Saturday, December 8, 2007

John Cage,4'33"

The first performance of John Cage's 4'33" created a scandal. Written in 1952, it is Cage's most notorious composition, his so-called ‹silent piece›. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they had heard anything at all. It was first performed by the young pianist David Tudor at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952, for an audience supporting the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund – an audience that supported contemporary art.
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 fogotten it 30 years later: they're still angry.›
To Cage, silence had to be redefined if the concept was to remain viable. He recognized that there was no objective dichotomy between sound and silence, but only between the intent of hearing and that of diverting one's attention to sounds. "The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention," he said. 7 This idea marks the most important turning point in his compositional philosophy. He redefined silence as simply the absence of intended sounds, or the turning off of our awareness.»3

(source: Cage conversation with Michael John White (1982), in Kostelanetz 1988, 66, in: Solomon, Larry J.: The Sounds of Silence, in: http://www.azstarnet.com/~solo/4min33se.htm)

http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/4-33/

Background and influences

In 1951, 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. They are 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."[7]
There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer's explanation, especially as to being able to hear one's own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound. It has been asserted by acoustic scientists[attribution needed] that, after a long time in such a quiet environment, air molecules can be heard bumping into one's eardrums in an elusive hiss (0 dB, or 20 micropascals). Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."[8] The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4'33″.
Cage wrote in "A Composer's Confessions" (1948) that he had the desire to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4 [and a half] minutes long — these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music, and its title will be 'Silent Prayer'. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly."[9]
Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and sometimes colleague Robert Rauschenberg had produced, in 1951, 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 inspired Cage to use a similar idea, as he later stated, "Actually what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg. His white paintings… when I saw those, I said, 'Oh yes, I must. Otherwise I'm lagging, otherwise music is lagging'." Cage's musical equivalent to the Rauschenberg paintings uses the "silence" of the piece as an aural "blank canvas" to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance; the music of the piece is natural sounds of the players, the audience, the building, and the outside environment.
Cage was not the first composer to conceive of a piece consisting solely of silence. One precedent is "In futurum", a movement from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff. Written in 1919, Schulhoff's meticulously notated composition is made up entirely of rests.[10] Cage was, however, almost certainly unaware of Schulhoff's work. Another prior example is Alphonse Allais's Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, written in 1897, and consisting of nine blank measures. Allais's composition is arguably closer in spirit to Cage's work; 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. However, according to Cage himself, he was unaware of Allais's composition at the time (though he had heard of a 19th-century book that was completely blank).[11]


1. William Fetterman. John Cage's Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances, p. 69. Routledge, 1996. ISBN 3718656434
2. John H. Lienhard. Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, p. 254. Oxford University Press US, 2003. ISBN 0195189515
3. Richard Kostelanetz. Conversing with John Cage, p. 69-70. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-93792-2
4. a b James Pritchett, Laura Kuhn. "John Cage", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, grovemusic.com (subscription access).
5. Gutmann, Peter (1999). John Cage and the Avant-Garde: The Sounds of Silence. Retrieved on 2007-04-04.
6. Richard Kostelanetz. Conversing with John Cage, p. 70. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-93792-2
7. A few notes about silence and John Cage. CBC.ca (2004-11-24).
8. Cage, John (1961). Silence. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.
9. a b Pritchett, James (1993). The Music of John Cage, Music in the Twentieth Century (No. 5). Cambridge University Press, 59;138. ISBN 0-52-156544-8.
10. http://www.anecdotage.com/index.php?aid=18999
11. Dickinson, Peter (1991). "[Reviews of three books on Satie]". Musical Quarterly 75 (3): 404-409.

above copied from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4′33″

for a video of a performance see:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HypmW4Yd7SY

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