Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4'33": A Closer Listen

Those who don’t know exactly who John Milton Cage, Jr. is, usually know about a piece of music that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” I say “silence” because John Cage did not believe that silence exists, as such, and as the readers of my previous post will know, pointed to the lack of silence even when one is placed in an anechoic chamber. In any case, 4’33” is an almost ubiquitous piece of music, and can be found in all manner of “arrangements” for various instrument groups (it should be noted, though, that John Cage had himself composed “sequels” to the work involving different durations of time and different ensembles, though, clearly, none as successful—or perhaps, groundbreaking is the word).

When I was an undergraduate the work was a lark and students often joked about using it to fill recital time requirements, or performing it as an encore, or composing a theme and variations on it, or some other absurd pastiche. . .

The work, I admit, was absurd to me at the time and I took part in the caricatures of its substance.

It was absurd until I read the lectures and essays of John Cage; henceforth, the work has borne a peculiar sapience.

The most common interpretation of 4’33” (and that which implied in the clip above) is that what constitutes the piece is the ambient noise of the hall; the coughs in the audience, the hum of the ventilation system, passing traffic, so forth. This is true, but only in the most shoal consideration. This is, and is the only candidate, for the substance of the piece—non-musical noises. Considered in this light the piece can be little more than quaint. Separate from its philosophical genesis, it is not profound in the least—which is precisely while the piece is so
ripe for satire.

Cage was taking the next step in a journey which had been initiated by Arnold Schoenberg. In his book “Silence,” Cage says that Schoenberg had sought to make available all vertical combinations of notes (where previously, rules of tonal harmony reigned) and that he (Cage) believed that in the future composers would have at their disposal all musical tones and all “noises.”

(As a side note, I think that the gradual expansion of “battery” percussion through the 19th century helped prepare the way for Cage’s hope.)

When Cage really wanted to compose using “noise” he was very specific in going about it. As was seen in the clip in the previous post, Cage meticulously wrote out the instructions for reproducing his event pieces. So, why is 4’33” different?

In his film “The Alchemist,” Bruno Monsaingeon has a conversation with Glenn Gould about the reception of 20th century music in modern audiences (in the 1970s) and Gould makes an interesting point about Cage’s music:

“I think what John Cage would want us to know is not his music, it is his belief; that there is one perceiver which also has a reflexive angle and that is the doer as well, and the listener and the maker are intermingled.”

So what does that mean?

There is an almost religious hierarchy in classical music. There is the composer that is analogous to god, a performer that is analogous to a high priest, and an audience (that needs to analogy). This dynamic can be pernicious—it removes the composer from the audience and their only interaction is through the medium (almost in both senses of the word) of the performer.

Music only exists as an action, not as an object, and so its essence is dependent upon its reception—if a tree falls and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? So what Cage accomplishes in 4’33” is the unification of both sides of the musical experience—that of composer and audience—and brings them together, eliminating the need of a performer.

But he does more than this.

The content of the piece of music is entirely wrapped up in the perception of it—not only does the work not exist as an object, but the audience is composing the work as they perceive it! Thus, as Glenn Gould noted: listener and maker and intermingled (and quite nearly unified).

Cage, then, is making two statements. One artistic and one philosophical.

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