John Cage’s 4’33” – Much Ado About Nothing?

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4’33” Sheet Music

One of the most controversial pieces of music of the 20th century, Getintothis’ Max Richardson offers a perspective on the infamous 4’33” by John Cage.

Silence speaks volumes. Except maybe if you’ve paid for a ticket to see a pianist, who sits at a piano, opens the lid, and doesn’t touch the keys.

Of course, I’m talking about John Cage’s infamous 1952 work 4’33”, a three-movement classical piece consisting entirely of silence. That’s right, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a performer sat at their instrument without playing a single note.

The big question that always comes up when discussing this piece is; ‘Is this really a piece of music?’. Well, that’s hugely subjective in itself.

Personally, I think 4’33” is indeed a piece of music. Part of the conceptual idea of the piece is that the music is formed through the background noise we all tune ourselves out of on a daily basis. Birdsong, creaking chairs, the sound of passing cars –which we can nearly always hear, but often tune out of when not paying attention.

By creating a silent space, and keeping the attention of the audience during a performance so they can actively listen to ‘nothing’, it can be said that Cage forces us to pay attention to the beauty of our surroundings, often overlooked.

The opposing argument is, of course, that this is pretentious avant-garde bollocks and that some people have far too much time on their hands to be able to sit around and talk about silence. and that maybe John Lennon was right when he said that “Avant-garde is French for bullshit.”

At the end of the day though, a performer is not needed at all in order to create the piece, which surely means we can’t treat it as seriously as other works that, well, actually need somebody to play them.

By having someone walk on stage, sit down at a piano, and not play any notes – does that automatically make ‘silence’ any more valuable than just taking a moment to listen to ‘silence’ by yourself? Even though both sounds are essentially the same, does the nature of a ‘performance’ make 4’33” more valuable?

Perhaps what Cage is eloquently illustrating is the fact that there is no such thing as silence, despite him trying his best to produce it in a live environment.

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This might all be a bit too deep, hypothetical, and arty-farty to be of any real importance, but it’s an interesting idea to chart what apparently is considered to be music, and what isn’t considered to be music. For example, would people’s attitudes to 4’33” be any different if just a single note was played? Would one note somehow make the piece more real?

I’m suddenly aware that I’m putting far too many question marks in this article, but it’s evident of the strength of 4’33” as a discussion point, if nothing more. 

It’s also interesting to see how far-reaching 4’33” has become in terms of genre. A campaign in 2010 saw a campaign to get a recording of 4’33” to Christmas number one in an (unsuccessful) attempt to topple The X Factor. The collective behind this version, Rage Against The Machine, included Pete Doherty, Enter Shikari, and Scroobius Pip, along with many other artists.

It’s hard to imagine any other supposedly ‘classical’ piece having this level of appeal. Of course, the tongue-in-cheek joke is that the piece is silent – implying that silence is better than the winner of The X Factor. However, it’s still unusual to see a work of avant-garde classical music portrayed so prominently in the eye of the public, whether sarcastically or not.

There is a school of thought that contents that ‘if it isn’t nature, it’s art’, implying that items as commonplace and functional as house bricks, wheels and Campbell’s soup cans have gone through some sort of design process and can therefore legitimately be called art.  This is part of the thought process behind works such as Carl Andre’s bricks or Yves Klein’s monochromatic series of blue paintings.

But a piece of music that is entirely silent forces us to listen to whatever else is going on, which is essentially nature.  So where does 4’33” sit in relation to this argument? 

Whether or not you personally believe that 4’33” is a piece of music, it’s difficult to question the importance of Cage presenting nothing as a piece of music, leaving listeners and academics alike scratching their heads and arguing with one another.

At the end of the day, it’s a great talking point to argue among ourselves what 4’33” means or doesn’t mean, and whether it’s a stroke of genius or just pretentious nonsense – and isn’t that ultimately half the joy of music?

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