Quiet Riotby Margaret Eby
No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, By Kyle Gann, Yale University Press (2010)
Late in the evening of August 29, 1952, a young pianist took the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. The night’s program, composed by a locally-beloved, eccentric California percussionist, was a benefit for the Artists Welfare Fund, and the audience members included a handful of vacationing members of the New York Philharmonic as well as a group of area music lovers. The mode of the performance was decidedly avant-garde: the first work, later entitled Water Music, included a duck call, sirens, and a piano that had been modified by bits of weather stripping stuck between the strings. Nonetheless, the second-to-last piece was enough to throw the audience into a state of bewilderment and rage, culminating in one viewer’s cry during the fraught post-concert Q&A session: “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town!”
Thus premiered John Cage’s 4’33”, four minutes and 33 seconds in which the pianist, David Tudor, sat at the keyboard with a stopwatch, flipped the pages of a blank score, and played not a single note. The piece became the pivotal moment of Cage’s career, and, as Kyle Gann writes in No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, “one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps.”
No Such Thing as Silence is an attempt to explain one of the most misunderstood pieces of music in recent history. “To simply describe what 4’33” is, at this point, requires almost a philosophical treatise,” Gann writes, and though he doesn’t quite give us that, he provides an articulate and extensive analysis of the philosophy and compositional ideas behind the piece. Cage meant 4’33” as neither a joke nor as a Dada-style stunt, but rather as an introduction to a new model of listening. 4’33” framed the noises of everyday life—the thrum of the air-conditioner, the squeak of a fellow audience member’s chairs, the pattering of rain on the roof—as music. “One of the most common effects of 4’33”—perhaps the most important and widespread effect—was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art,” Gann writes. The work acted as a kind of palate-cleanser for American composers hampered by the influence of European traditions, “a clearing of the ground that allowed a new musical era to start from scratch.”
Gann traces Cage’s path to his work of not-quite-silence, reconstructing the trail of philosophical discoveries and artistic influences from biographies as well as Cage’s own writings and lectures. He picks up clues from figures like Robert Rauschenberg, whose White Paintings Cage has cited as a spur for 4’33”, and composer Luigi Russolo, who first hatched the idea of composing sonatas from noises overheard on the city streets. Gann focuses much of his attention on Cage’s interactions with Zen teachings, particularly the meditative practice of zazen. Cage’s attention to the oft-ignored sonic phenomena in the listener’s environment parallels zazen’s focus on immediate sensory impressions. 4’33” is an expression of the Zen concept of the unity of all things led Cage, Gann argues:
“If you are able to appreciate, at least on an intellectual level, that from a Zen standpoint there is no difference between playing a note and not playing a note…if you can turn toward 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 realizing that the division you habitually maintain between art and life, between beautiful things and commonplace ones, is artificial...”
At times, No Such Thing as Silence reads like an extended lecture. Gann’s prose studiously veers away from convoluted academic jargon, but his writing nonetheless feels flat and stilted in places, and his inclusions of his own encounters with Cage and 4’33”are inserted somewhat haphazardly. At their best, these first-person asides illuminate a specific aspect of 4’33”; at their worst, as in Gann’s section about using Cage’s beloved I Ching system to divine the outcome of a certain descriptive passage, they are simply confusing.
Still, providing the history of an idea is no simple task, and Gann goes about it with gusto, imbuing his investigation of 4’33” with the enthusiasm of a true Cage devotee. No Such Thing as Silence is a tribute to a composition—or an anti-composition—that gripped Gann at a young age, and continues to astonish, irritate, and fascinate audiences today. “Musicians and nonmusicians joke about it, steal it, invoke it, ‘cover’ it, pay homage to it, listen to it, and…generally get a kick out of it,” Gann writes. Audiences may misunderstand 4’33”, but, it turns out, they’ve been listening all along.