No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 April, 2010, 12:00am

No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33'
by Kyle Gann
Yale HK$192

Can silence be music? That's the question behind avant-garde composer John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33'. The work, which is performed in three movements, entails a pianist sitting at a piano and playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Although derided on its first performance, it quickly became a key work of experimental music.

This neatly argued book by American music scholar Kyle Gann examines the work, its multifarious roots and its shifting reputation in the classical music world. Gann expertly explains how something that was originally dismissed as a stunt is in fact a deeply thoughtful act of composition.

Gann's argument for the work's validity is generally accepted in the music world, yet little known outside of it. A casual reading of a performance of 4'33' may conclude that the work is silent as the pianist strikes no notes. But this is not the case. Cage himself describes the first performance of 4'33' at the Maverick Concert Hall in New York in 1952: 'What they thought of as silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was in fact full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering on the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.'

So an event that superficially seems to be silent is in fact filled with sound. Gann explains that the work draws attention to the sounds occurring outside the performance, rather than within it. This then-radical idea had its roots in Zen Buddhism, a religion that Cage had studied. Zen makes no distinction between the sounds of nature and the musical sounds created by man. Gann writes: 'If you can turn to the whir of the wind in the oak trees or the pulse of the ceiling fan the same attention you were about to turn to the melodies of the pianist, you may have a few moments of realising that the division you maintain between art and life ... is artificial.'

He notes that Cage wrote many musically complex scores before and after 4'33'. So his act of silence would not have been conceived without good reason. Indeed, Cage deliberated for 41/2 years before he released it for performance on stage. He has said it is his most important work for the rest of his life.

Cage had initially set out to write a piece of muzak - 'elevator music' - which the Muzak company was then releasing in lengths of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The piano works of Erik Satie played a part, as did a 1916 book called The Art of Noises. It all adds up to a convincing argument that silence is indeed music.