On 4'33''

On 4'33''

Aidan Maizels
Melbourne, Australia

On 4'33''

Perhaps the most discussed piece of music of all time (The Rite of Spring and Dark Side of the Moon are probably the other contenders), is John Cage's 4'33".  Whether it be as the butt of jokes amongst performers regarding recital timings, or as a springboard for debate over what constitutes music, noise or sound art (if indeed there is a difference), everyone has an opinion on this piece.

Most discussions on the piece seem to centre around it being one of the first examples of 'ordinary' noises used in a piece of music, as well as how Cage's inspiration for the piece came from proving that pure silence is impossible.  The discussion will then usually amble into the topic of anechoic chambers and how people would be interested to go into one to see what it would be like, before a bombardment of anecdotes about people who have gone in them ensues.

But it has been 63 years since the piece was written, and now more than ever, with relentless street buskers, the seemingly mandatory ownership of iPods, and a higher population density (more of other people's noise for you to enjoy), surely the idea of silence being unachievable is more obvious than ever, and thus makes this piece superfluous? Yet we keep coming back to discuss it...

I believe the reason we do is because Cage demonstrated far more than he intended to with this piece.  Whilst nowadays the concepts of non-silence and noise as music are seen as fairly commonplace, there are still many aspects of the piece that remain relevant, yet unaddressed.

I recall one of my professors saying how he would've liked to have heard the piece without any prior knowledge about it, to see if his opinion would differ.  This made me think back to when I first heard about the piece, how it was to be performed, what sounds would usually be heard during performances, and I clearly remember my first impressions.  

I felt that one point of 4'33" was to highlight the sometimes ridiculous performance practices of classical music (how many 18 hour opera cycles do I have to write before I can clap between the movements again?).  The other point that immediately occurred to me was the idea that no matter how technically or musically superb the performer's part was in performing the music, there were always extraneous events that would interfere, making the 'perfect' performance impossible (at least as far as the performer's control is concerned).

By taking away what is meant to be the key element of any musical performance (the music), Cage not only highlighted the extraneous sounds that may interfere negatively or positively with a live performance, but the extraneous traditions and practices that are drilled into performers and audiences without any questioning of why it is being done.  

And even though the performer(s) of the piece essentially do(es) nothing, there are still furious debates about which version is the 'best' or 'most definitive' (another tutor insisted that the London Symphony Orchestra's version was mind-blowing and a must-listen).  I personally believe that such discussions surrounding the piece further add to the joke that isn't the piece itself, but the way that music is treated within different cultures.  With this piece, Cage used the absence of music to remind us of what exactly it is, and highlighted our obsession with the embroidery (rather than the material) of what we think of as music.