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John Cage and 4’33”
In 1952, a now famous composer and music theorist named John Cage composed a notorious composition. A piece that spawned scandal and controversy that has lasted even to this very day.
This so-called “silent piece” consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. A young pianist first performed the piece at famous grounds of Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952. The audience was standing in support of the contemporary arts and the avant-garde of the arts. Many of the listeners were unaware that they had heard anything.
Placed on the piano, was a hand written score in conventional notation, but the measures themselves were completely blank. Tudor, the pianist, had situated himself at the piano and sat motionless. Three movements were indicated, and each movement was differing in length than the others. Nearby, Tudor kept a stopwatch that he used to keep track of the time of each movement.
The piece commenced the first movement by lowering the keyboard lid. Thirty seconds later, Tudor raised the lid and signaled that the first movement had come to an end. The second movement began like the first and ended in similar fashion, as did the third movement. After a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds the piece came to an end, but not before whispers and muttering broke out, and people became visibly irritated.
Commenting on the first performance of his work, Cage said, “People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh — they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven’t forgotten it 30 years later: they’re still angry.”
Cage stated on many occasions that he defined silence as a total absence of sound, and therefore believed true silence is rarely if ever our experience. This understanding was not shared by the would-be avant-garde audience in Maverick Concert Hall during the first performance of 4’33”.
Prior to the fateful moment in 1952, Cage had written many compositions throughout the 30’s and 40’s. Though many were prepared for piano, others featured inventive instruments and innovations. Though he was known as a musical innovator, it was not until the first performance of 4’33” that Cage crossed into the archives of infamy.
The musical underpinning of Cage’s philosophy challenged popular music culture and recognized that fundamentally the meaning of silence was rooted in a lack of intention to hear it. In later years, Cage would admit that this was something he had adopted from eastern thinking. During his visits to India, Cage adopted the concept of the continuity of music, wherein music only stops when we stop paying attention.
Some have regarded 4’33” as a deliberate attack on music itself, while others consider the work as a step too far into the philosophy of sound. Cage frequently reassured naysayers that his intention was never to chock his audience or to embrace negligence toward his love of musical composition. In fact, he took his work on 4’33” very seriously.
Cage broke entirely from the normative techniques of composers throughout history. Rather than training his ear to hear a melodic movement and then marking the piece in notation, Cage found these practices undesirable and even crippling. His methods favored random chance and the use of mathematics and random number generators to work out concepts of music that he himself could not imagine. His work focused on intellectual concepts and the derivative effects produced an audible experience. In this sense, Cage produced a work that no one had ever heard before. First performances were a surprising phenomenon, even for Cage himself.
Unknown to most, Cage worked for five years on composing 4’33” and it marked a distinct turn in his view of sound and musical philosophy. Anyone aware of Cage’s compositions could never accuse him of lacking intention in musical exploration, but this was precisely what he began to explore. Cage remarked on this time saying, “My work became an exploration of non-intention.”
4’33” remains an iconic and confounding piece even to this day. Cage realized much of his musical philosophy in the brevity of a composition completely free of intentional sounds. Setting aside the self-expressive, repetitious and communicative nature of popular musical composition, 4’33” provides an open and unique experience for every listener in every era. It is on this basis that the listener is invited to hear with intention, that which is not intentional.
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