more research into this area looking at the philosophical and practical place of silence within music (see Silence, Music, Silent music / edited by Nicky Losseff (M816.c.200.39)).

Love it or loathe it, laugh at it or be enthused by it, Cage’s 4′ 33″ has become part of the consciousness of Art music, and continues to engage its listeners and performers 65 years after its first performance.

The bonus disc to Journeys in Sound DVD (DVD.F.78 at the Pendlebury Library) includes a performance of the work, along with an interview with David Tudor, who premiered it.




About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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