LISTENING TO SILENCE

John Cage’s 4′33″

 

By Charles Olivieri-Munroe (May 2011)

 

 

I was recently interviewed by Marek Eben on the Czech television show “Na Plovarne”.  Just before we began taping he cast his eyes on my wristwatch and asked me what my “handicap” was.  An avid golfer, he had correctly noticed that I was wearing a golfer’s watch because the knob was on the inside of the watch’s face contrary to the norm.  I disappointed him in replying that I did not play golf.  I wore the watch simply because I liked it.  But once on the subject, I asked him ‘tongue in cheek’ the following question:  If the whole aim of golf is to hit the ball as few times as possible, than why to hit it at all?  

 

Half a century ago the American experimental composer John Cage “asked a similar question” regarding music.  In 1952 he composed what was to become known as his most famous and controversial piece, 4′33″.   It was a piece of music where the performer did not play a single note for the duration of the work. The performer as it were never hit the ball.  The result was a composition which revolutionized the way in which we perceive silence and its relationship to music. 

 

As it appears that John Cage’s composition 4’33” Is largely misunderstood, even by musicians, I would like through this paper to identify the misconceptions, give a background to John Cage’s inspiration for the work and finally, to illustrate what experience Cage intended his audience to have while ‘listening’ to 4’33”.

 

I found myself drawn to John Cage’s 4′33″ completely by accident having originally decided on a completely different subject.  In an artistic committee meeting with a Czech orchestra I found myself in the position of having to rigorously defend my decision to program John Cage’s 4’33”.  In retrospect I consider that I failed.

My intention had been to make a tribute to one of America’s most influential avant-garde composers by conducting 4′33″ in a subscription concert on the occasion of the work’s 50th anniversary.  The committee made up of my peers from the orchestra were very skeptical.  As it turned out, they had a lot of misconceptions about the work.  

 

Their concerns included whether 4′33″ was appropriate and weighty enough to be placed in a main series concert.  Because many people consider the piece to be simple sensationalism I could sympathize with this reaction.  Another worry was how would the audience react – might they consider 4‘33” to be a joke?  This sense of ridicule is somehow reinforced upon seeing John Cage’s blank score of 4‘33”.  It is challenging to convince a musician let alone a normal concertgoer that these pages of blank paper represent music!   Could not anyone have written this work?  Another fear was whether the audience and orchestra would succeed in remaining silent for the duration of the performance?  Most of us have all been in a situation where complete quiet is required.  Typically these situations (i.e. during a solemn occasion) can make us feel rather awkward.  People feel uncomfortable because they try not to ‘break the silence’ with a cough or attract attention by some bodily movement.  Some musicians in my meeting even claimed that it would be simply too difficult to perform (how often has this claim made been made in the annals of music history!).  These questions peaked my interest to find out for myself the reasons for the opposition to this piece and to try to determine the significance of John Cage’s 4’33” to Western classical music. 

 

4′33″ was conceived as a three-movement composition written for any instrument (or combination of instruments).  The score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the three movements (the first being thirty seconds, the second being two minutes and twenty-three seconds, and the third being one minute and forty seconds).  Interestingly, John Cage was not the first composer to conceive of a piece consisting partially or entirely of the absence of musical notes.  At least three composers had already experimented with this form of silence in their compositions.  This suggests a certain legitimacy for 4’33”’s genesis, though it would not be enough on its own to convince of its merit.

Prior examples include Alphonse Allais's 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of nine blank measures.  Allais was an associate of Erik Satie, and given Cage's profound admiration for Satie, the possibility that Cage was inspired by the Funeral March is tempting. [1]    However, according to Cage himself, he was unaware of Allais's composition at the time.  Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 "In futurum", is a movement from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano.  Here the Czech composer's meticulously notated composition is made up entirely of rests.[2]  Another example is Yves Klein's 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence.[3]

 

4’33” stands apart from these other experimental works in that it took the most radical approach in its experiment with silence.  It basically pulled the painting from within its frame and had the viewer observe a blank space.  It switched the lights off and left the listener in darkness.   To fully understand John Cage’s journey to conceiving 4’33” it is important to appreciate the composer’s time and place within the context of historical events and trends.  

 

Before the industrial revolution, European society was a much quieter place.  The invention of steam and combustion engines to propel machines brought along with it a profound change to Western culture.  During this period of industrial build-up composers likewise participated in a trend of increasingly writing music for the common people and for larger audiences.  Progressively larger scale compositions was witnessed in genres from opera to symphonic repertoire.  At its peak audiences would bear witness to such large-scale monumental works as Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony - Symphony of a Thousand, Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Sergej Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, and  Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Around the time of World War I this trend abruptly ceased.   While there are still examples of large-scale symphonic compositions in the 20th Century there was a stronger tendancy to compose for smaller ensembles and condensed musical forms.  Already in the late 19th Century  Antonin Dvorak was writing symphonic poems (in fact through-composed four-movement symphonies, i.e. Polednice).  The harsh economic realities at the beginning of the 20th Century accelerated this trend even in America.  Stravinsky’s neo-Classical pieces such as DumBarton Oaks are precursors to experimental trends in American music at the time of John Cage.  Furthermore the harmonic system, which had defined Western classical music essentially, collapsed after chromatic expansion and dissonance could go no further.  The Second Viennese School dominated by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg each with their various degrees of adoption of the 12-tone compositional technique strongly influenced the new radical experimentalism in music.  It took the listener further along the road to not only listening to but challenging him to listen for the music in a dodecaphonic music landscape.   This brief snapshot of some of the historical trends illustrates some of the influences which gave rise to John Cage’s experimental tendencies in music.

 

John Cage’s journey to arrive at 4′33 came by experimenting with silence in his earlier works.   When he was 22 he wrote Duet for Two Flutes (1934), which actually opens with silence.   In an other composition, the Concerto for prepared piano and orchestra (1951) he experimented with closing a piece with an extended silence in, and Waiting (1952), a piano piece composed just a few months before 4′33″, consisted of long silences framing a single, short ostinato pattern.  Furthermore, in his songs The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) and A Flower (1950) Cage had the pianist play a closed instrument, which may be understood as a metaphor of silence.  Viewed from the musicologist, Kyle Gann's perspective in his book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33", Cage’s work 4′33″ begins to look less like an unavoidable step in the progress of music and more like a necessity for Cage, who, in Gann's view, was preparing for it his whole life. [4] 

 

Going hand in hand with historical trends is the cultural consideration.  The beginning of the 20th Century witnessed in Europe and America an increased interest in Far Eastern cultures.  In particular the influence of Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on spirituality derived through silence and introspection had a great impact on composers of the 20th Century.  Western composers began to seek spirituality in a more silent place.  The influences of the Far East were poignant in John Cage’s approach to silence in music, in particular his writing 4′33”.  Throughout the 1940’s he was a passionate student of Zen Buddhism.  Since Zen-Buddhism calls for meditation alone and in silence, Cage would have ‘heard’ silence during his meditations.  Cage realized that writing a piece of ‘silence’ would likely be "incomprehensible in the Western context," and was even reluctant to write it down: "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." [5] If all the above influences set the foundation for John Cage’s silence experimentation, two events, would make 4’33”’s composition inevitable.  

 

In 1951, John Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University.  An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed.  Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, "I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. "[6] Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound.  From this, he concluded that we are all making music all the time - we just don't know it. "Until I die there will be sounds.  And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."[7] The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.  

The second event of that year came from his visiting an art exhibition of his friend and sometimes colleague Robert Rauschenberg.   Rauschenberg had produced a series of white paintings, seemingly "blank" canvases (though painted with white house paint) that in fact change according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were hung, the shadows of people in the room and so on.  This effected the composer so much that it roused him to create a similar piece of art in music.

 

Although commonly perceived as "four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence",[8] the piece actually consists of the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is 

performed.[9]  It was not the absence of sound that Cage had in mind when he conceived of the work, but a different level of listening. 

 

Thus I discovered from studying John Cage’s journey that one of the initial misconceptions people have actually has to do with the very definition of silence.  The Oxford dictionary defines silence as the complete absence of sound.  With this understanding of silence, no wonder many people feel apprehensive about 4′33”.  To understand the work one has to appreciate John Cage’s understanding of silence (that it is impossible for there to be a complete absence of sound) and to what he wanted us to listen to.  There is no silence that a living person can experience, and nobody can create it – this is Cage’s point.

 

Thus, the work is not about musicians and audience having to sit uncomfortably trying to be quiet.  Because Cage could not find silence, we, the performers and audience are likewise not supposed to look for it.  Musicians consider it too difficult to perform 4′33” because they are concerned about what the audience will think and how they will react sitting in silence.  Many people probably feel they need to almost stop breathing for the duration of the piece so as not to upset the atmosphere.  They do not understand that they are meant to relax and take in the music that occurs spontaneously around them.  It actually should become a fascinating and intriguing experience to concentrate and really listen to the sounds of within the concert hall emitted by any number of sources – not just audience and performers.  

 

4′33” is also a far different musical experience heard over and over again than, for instance, a Beethoven symphony.  No matter how many times one here’s a Beethoven symphony one anticipates the familiar music expecting only differences in interpretation.  These are ‘normal’ predictable concert experiences.  However, 4’33” is a different experience every time and completely unpredictable.  Its interpretation is determined by the performers on stage, the audience and all other external sounds inside or outside of the concert hall.  All are participants in the performance.  

 

A playing orchestra conceals the music Cage would have us hear.  Listening to musicians performing is an effortless way to listen to music - in fact “easy-listening” compared to listening to 4‘33” because we are forced to hear the sounds of the instruments.  But we cannot hear anything more.  Cage asks us to listen on another level.  He removes the comfortable and familiar ‘music’ and has us listen to the music which we formerly thought was ‘silence’.  And in a final stroke of genius Cage leaves the interpretation of 4′33” to all of us. 

 

Often we confuse hearing and listening.  How often does a parent hear a child speaking to them but does not really listen to what they are trying to say?  We need to understand therefore what the composer wanted us to listen to, but most of us don’t give it time or thought.

 

Despite the apprehension, 4’33” is still performed quite frequently but not always according to John Cage’s intentions.  Here are two examples of this:

Patrick Waller from Musicweb-International describes a DVD recorded performance by the pianist Evgeny Kissin:  Kissin certainly strives to make each performance different.  By going beyond opening and closing the lid he has brought a new performance tradition to this fascinating work.  In all of the performances he moves stealthily (and, crucially, without making a sound) around the stage, apparently lost in wonder.  But he varies the routine considerably, most strikingly in Vienna when he spends a least a minute peering into the bowels of the instrument. [10]    Here Kissin has distracted the audience who now have something to look at (there eyes and minds are occupied).  Clearly they are not listening to the sounds during the performance of 4’33”.

 

In another performance, the conductor Jose Serebrier has a clock passed around the whole orchestra for the duration of the work:

The New York Philharmonic mostly manages it with aplomb (apart from one of the violas who almost dropped the clock) in what was apparently an encore after a stirring performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  Serebrier (a protégé of Stokowski) presides with authority – he starts off with the clock and at the very end it finally reaches Kissin just before the crowd goes wild. [11] 

By bringing a clock along, Serebrier implies that John Cage’s 4’33” is about time!  The significance of the piece, however, is not that it takes 4 minutes and 33 seconds to perform.  What is important is what is taking place in that time.  Just as the frame is not important in a painting – rather it is the work within it.  I sincerely doubt that John Cage would have been pleased by either of these two performances.  They in fact demonstrate how Cage is completely misunderstood even by famous musicians of today.

 

Perhaps 4′33” is not enjoyed or appreciated by everyone, but everyone should be given a chance to at least understand it.  John Cage resolutely rejected the artificially synthesized mass culture that had been produced by industrialization and wanted to provoke independent thought from his audience.  He puts the complete focus on listening and how we listen. 

 

I strongly believe that we have a large responsibility in our roles as conductors to not only perform music, but also to educate our peers, musicians and indeed the public to the great thinkers and creators of our time.  The music professor has a crucial role and obligation to make John Cage understood.  I encourage conductors and musicians to have an interaction with their audience.  They should be asked what their understanding of 4′33” is.  How many people really understand it.  Music educators should challenge their college students with the same question.  After all, how many of us really have looked at his music, let alone performed it?  I would guess the answer is very few.  But there is more to this.  We need now to push 4′33” into the correct light.  This is the contribution we can make.  We conductors, performers and educators are the carriers of the banner.  We have a responsibility, because of the immense power and significance of this piece, to inform and help people to understand it.

 

I hope that I have made the case that 4′33” is an important piece of music.  This is no trivial composition.  We cannot fail to acknowledge and appreciate this composer who came upon a concept of music and a way of listening which shattered all previous notions.  And this he strived to achieve this through one piece of music.  Upon realizing the true meaning and intent behind 4′33″ it becomes an uplifting experience both for musician and listener.  The modern world with its prevalence of industrial and societal noise makes 4′33″ a revelation every time it is experienced in the concert hall.  It invites the listener to make what they will of their unstructured and uncontrolled audio experiences.  The fact is that 4′33″ did have and continues to have a huge effect on music.  It tore down barriers and made people think about music in new and different ways. 4′33″ provokes us to consider not only what is music, but the very meaning of silence.  Recognizing the often huge miscomprehension, it is important to music that music professionals attempt to make musicians and audiences alike learn to understand and appreciate Cage’s ‘silence’.

 

Let’s do what we can to minimize this reaction of John Cage after the premiere of 4’33”:

“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 pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

                                                        - John Cage speaking about the premiere of 4′33″.[12]

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

 

[1] Dickinson, Peter. 1991. "Reviews of Three Books on Satie". Musical Quarterly 75 (3): 404–409.

 

[2] Bek, Joseph. "Erwin Schulhoff", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 11 December 2006), grovemusic.com (subscription access).

 

[3] ^ Carpenter, Humphrey. 1990. The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, 153. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-44142-8

 

[4] The Newstatesman Article by Nikil Saval, Published 03 May 2010

 

[5] Revill, David. 1993. The Roaring Silence: John Cage – a Life. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-220-6, ISBN 978-1-55970-220-1.

 

[6] Stein, Judith (2009). "Interview: Alfred Leslie". Art in America (January 2009): 92.

 

[7] Cage, John. 1961. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted Cambridge, The M.I.T. Press, 1969. Reprinted, Wesleyan Paperback Edition Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8195-6028-6. Reprinted Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8195-6028-6. Reprinted London: Marion Boyars, 1999. ISBN 0-7145-1043-2. P.8

 

[8] Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93792-2. P.4

 

[9] Fetterman, William. 1996. John Cage's Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers. ISBN 3-7186-5642-6 (cloth); ISBN 3-7186-5643-4(pbk).

[10] http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Apr07/Cage_433.htm

[11] http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Apr07/Cage_433.htm

 

[12] Kostelanetz, Richard. 2003. Conversing with John Cage. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-93792-2. P.

 

END.