No Such Thing as Silence

John Cage’s 4'33"

After reading “No Such Thing as Silence,” I have a much greater appreciation of John Cage’s iconic composition 4'33'' (Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds). The three-movement work — first performed on August 29, 1952, by pianist David Tudor, who sat at a piano in front of a live audience for four and a half minutes without playing a note — certainly begs the question: How should 4'33'' be understood?

Author Kyle Gann — Associate Professor of Music at New York’s Bard College and former new-music critic for the Village Voice — does a marvelous job answering this question, placing the work in historical and cultural context, and providing a guide to the different ways the piece can be interpreted.

Beginning with 4'33''s premiere at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, Gann introduces the reader to Cage, his influences, and his musical path to 4'33'', before delving into the idiosyncrasies of the score, which — believe it or not — is integral to the piece’s performance, despite the absence of musical notes. Lastly, Gann considers the legacy of 4'33'', as well as the many cover versions, pop music references, and silent album tracks recorded in tribute to Cage.

Arguably the most compelling of the tributes is that of San Francisco conceptual artist Jonathan Keats, who, in a 2007 press release, advertised that he was making 4'33'' available as a ringtone for cell phones, “expect[ing] to bring quiet to the lives of millions of cell phone users, as well as those close to them. Never mind that Cage tried, and failed, to create a silent interlude,” continued Keats, “humorously [and] deliberate[ly] misinterpret[ing] Cage’s imperfect silence,” as the author puts it.

While the listening public has gained a greater appreciation of 4'33'' over the years, “No Such Thing as Silence” is vital insofar as it fills in the gaps in our still imperfect understanding of its importance and meaning. 4'33'' is commonly derided as a joke, a provocation, “yet by the time Cage died [in 1992] most critics fully understood that the listener was supposed to appreciate the sounds of the environment in which the piece was performed,” concludes Gann. Who — aside from [Henry David] Thoreau, perhaps — realized there was so much to listen to?

Kyle Gann dot-com