No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4' 33"

David Revill finds much of value in an examination of one of the best-misunderstood works of our time

July 1, 2010

The story of John Cage's 4' 33" reads something like a Jorge Luis Borges fiction. The piece, three movements during which the performer makes no deliberate sound, was the composer's favourite, one of the last tracks recorded by Frank Zappa, and the subject of a lawsuit brought against Mike Batt of Wombles fame. The incomprehension that began at the premiere (even Cage's mother asked a friend, "don't you think John has gone too far this time?") continues today, either with scorn or, perhaps worse, a reflex pseudo-respect. If we want to do better than simply smile at all this - if we want to understand - the question would be: why would any composer write a piece of music with no sounds in it?

Kyle Gann's No Such Thing as Silence is one of the most useful contributions to such understanding since 1992, the year Cage died. (Thomas Hines' 1994 article "Then not yet 'Cage'?" was also revelatory.) Gann does an excellent job of tracing the events, experiences and changes of mind that made "the silent piece" possible. After introducing 4' 33" and its notorious first performance (at which a local urged, not for the last time, "let's drive these people out of town"), he offers a brief account of the composer's life, including a discussion of one of the mysteries of Cage studies, the nature and extent of his studies and interactions with Arnold Schoenberg. He then presents what he dubs a dramatis personae: sketches of some artists and thinkers by whom Cage was strongly influenced.

Gann's discussion of Cage's legacy constitutes a catalogue of key composers and movements of the past 50 years, especially in America: conceptualism and sound art, minimalism, postminimalism and totalism in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as various references and homages in popular music. (Cage knew John Lennon and Yoko Ono well and for a time they were neighbours, making him one of very few people who could say he had asked Lennon to keep the noise down a bit.)

Less convincing are the connections Gann makes between Cage's work and musique concrete, "acousmatic music" and soundscape composers such as R. Murray Schafer, since their philosophical origins are accepted as largely independent and Gann does not establish connections that suggest otherwise.

This book is part of Yale University Press' Icons of America series, with each volume telling "a new and innovative story about American history and culture through ... a single iconic ... cultural phenomenon". This puts 4' 33" into such diverse company as Fred Astaire, the Liberty Bell and a history of the hamburger (a "here comes everybody" juxtaposition that would have delighted Cage). It might seem likely, in the context of such a series, that Gann's book is nothing more than an introduction. Its particular value, however, lies in its details and disclosures from recent Cage scholarship and (despite Gann's modesty on this point) his own research.

Although No Such Thing as Silence focuses on music, Cage's post-1950 aesthetic spoke so much to his contemporaries and descendants, and is sufficiently transferable, that probably no piece (and perhaps no composer) has had a broader effect. Paradoxically, this could make "the silent piece", if superlatives are ever useful, the most influential musical work ever made. Given the ratio of what we could call creative misunderstanding to the influence of a work or a thinker, it may not be too elusively metaphorical to say that 4' 33" is one of the best-misunderstood works of our time.

No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4' 33"

By Kyle Gann
Yale University Press
2pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780300136999
Published 30 April 2010

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