Talk on John Cage's 4'33"

By Kyle Gann

Delivered at the New World Symphony's John Cage Festival in Miami, February 7, 2013

I've had a lifelong involvement with the music and ideas of John Cage. And the question that most continues to haunt me is:

What is supposed to happen between the movements of 4'33"?

It seems that everyone who's heard of 4'33" knows what it is. John Cage wrote a piece in which the pianist sits for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing anything. What is heard by the audience during that time, what becomes the music, is all the accidental and environmental sounds that occur in the immediate area. The audience is put in the position of being tricked or forced or enticed into five minutes of Zen meditation, being here in the moment through listening. That much is clear.

But the really weird thing about 4'33", once you've accepted the premise at all, is that it's in three movements! During the movements, you're assumed to give your attention to whatever sounds you hear in the environment. But what about between the movements? Are you supposed to stop listening? Are the sounds that occur between movements not part of the piece?

I do think I've come up with a plausible answer as to why there have to be three movements, and I'll come back to that in a little while. That answer has occurred to me since I wrote my book on 4'33", so even if you've read it, I might still have something new to say about it.

In 2004, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a famous performance of 4'33" which was broadcast over the radio. The audience in the hall remained silent during the movements, and then coughed in between them, just as if it had been a Mozart concerto! Why? Wouldn't the audience coughing have counted as environmental sounds? After the premiere in 1952, which was at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY, shown here, Cage made it very clear that the talking and protest of the audience were indeed to be considered part of the sounds of the piece.

The history and exact nature of 4'33" are shrouded in enigma, mystery, and ambiguity, which seems odd for so famous a piece from only sixty years ago; but it is worth emphasizing that 4'33" became famous rather slowly. Cage's 1961 book of essays Silence, which vastly expanded his reputation, mentions the piece only twice, and never by title, but as "my silent piece." Not until a decade or two later did it become the central icon of Cage's reputation.

We see the basis for the division into three movements here in the original program from the premiere at the Maverick Concert Hall just outside Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952. The audience included, ominously enough, some vacationing members of the New York Philharmonic, but also some local avant-garde fans, who knew who Cage was because he had won an award there the year before. The title of the piece seems to have gotten all bollixed up in the program. Instead of being listed as 4'33" with three movements, it is listed as "4 Pieces," with timings of

Those last three numbers add up to 4'33". Keep those numbers in your head for a moment: 30", 2'23", 1'40""

After reading my book on 4'33", one composer wrote me to say that the only movement of 4'33" he really liked was the second. The others, he said, are too short.

Now, let's look at the score of the piece that was published in 1961. In this score Cage decided to use only a verbal, rather than musical, notation. The three movements are listed as Roman numerals, and after each Roman numeral is the word "tacet." Tacet is the word conventionally written in the part of an orchestra player to indicate that he or she does not play during a movement. Like, the oboe player will have the music for the first movement of a symphony, and then if no oboe is used in the second movement, the part will read, "II: tacet." This was undoubtedly the first use of the word in a solo composition. In the instructions the score states that the length of the piece can be anything you want it to be, but that at the premiere in Woodstock the movements were

There are three discrepancies here. How did we get from 30", 2'23", and 1'40" to 33", 2'40", and 1'20"? The digits are all the same, but mixed around. Various writers have claimed that between 1952 and 1961 Cage rewrote the piece and recalculated the movement lengths so that they'd still add up to 4'33". But that's not what the score says. It states that "At Woodstock, N.Y., August 29, 1952, the title was 4' 33" and the three parts were 33", 2'40", and 1'20"," which is manifestly not true.

The score also states that pianist David Tudor, who played the premiere, "indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening, the keyboard lid." Tudor has confirmed this description. Yet other people who were present, including Carolyn Brown, dancer and the wife of composer Earle Brown, insisted that Tudor opened the keyboard lid at the beginning of each movement, and closed it at the end.

To add to the confusion, the 1961 score here doesn't look anything like the original score. The original score is long lost, but in 1989 David Tudor reconstructed it from memory - twice - and came up with two different versions. The first contained a single staff partitioned in measures 7 1/2 inches long, with one half-inch equal to a metronome marking of 60. The second reconstruction, which we see here, employed a grand staff (treble and bass clefs), a time signature of 4/4, a measure 10 centimeters long, and a metronome marking of quarter-note equals 60.

In 1953 Cage decided that there was no reason 4'33" should be limited to the piano, and he made a new score without musical staves or clefs, just blank space marked off by vertical lines proportional to the lengths of the movements.

(The timings on this were the same as on the original program: 30", 2'23", 1'40".)

Sometime before 1961, Cage decided that even specifying the timings of movements was too restrictive. The 1960 score states that the title of the work need not be 4'33", but should match whatever duration the performer decides to use. And so, in a sense, the piece once titled 4'33" ceased to exist. We should really be referring to it as "the piece formerly known as 4'33"," like "the artist formerly known as Prince." And in fact, Cage didn't usually refer to 4'33" by name in his writings, more often preferring to call it "my silent piece" - even though we all know that the whole point of the piece is that it is not silent.

Significantly, the new 1960 instructions for the piece formerly known as 4'33" suggest that the timing could be changed, but that the piece should still be played in three movements. The timings had originally been determined by chance methods: specifically, by using an ancient Chinese oracle called the I Ching. In 1952 the first English translation of the I Ching had just been published by Kurt Wolff, whose son Christian Wolff had come to Cage for composition lessons. Cage offered to teach him for free, and in gratitude Christian Wolff brought him a copy of the I Ching when it appeared. Cage had already been a devotee of Eastern literature, ever since he moved to New York City in 1942 and stayed in the apartment of the great anthropologist Joseph Campbell.

The I Ching is a kind of encyclopedia of 64 descriptions of situations to be consulted when one has to make a decision. The philosophical background is that every moment in the state of the universe corresponds to one of these situations, and so by an ineffable synchronicity, whenever the decision is needed, the I Ching will direct you to the appropriate action. To obtain one's chance decision, one flips six coins, each of which comes up heads or tails, and so there are 64 possible combinations, because that's 2 to the 6th power - 6 tails, 6 heads, five tails followed by one head, four tails and then one head and another tail, and so on. Cage had already been interested, due to his other readings on Eastern philosophy, in the possibility of letting chance direct his composing, so he began using the I Ching to determine every decision in a composition. The first piece Cage wrote in this manner was a terrifically difficult piano piece, lasting almost an hour, called Music of Changes, because the title I Ching is usually translated as The Book of Changes. Cage would flip the coins for every decision of rhythm, pitch, and volume for every sonority.

4'33" was the next piece Cage wrote after Music of Changes, and so he continued using the same method, but used only the rhythms, dispensing with the pitches and volume. In other words, he composed 4'33" by adding together a bunch of short silences, and, in his Harvard lectures of 1989, admitted, "it seems idiotic but that's what i did."And, as he went on, he said, "i built it up very gradually and it came out to be 4'33" i just might have made a mistake in addition."[1] Now, the philosophical background to the I Ching is that the answer corresponds to the state of the universe. If you buy into this thought system at all, then it's crucial that you believe the answer you get is the right one for that moment. So what in the world could Cage have meant by "I just might have made a mistake in addition"? Wouldn't a departure from the I Ching answers have invalidated the whole process?

The question becomes even murkier when we go back four years earlier to a lecture Cage gave at Vassar on February 28, 1948. On that date he announced some upcoming plans:

I have... several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 1/2 minutes long - these being the standard lengths of "canned" music, and its title will be "Silent Prayer." It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly.[2]

Here, four and a half years before 4'33", we have the first announcement of a plan to write a piece consisting of silence. (The other "absurd" plan is to write a piece for twelve radios, which he did in 1951.) Note, moreover, that Silent Prayer is not really 4'33", and is confusingly described. "It will open," Cage says, "with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower." How can a silent piece open with any idea at all? And again, "The ending will approach imperceptibly."

And note the intention to sell the Silent Prayer to the Muzak corporation. The Muzak company was founded in 1934, its name a combination of music and Kodak. The practice of piping Muzak into restaurants, office buildings, subways, and other public spaces grew phenomenally in the late 1930s and '40s, and many people, professional musicians in particular, were horrified by it. Studies found that Muzak in the workplace relieved worker fatigue and lowered absenteeism, but many people considered it not only a degrading misuse of music but an invasion of privacy. Lawsuits resulted, and in 1952 - the year of 4'33" - the case against the Muzak corporation went to the Supreme Court. Muzak won. Writing for the majority, Justice Harold Burton wrote that broadcasting music was "not inconsistent with public convenience, comfort and safety.'"[3] Justice Felix Frankfurter, however, hated Muzak so much that he felt it necessary to recuse himself, and Justice William O. Douglas, in his minority opinion, stated that, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."[4]

Cage's politics in the 1930s were highly anti-corporate, and he wrote that "there seemed to be nothing good about anything big in America." So Cage's original idea for 4'33" was to sell it to Muzak to create a respite from corporate-imposed forced listening. Muzak at the time was played from 78 rpm vinyl records, which could hold about three minutes of music on a 10-inch disc, or four and a half minutes on a 12-inch disc, thus accounting for the lengths of time Cage predicted for his Silent Prayer. So think about this: in 1948 Cage speculated about writing a four-and-a-half-minute silent composition. Four and a half years later (and I've always enjoyed that coincidence) he consulted the I Ching to come up with lengths of time for a silent composition - and the lengths happened to add up to four-and-a-half minutes! How convenient! How cheerful of the synchronicity of the universe to cooperate! How did this happen? Did Cage fudge the results? Was this the result of his alleged "mistake in addition"? Did he keep adding silences until he got close to the length he was aiming for? We don't know, and since no one cleared up these questions during his lifetime, it's unlikely that we can clarify his intentions now.

Still, Cage did not write a silent piece in 1948, but waited four and a half more years. My theory for why this is that in 1948, the creation of a silent piece would have seemed too much like a joke, or a protest against Muzak, something negative. And I do believe, as a composer myself, that it is difficult for an artist to create anything, even a mostly blank page, out of a negative impulse. I do know of one composer who, burned by his ex-wife's lawyers in a child custody case, wrote a revenge opera about a corrupt judge in a child custody court, but I have always assumed it was probably unlistenable. Artists get truly inspired only by positive emotions, not by resentment, anger, and revenge fantasies.

So several things conspired to turn the creation of a silent piece into a positive idea for Cage. One was his increasing involvement in Zen. The conflict between the United States and Japan in World War II turned into a tremendous cultural exchange once the war was over. R.H. Blyth's translations of Japanese haiku made haiku popular in the U.S. almost overnight, and the art and poetry worlds in particular were flooded with Japanese influences. In 1949 Cage became involved with the Artists' Club in New York, many of whose regulars were caught up in the Zen craze. Visual artists like Mark Tobey, Ad Reinhart, Franz Kline, and others had been highly influenced by Japanese calligraphy and Ukiyo-e paintings, the "floating world" genre of Japanese prints.[5] Poets like Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder were Zen enthusiasts of the time as well, but among composers of his generation Cage seems virtually unique in this respect.

Cage's increasing interest led him to study with Daisetz Suzuki, a historian and philosopher who had an unparalleled impact on the West's understanding of Buddhism. Cage claimed in his books to have attended Suzuki's classes in the late 1940s, but he was mistaken. Suzuki arrived in New York in the late summer of 1950, first lectured at Columbia in March of 1951, and taught no courses until spring of 1952.[6]

The idea in Zen that related to 4'33" was Zen's direct attention to perceptual reality and its refusal to make distinctions. In the sitting meditation of Zazen (which Cage did not practice), one's attention is supposed to be turned away from the chattering of the ego and directed toward whatever phenomena are immediately evident. To the Zen mind, all existence is one, or as Alan Watts put it, "to one who has self-knowledge, there is no duality between himself and the external world." To the Zen listener, there is no distinction between the sound of a note from a piano and the sound of rain falling on the Maverick Concert Hall roof. Zen attention suggested to Cage that the accidental sounds he didn't create were just as interesting as the ones caused by his composing ego.

Even the interest in Zen, however, was not quite sufficient to push Cage into going public with a silent piece. In 1951 he met the painter Robert Rauschenberg, who had just broken from the popular abstract expressionist movement by painting a series of White Paintings. One of them was simply a white square canvas; another was made of four squares arranged in a square, and so on. They scandalized the art world, and were denounced by one critic as "a tour de force in the domain of personality gesture."[7] But Cage, as he did with so many things that fascinated him, came up with his own interpretation, seeing in their whiteness an absence that refused to dominate the viewer, analogous to the "silent" piece he'd been contemplating. The lack of focus turned the white paintings into objects not separated from their environment (as Art is), but contiguous with it. In an article on Rauschenberg he generously added an epigraph that said:

To Whom It May Concern:
The white paintings came
first; my silent piece
came later.[8]

In 1952 Cage returned for a second time to the experimental school Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. Here, along with Rauschenberg, dancer Merce Cunningham, pianist David Tudor, poet M.C. Richards, and others, he organized a theatrical event which has been hailed as the first Happening, in the sense that that word would be used in hippie enclaves of the 1960s. August 16, 1952, found him still at Black Mountain for a performance of his Sonatas and Interludes, after which he headed for New England, where, among other things, he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard. An anechoic chamber is a room built to absorb and block sound reflections to approach conditions of absolute silence; the room is covered with sound-absorbent material, and usually insulated on the outside as well to prevent sound from coming in. Such rooms are used to test electronic sound equipment in pristine conditions, or for psychoacoustic research.

Cage's visit to the anechoic chamber was one of the formative experiences of his late aesthetic, and can only be related in his own well-known words:

It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, "Describe them." I did. He said, "The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation."[9]

In a 1957 lecture Cage amplified the ramifications:

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot... Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.[10]

Though perhaps it was already changing, the concept of the "Silent Prayer" changed in 1952, through the realization that strict theoretical "silence" was unavailable to human experience. To compose silence was not only a paradox or provocation, but an impossibility. Cage had been used to thinking of sound and silence as opposites; he now understood them as merely aspects of the same continuum, in keeping with the Zen tendency to dissolve dualities. The idea that had begun as negation - a five-minute respite from the terrorizing forced listening of Muzak - now became affirmation - an acceptance of those sounds over which one has no control, and which one did not intend. The anechoic chamber revealed the futility of the negation, whereas Zen offered the alternative, affirmative attitude. Thus to have retained "Silent" as part of the title would have been misleading, would have implied the opposite of what Cage now understood. 4'33" is often mischaracterized as Cage's "Silent Sonata," but the point is that it is not silent, that there is no such thing as silence; "Unintended Noise Sonata" would come closer to the truth.

Cage's subsequent remarks make it clear, in fact, that he learned to think of 4'33" as not needing a performer. He has often characterized it as simply an act of listening. In 1982 he told William Duckworth,

Well, I use it [4'33"] constantly in my life experience. 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.[11]

This throws the nature of the piece even more into question. It is one thing to sit in an audience watching a quiescent performer onstage; it is quite another to sit somewhere by oneself - in the woods, at a bus stop, near a construction site - and pay disinterested attention to the environmental sounds for an unspecified time. To Cage, clearly the essence of the piece remained the same, but what a vast difference in self-consciousness and communal experience!

Ultimately, we are left with the conundrum that 4'33" has expanded into an infinite river of a piece into which any of us can dip at any time we please. Someone can frame it, in performance or on recording, to draw attention to it. But for those who have an affinity for Cage's appreciation for the physicality of sound, even that is no longer necessary.

And so Cage abandoned the paradox of 4'33" being divided into three movements, but that doesn't mean we can abandon it. In a sense it is irresolvable. Performers tend to use the original timings for sentimentality's sake, although as we've seen you have to choose which original timings to use. But there are a couple of precedents we can cite. One is in Cage's piece Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, perhaps his most widely admired composition; the sonatas are written in a binary sonata form that was popular in the 17th century, in which each movement is divided into two halves, and each of the parts repeated. This is a peculiar gesture for such an avant-garde piece, and I can only explain it by pointing to the similar 1943 Sonatas for cembalo of Cage's close friend Lou Harrison, whose interest in ancient music went much deeper than Cage's.

Perhaps in 4'33", as in Sonatas and Interludes, Cage needed an ancient idea to throw a new idea into relief, or to justify a new idea by wedding it to a traditional one. One of Cage's mentors was Marcel Duchamp, who had scandalized the art world with his sculptures made up of found objects that he called ready-mades: an iron with nails attached to its bottom surface, a bicycle wheel attached to a stool, a fur-lined teacup. Perhaps this kind of delight in juxtaposition induced Cage to cross a three-movement classical sonata form with a Zen meditation, to show the nature of each through their paradoxical juxtaposition. One is listening to a meditation as a sonata; one is experiencing a classical sonata as a meditation.

I first performed 4'33" at a piano recital when I was 17, but until this past centennial year, it was very rare for me to hear other people perform it. And now that I've heard a lot of performances recently, I've been able to notice something quite peculiar about it. Every time I have heard 4'33", the three movements have indeed turned out to be different from each other somehow. There has always been a bird that sang in the second movement but not in the first or third, or an outdoor truck that created a contrasting climax in the last movement. At the premiere performance, Cage later said, "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 themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."[12]

Clearly this perception of three individual movements is not a metaphysical coincidence, but a result of the way our brains impose order on reality. A simple stretch of silent time wouldn't have brought about this insight, and a stretch of time divided in half might have made such perceptions seem coincidental. But it may take dividing our listenings into three parts to convince us that if we divide our attention into segments, the universe will meet us halfway by seeming to divide itself. This is, of course, one of the central insights of Zen, that we impose on the world an order that isn't inherent in it, that - in the words of Hamlet - "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."

I've come to think that if we skip the division of 4'33" into three movements, we may learn to become one with our auditory environment, but we may miss the other half of the equation, which is what our brains do to organize the phenomena we hear. The purpose of 4'33", I've come to believe, is not only to bring us in liberating contact with the world, but to demonstrate to us what it is we do to the world around us.

[1] Cage, I-IV, pp. 20-21.

[2] Cage, "A Composer's Confessions," in John Cage, Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces, p. 43.

[3] Lanza, Elevator Music, p. 51.

[4] Lanza, Elevator Music, p. 52.

[5] Helen Westgeest, Zen in the Fifties: Interaction in Art between East and West (Waanders Uitgevers: Museum voor Moderne Kunst, 1997), pp. 61ff.

[6] David Patterson, "Cage and Asia: history and sources," in David Nicholls, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, pp. 53-54.

[7] Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, p. 31.

[8] Cage, "On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and his Work" in Silence, p. 98.

[9] Cage, A Year from Monday, p. 134

[10] Cage, "Experimental Music" in Silence, p. 8.

[11] William Duckworth, "An Interview with Cage" in Cage at 75, pp. 21-22.

[12] Interview with John Kobler, quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 65.

Copyright Kyle Gann 2013

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