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The Sound of Silence

by Andrew Schulze

I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry

John Cage

  Long before 4'33", John Cage studied twelve tone technique with Schoenberg.

  In 1936, Cage told Schoenberg that he felt he didn't have much of a talent for harmony. Schoenberg explained to Cage that as a result, his music would always confront a wall through which it would not pass. Cage is reported to have answered, "Then I will devote the rest of my life to beating my head against that wall."1

  This response from Cage was initially taken as a joke, but proved to be meant in all sincerity. From that point on Cage attempted to reject harmony as a structural aspect of his music, and decided to focus on timbre and rhythm instead.

  Cage was very excited at his newfound rejection of pitch, and immediately set to work tapping, rubbing, and banging things together. The results of this experimentation manifest themselves in Cage's first percussion orchestra, and numerous other percussive works.

  In the years to follow, Cage would continue to search for ways to overcome his admitted non-musicianship. In an interview with David Cope in 1980, Cage stated: "I don't hear music when I write it. I hear it only when it is played. If I heard it when I was writing it, I would write what I've already heard; whereas since I can't hear it while I'm writing it, I'm able to write something that I've never heard before."2

  Such a confession would appear immensely handicapping to any composer who champions ear training. Still, for Cage, this did not matter. He felt that ear training was not only unnecessary, but altogether undesirable. Cage argued that tonality, and any dominance of one tone over others, was a dictatorship. As a result, many of Cage's works, especially the late ones, tend to reject this principle.

  Eventually, Cage found answers in the teachings of Zen.

  In the late 1940's he studied Zen Buddhism with Daisetz T. Suzuki. Cage was determined to realize divine influences, and actualize a quiet mind. He spent a year and a half seriously analyzing the philosophies of the East and the West.

  Cage would come to understand a quiet mind to mean one without likes and dislikes.

  He rationed that one can become open minded by giving up their "likes" and "dislikes," and simply becoming interested in "things." Cage's study of Zen also led him to the conclusion that "Sounds should be honored rather than enslaved. Every creature, whether sentient--such as animals--or nonsentient--such as stones or air--is the Buddha. Each being is at the center of the universe."3

  After his study of Zen, Cage was able to explain that he saw art "not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience, but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. And, in being themselves, to open the minds of people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered."4

  For Cage, this meant that the function of music was not to entertain or to communicate, but rather to be a process of discovery, with the goal of becoming aware and sensitized to the environmental sounds all around us, and to be free from personal taste and manipulation.

  Ultimately, Cage's study of Zen allowed him to justify that everyday noises were just as musical as so called "musical sounds."

  In 1951, Cage went to Harvard University to experience an anechoic chamber--a room with six walls made of special material--a room without echoes. While he literally expected to hear nothing, after leaving the chamber, Cage explained to a nearby engineer that he had heard two sounds in the chamber, one high, and one low. The engineer told Cage that the high sound was his nervous system in operation, and that the low sound was his blood circulating.5

  While Cage had always maintained that there was no such thing as silence, defined as a total absence of sound, after visiting the anechoic chamber, he was satisfied that he was correct.

  This major revelation would affect Cage's entire compositional philosophy.

  There was no escaping sound.

  Cage needed to redefine silence.

  After a great deal of thought, he decided that silence was plainly the absence of intended sounds, or our lack of awareness to them. In one of his most famous lectures, 45' for a Speaker, Cage tells it like it is: "There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound. No one can have an idea once he really starts listening."6

  Enter 4'33".

  4'33" is very often referred to as Cage's "silent piece".

  4'33" consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds during which the performer plays absolutely nothing. 4'33" was written by John Cage and performed by David Tudor in 1952. It is by far Cage's most scandalous and notorious composition.

  It was premiered at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, for an audience supporting the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund--an audience that encouraged contemporary art.

  Tudor placed the hand-written score, in conventional notation with blank measures, on the piano and sat motionless as he used a stopwatch to measure the time of each movement. The score indicated three silent movements, each of a different length, but when added together totaled four minutes and thirty-three seconds.7

  Tudor indicated the beginning of movements by lowering, and the endings of movements by raising, the keyboard lid. The timings of the three movements of 4'33" at its premier were 30", 2'23", and 1'40", respectively.8

  When Tudor finished, raising the keyboard lid and himself from the piano, the audience burst into an deafening uproar--infuriated and dismayed--according to the reports. Even in the midst of an avant garde concert attended by modern artists, 4'33" was considered going too far.9 It is important to realize that the idea that noise could be a part of music was still fresh, even in 1952. It certainly wasn't imagined that noise could be music. And though this certainly did not matter to Cage, it seemed to matter to his avant garde audience.

  "The audience missed the point," said Cage.

  "There's no such thing as silence," Cage added. "What they thought was silence because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. The wind was 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."10

  The "silence" of 4'33" was intended to open the field of divine influences--sounds that are not made intentionally, but are already present within the environment. These sounds were free to be heard and free to penetrate the art. Thus, nature and life literally become the art.

  The piece itself was one of the first in a long line of compositions by Cage and others in which something other than a necessarily musical thought is imposed through notation.11

  Here was a piece whose title was only a number from a clock, and in which the performer played nothing at all. The evening of August 29th proved to be historic for Cage and for his music, as it marked a point-of-no-return. 4'33" would be used as a landmark in gauging Cage's compositions. There were those before 4'33", and those after 4'33".12

  The fact that 4'33" was "fully notated" by Cage has impressed many scholars.

  Both Tudor and Cage felt that a complete score was essential to the performance of 4'33" including page turning, and that it is in part, a theater piece. The act of the performer reading a score serves to alert and sensitize the performer as well as the audience to the fact that although nothing is happening, something really is happening.

  The original was on music paper, with staffs, and it was laid out in measures like the Music of Changes except there were no notes. But the time was there, notated exactly like the Music of Changes except that the tempo never changed, and there were no occurrences--just blank measures, no rests. The tempo was 60.13

  4'33" has been compared to Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings, canvases covered as evenly as possible in white paint. While many scholars have pointed out the similarities between Cage's physical score, and Rauschenberg's canvas, what is even more impressive is that the concepts underlying both works are identical.

  Cope writes: "Rauschenberg's White Paintings link further with 4'33" in that the White Paintings involve the shadows of spectators, variance of lights, reflections, and so on which turn the seemingly blank canvas into a counterpoint of visual activity."

  Cope makes the parallel by adding: "In 4'33", the coughs, laughter, and other audible movements of the audience as well as extraneous sounds become, in fact, the work.

  In both cases the creator has produced a conceptual work of art."14

  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 4'33" is that it renders both the performer, and the audience, completely dispensable. The only thing needed is one devoted listener. Cope explains this marvelously: "Virtually any sound or combination of sounds with a total duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds will successfully realize the score, from thinking-in-the-bathtub, to silence by a symphony orchestra."15

  Perhaps this is why it was Cage's favorite.

  4'33" continues to baffle and dumbfound people today, as it requires a serious, focused, and open mind that is willing to put aside preconceptions and embrace the universe of sound as music. 4'33" demands an attention to our environment. It has become an icon of the modern era, at once synonymous with Cage, environmental preservation, and imagination.

  It is a work that says everything by saying nothing.

1 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

2 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

3 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

4 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

5 Cage, John. Silence. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. 1973.

6 Cage, John. Silence. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. 1973.

7 Tomkins, Calvin. The Bride & the Bachelors. New York. Penguin/Viking. 1965.

8 Cope, David. New Directions in Music. Prospect Heights. Waveland Press, Inc. 2001.

9 Cage, John. Silence. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. 1973.

10 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

11 Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

12 Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight. 1988.

13 Fetterman, William. John Cage's Theater Pieces. Amsterdam. Harwood. 1996.

14 Cope, David. New Directions in Music. Prospect Heights. Waveland Press, Inc. 2001.

15 Cope, David. New Directions in Music. Prospect Heights. Waveland Press, Inc. 2001.