- No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
More than his books, compositions, or years as a reviewer for the Village Voice, Kyle Gann is most known to me for his decoding and analysis of the harmonic content of La Monte Young's magnum opus, The Well-Tuned Piano.1 Thus, it is somewhat surprising to find his attentions turned to John Cage's 4'33", which stipulates that the performers (if, indeed, there are any) refrain from producing intentional sounds. Yet, as Gann's book amply demonstrates, Cage's so-called silent piece is as resonant with philosophical, historical, and acoustical complexities as many a noisier composition.
4'33" is something of a musical axiom. Depending on whether or not one accepts it and, pursuant to that, how one accepts it or what one takes it to mean, it implies or authorizes a range of responses and developments. In this, it resembles Marcel Duchamp's readymades (quotidian industrial objects such as a snow shovel or bottle dryer exhibited as art) with which its reception has often been paired. As Gann stipulates near the book's beginning, "John Cage's 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde's best understood as well.… [I]t was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring" (10–11).
Gann sets himself the task of "explain[ing]—for readers who still think of 4'33" as some kind of provocative stunt—a piece that … long ago entered the realm of concert-life normalcy" (xi). Accordingly, he spends a significant amount of time overcoming potential objections such as that the piece was simply a hoax, [End Page 504] joke, or product of a particularly lazy provocateur. Gann's solicitation of the general reader and conversational tone seem to be editorial stipulations, shared with at least one other title in the series.2 Informed readers will encounter much that they already know about the work's influences and implications, as well as about Cage's life, career, associates, and collaborators. Although Gann's retracing of such well-trodden territory can be slow for those already familiar with Cage's biography, he adeptly recasts the key episodes in Cage's life such that they seem fresh. Time and again I caught myself checking the notes to find that, while I knew the source well (much, for instance, is taken from David Revill's 1992 Cage biography, The Roaring Silence), the anecdote or perspective on it was not one that I remembered.3 Refreshingly, Gann casually and straightforwardly acknowledges Cage's homosexuality, although he relegates any reading of 4'33" as an act of thwarted expression in a period of widespread homophobia—as argued by Caroline Jones, Jonathan Katz, and, most recently, Philip Gentry, among others—to a footnote.4
Gann modestly proclaims his goal to be authoritative summary rather than "original insight or new facts" (xii). Nevertheless, chapter 1 opens with a meditation on the premiere of 4'33" at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, which contributes substantially to our current understanding of the piece. Analyzing the context provided by the evening's program, including the makeup of the audience, the other compositions on the bill, and the fact that it was a benefit (undercutting any idea of the work as a stunt devised to turn a quick and illegitimate profit), Gann emphasizes the natural setting of the concert hall, half the seats of which were situated outdoors, to reveal how an opening onto nature, implicit in much of Cage's thought and music, was rendered absolutely explicit in this case: "it is difficult to resist the idea that the place of the work's premiere seems particularly Romantically chosen: an open-air space in the woods, half of its seats outside under the sky, in...