- No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's "4'3"
Peter Gena suggests that there are three pivotal achievements in the history of western music: the creation of musical notation prior to 1000 CE, the development of sound recording, and perhaps John Cage's 4'33"" (2). The last is a musical composition that involves only silence and that has been influential in expanding society's definition and understanding of music for more than a half-century. When pianist David Tudor premiered 4'33" at the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock, New York on 29 August 1952, there was a beginning, a suggestion of three movements, [End Page 250] and an end. He indicated the commencement of a movement by closing the lid of the keyboard and the conclusion by opening the lid. During the performance, as he turned pages of music without notes, the audience listened to the sounds around them, and this was the music. The length of the piece at this particular performance was four minutes thirty-three seconds, hence the title. This specific framing of silence in a concert setting, however, is not essential to the performance of the piece. Cage once explained to William Duckworth, "No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day . . . I don't sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it. I realize that it's going on continuously" (qtd. in Gann 186). Despite the wide variety of critical responses to this mid-twentieth-century work, some of them negative, 4'33" has had a major impact in the field of music and on theatre and the performing arts in general.
Kyle Gann's book, which focuses on the background, influences, premiere, and aftermath associated with 4'33", is a timely contribution to scholarship on this ground-breaking piece. Written in a more casual than scholarly style, it is very accessible to the general reader who would like to learn more about the work, its history, and its influence in society. For those of a more academic bent, this well-researched text includes useful references both in a section with notes and in the bibliography. It also includes a preface, an appendix (discography), a fairly detailed index, and a variety of illustrations.
Each chapter deals with an important perspective in relation to the piece. Chapter one, "4'33" at First Listening," discusses the premiere in 1952. Gann writes that it was "one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps" (3). The second chapter, "The Man: 1912-1949," briefly presents Cage's genealogy as well as his development as a musician. Son of inventor John Milton Cage (after whom he was named), Cage eventually studied with Austrian composer and pedagogue Arnold Schoenberg. According to Peter Yates, the master once made the well-known comment about his student: "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor - of genius" (qtd. in Gann 47-48).
Chapter three, "Dramatis Personae (Predecessors and Influences)," examines people who played a significant role in Cage's development. Gann focuses in particular on French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), Italian painter Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Asian art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), German theologian Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - c. 1328), Japanese writer and educator Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966), American artist Irwin Kremen (b. 1925), American composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987), and American writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). This [End Page 251] particular list reveals much about Cage, including his interdisciplinary interests and his obsession with Asian culture.
The fourth chapter, "The Path to 4'33": 1946-1952," analyses the steps that led to the premiere of this silent composition. Gann discusses a lecture Cage gave at Vassar College in which he expressed the desire "to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence" (qtd. in Gann...