On 29th August 1952 at Woodstock, New York, there took place the most revolutionary event in the history of music. It was a performance by the pianist, David Tudor, of a work by the American composer John Cage, titled 4’33” (four minutes, thirty-three seconds).
It was revolutionary because the music score contained not a single note. Instead it carried the instruction that at no time during the duration of the piece must the instrument be played. The work was divided into three movements, comprising 30 seconds, 2 minutes 23 seconds and 1 minute 40 seconds. The beginning of each movement was indicated by the pianist closing the lid of the piano and at the end of the movement the lid was raised. In between there was silence. Or was there?
What was the audience’s reaction? For the most part they seemed perplexed. They were unsure whether it was a piece of theatre, an experiment, a hoax or what? There was increased muttering as the work progressed and a few walked out, but there was polite applause at the end. There was nothing to match the riots that accompanied the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
So what was Cage trying to achieve? The work is underpinned by two propositions. The first is that the primary act of musical performance is not making music but listening. The second is that we are surrounded by sounds of many kinds and we should not be constrained by that which we can control.
In 4’33” Cage takes this thinking to its logical conclusion. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is being performed. The composer has no way of controlling the ambient sounds that will be heard by different audiences.
In his book No Such Thing as Silence, the American music scholar Kyle Grant says of 4’33”, ‘Really it is an act of framing,of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention.’ And, of course, the purpose of framing anything is to focus the attention on what the frame contains; to separate it. Brian Dillon, the critic for the Irish Times, wrote, ‘It’s a work that makes audiences listen and alters forever their understanding of silence.’
Not all listeners have not been persuaded. In 2004 the BBC broadcast a ‘performance’ of 4’33” by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A work of silence on the radio! Listeners complained that it was ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘clearly a gimmick’, ‘patronising and disturbing’ and ‘smacking of arrogance and self-importance’.
Before you form a judgement, listen to one or more of the performances on YouTube (and they are, of course, all different). Does the experience cause you to rethink what we mean by silence? Is it likely to influence how you listen in future?