Presented by Bowerbird in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Commenting 4’33”

by Kevin Tomasura

 

 

When talking about John Cage’s 4’33” in a scholarly—or merely even serious—way, it is standard practice to refer to the 1952 piece in some permutation or variation of the following:

4’33” is Cage’s most famous and most controversial composition.

Although modifiers such as “arguably”, “certainly” and “by far” are all invited, the most proper protocol is to quickly follow up this assertion with a fact; a friendly reminder as to why 4’33” is sometimes better known as “the Silent Piece”:

4’33” consists of four minutes, thirty-three seconds during which the performer (or performers) play(s) nothing.

By providing this brief description, two things have likely occurred amongst the intended audience:

  1. They have begun to display signs of incredulousness, familiarity, confusion or all three; and
  2. The “controversial” component of your original claim has now been verified. 

While the intentional and audible inaction of the performer may do little to help reconcile or prove why Cage’s piece is so famous, there should be little doubt as to why paying to watch someone sit idly (or better yet, tacitly) at her instrument for nearly 5 minutes is almost definitionally controversial.  But perhaps for viewers of this performance in its many forms on YouTube, this piece is more often definitionally stupid.

When talking about John Cage’s 4’33” in a comment box online, standard practice becomes slightly different.  It is only after hitting the “thumbs down” button that one can begin to articulate a new set of descriptors; among them “pretentious”, “everything that is bad about art culture”, “hipster” and, notably, “one big artistic fart.”  Though remarkably few commenters go on to detail their specific reasonings, it is not impossible to see why these pop culture commentators would react in such a way.  As dutiful protectors of low culture and low art, these certainly outspoken voices are the self-declared last bastions in a war against pretension (among other things).  But why are these reactions so varied?  Why do some find 4’33” profound, while others find it vapid and empty?  What is the source of this controversy, and why does it provoke so many to the point of anger?  Is this piece pretentious?

At the root of all these questions, and—inevitably—their answers, is the fundamental experience of 4’33”.  4’33” contains no intentional sounds; besides the tacet actions of the performer that punctuate each of the piece’s three movements, the performer is largely inactive and more importantly, inaudible.  To some, these four-plus minutes are thusly marked by silence.  There is nothing to observe, and nothing occurring to note.  To others, the piece is a lack of music.  Though the performers are on stage, and though there are sounds permeating throughout the room, these sounds are not performed.  The coughs, the shuffles and the sounds of traffic may be apparent, and accessible to the ear, but they are ordinary and the ordinary isn’t music. To Cage, there is no lack but for silence itself.  Despite his earlier attempts at observing silence in an anechoic chamber at Harvard, even the extreme conditions of an unreflective room could not facilitate or create the absence of sound.   With silence unachievable, Cage was forced to reconsider the fundamental foundations and structures of music.  Where unintentional sounds could not be avoided, they could be embraced. 

In this video, Cage describes music as sound and sound as music.  Both are made merely of sounds, but it is our expectations that delineate music from sound, and it is the ascriptions of meaning in our listening that makes music more than it need be.  Cage explains that sounds needn’t “talk”, stating,

“I love sounds just as they are. I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are.  They don’t need to be psychological.  I don’t need a sound to pretend it’s a bucket, or be presidential, or that it’s in love with another sound. Laughs. I just want it to be a sound.”

The premise is simple, almost absurdly so.  Cage invites the unintentional and unpreventable sounds of a room to be music and to carry that weight.

“I’m not so stupid either.”  He continues, quoting philosopher Immanuel Kant, “There are two things that don’t have to mean anything. One is music, the other is laughter. Laughs. Don’t have to mean anything, that is, in order to give us very deep pleasure.”  Cage revels in the paradoxical sounds of silence; liberated by this blank canvas that graciously allows any noise to fill it and erasing at last the primordial fear inherent in creation.   Cage in turn transposes this experience onto the audience, removing the intentionality and taste of composer and musician alike.  Though the musical automaticism of 4’33” garnered many opponents and fierce critics from even Cage’s inner circle, it has been a similarly liberating experience for many others.  One near-comprehensive playlist on YouTube includes 98 “covers” of 4’33”.  Alternating between serious performances of the piece, homage, and variably ironic YouTube covers, the videos almost dwarf Cage’s own presence on site.  Other covers of Cage’s work are comparatively rare, and the largest playlist of his own compositions besides is capped well below 50. 

Though the positions and intents of the performances vary (as well as their attribution), the performances themselves are not necessarily illegitimate.  Though it is important to recognize 4’33” as an actual composition—often fully notated with tempos, movements and rests—Cage welcomed variation even in the duration of the piece (the title referring merely to the length of the composition’s original performance by David Tudor).  Despite frequent accusations of Cage’s “original troll” status, it is difficult to say whether the composer would enjoy the performances, though it is unlikely he would fully discredit them.  In fact, YouTube’s format invites interesting and unforeseen circumstances for the piece, with many of the videos features a single, isolated artist performing in one closed space to be viewed by any number of people, simultaneously and in increasingly different spaces.  For those involved, 4’33” in this context creates complex, non-permeable experiences of silence.  It is not especially surprising to find so many covers of 4’33”, next to Wonder Wall or the 3-chord arrangements of The Ramones, it might claim the title for the easiest song to play.  Ultimately, regardless of skill level or access to instruments, 4’33” remains eminently playable for even amateurs.  In this way, Cage’s composition is excessively egalitarian and exceedingly accessible.  One video goes so far as to mock the mock the “difficulty” of the piece. 

A humorous play on the YouTube tutorial genre, “How to Play 4’33” by John Cage.” mocks 4’33” under the classic art criticism pretext of “I could do that.”  Displaying a blank page, stating “I’m pretty sure I can play it pretty good now”, the performer makes a joke of its lack of musical complexity.  Indeed this is a musically “undifficult” piece, as it requires the performer to play no notes.  At 3:07 the artist in the video makes a mistake of playing a note, ironically messing up and performing seemingly and jokingly “incorrectly.”

Other videos mock the stifling, uppity pretentiousness of typical performances of the piece.  A death metal cover of 4’33”  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUzI3Ui1Eok) significantly recontextualizes and reclaims Cage’s composition, relocating it to an environment and genre quite unlike the white-tie piano affairs that many have come to associate it with.  While this is most likely comedic in purpose, the video raises valid points raised in the comments of other 4’33” performances.

Among the most hotly debated of these video performances is a televised BBC broadcast of a full orchestral performance of Cage’s magnum opus.

Nearly saturated with legitimacy, the performance is devoid of irony. The overwrought seriousness of a well-dressed, classical, full orchestra (furthered no less by hyperbolic narration by its sufficiently British announcer) evokes the full wrath of the comments section. 

This is pretty stupid.
Arian Rawr 1 day ago

People bought into this. He says John Cages piece. WTF. bnnasically he should of said. John says sit there in silence for 4.33. The guy did nothing. Yet its gets exposure. Stupid society
maltonbranch 1 month ago

ofmg, post modernism *shoots self*
ubiquitousrevolt 1 week ago

Many of the comments point out the “stupidity” of the acquiescent audience as they stifle their coughs, sit still and sit in awe of the silence they create and later applaud.

John Cage. Master of Mind Control.
dam4st3r 4 months ago

what did they applaud ? so funny
sunnymarky 1 month ago

Everybody was holding their coughs (for the most part) until the end of each movement, how nice! lol

Viewers on YouTube laugh at the formality and the expectation of silence, as well as the audiences reverence for it.  No shortage of commenters hail Cage as a troll, actually tricking people into order and silence as if by some display of artistic power, he composed a piece which reveals the vapid, gullible nature of the audience, forced into suit and tie for a night of nothing.  Many are confident of this as a sense of humor.  A practical joke. Indeed, many other have gotten this idea as well. 

Cage describes the reaction to the original performance in Woodstock:

“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 forgotten it 30 years later: they're still angry."

When the piece was finished, David Tutor lifted the keyboard lid and stepped away from the piano, causing the audience to “burst into an uproar”, “infuriated and dismayed” even despite the fact the concert was a benefit for and attended by modern artists. Though Cage has spoken to the contrary quite a bit, maintaining his opposition to shock art and his own struggle to create 4’33” in a way that would be taken seriously, many continue to accuse Cage of inciting controversy.  In the end, controversy seems his farthest aim.  Though 4’33” packs a decent number of profound philosophical implications into its short length, its most profound commitment is to honoring and accepting silence.  In the end, Cage’s “raising up” of noise to music is much less about power, culture or communicating a message, and more about “quieting the mind” and appreciating the world around us.

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