Album of the Day — July 3
John Cage — 4'33"
John Cage — 4'33"
This isn’t an album.
4'33" is a three-movement composition of silence written by American composer John Cage.
If you don’t know this piece, it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
The “music” is the ambient sounds of the location where the piece is being performed.
4'33" can be performed on any instrument or group of instruments as “The score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements.”
A response to the impact of Zen Buddhism that Cage had been studying, he considered 4'33" to be his most important work. For Cage, it was the epitome of his belief that “any sound can be music.”
While he had been experimenting with silence for a few years, the concept became crystalized in 1951 with two separate inspirations:
While visiting Harvard University, Cage visited their anechoic chamber (a room designed so that the walls, ceiling, and floor absorb all sounds made in the room rather than reflecting them as echos). Where Cage expected to hear silence, he heard “two sounds, one high and one low.” According to the engineer in charge, the high sound was his nervous system, and the low his blood circulation.
His friend and sometimes colleague Robert Rauschenberg had produced a series of white paintings that year. Blank canvases that had been painted with white house paint. According to the light conditions of where the canvas(es) were hung and the number of people in the room, the color of the canvas(es) would change. In an article titled On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Works, Cage acknowledged the influence of his friend:
“To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.”
Critics have bloviated and argued over this piece since it’s debut on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York.
In 2007, Paul Hegarty in Noise/Music: A History argues Cage’s 4′33″ represents the beginning of noise music. The music is made up of incidental sounds that represent perfectly the tension between “desirable” sound (properly played musical notes) and undesirable “noise”.
In 2013, during a TED Talk psychologist Paul Bloom used the piece to show how the origin of something influences our opinion about it as “that silence is different from other forms of silence”.
It is arguably one of the most polarizing pieces of American musical compositions.
John Cage brushed off any negativity about the piece by saying:
“What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.”
Cage would follow up 4'33" in 1962 with 0'00" or 4′33″ №2. For this piece, the performer must “perform a disciplined action.” At its debut, Cage had to write the following sentence — “In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.”
In late 1989, Cage revisited the idea of 4′33″ for a third and final time. He composed One3 — where “One” refers to the number of performers required. The score instructs the performer to build a sound system in a venue so that “the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without actually feeding back.”
The content of the piece is the electronically amplified sound of the hall and the audience.
For many today, auditory senses are on overload — we’re surrounded by noise … and for the next 48–72 hours, it’s about to get considerably worse.
It may not be a bad idea to take 4'33" and give it a listen … listen to yourself, your surroundings … tune out the noise and enjoy the “silence” where you can find it … as much as it exists.