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Timeline: John Cage's 4'33" And What Silence Sounds Like

James Stewart
If there is no such thing as silence then how do you define when music begins and ends? Can every sound be music?

In 1952, on a summer day in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor held an outdoor recital of contemporary piano music. During this concert he premiered a new work by composer John Cage. For this performance, Tudor sat at the piano with the lid closed, keys covered for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, split into 3 movements. The results of this performance are still controversial to this day.

According to John Cage, the audience “missed the point” of his "4’33”". He said the work was, “full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof and during the third the people made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Cage’s "4’33”" calls into question the very nature of music, silence and art. It’s brings to mind several works from the visual arts. Such as Belgian artist Rene Magritte’s 1929 “The Treachery of Images”. In this work he painted a wooden pipe with the words, “this is not a pipe”. Of course, it’s just a representation of the reality of a pipe. In the 1950’s painter Robert Rouschenberg produced a series of monochrome works. His “White Paintings” are canvases coated in a single white color. These works become reflections of the light and ambience of the room in which they are displayed. This idea of conceptual art was the hallmark of John Cage’s work.

Cage said there was no such thing as silence. A year before the premiere of  "4’33”", he visited Harvard University’s new anechoic chamber, a room designed to deaden all sound completely. If ever there was a place to experience absolute silence this room was it. Cage sat in the room for a long time and later wrote that he experienced two sounds, one high and one low. He discovered that what he heard was his own nervous and circulatory systems. So he determined, where there is life, there is sound. By drawing a frame around the mundane “noises” of everyday life can that be considered music?

It’s a philosophical, almost Zen-like question. Cage’s "4’33”" challenges us to listen; listen to the sounds happening right now and perhaps experience them in the same way you would experience a symphony of Beethoven or Mahler. Whether you call it a piece of music, a work of conceptual art or a novel stunt, "4’33”" has become a touchstone of the late 20th century. Many artists and ensembles have recorded various versions of the work. They either generate absolute emptiness or they record ambient sounds in various locations.

Today, maybe perform this work for yourself. Sit in silence for four and-a-half minutes and just listen.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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