No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
By Kyle Gann
In this concise survey, Gann, a composer and music critic, examines John Cage's famously noteless composition 4'33" from origins to afterlife. He lucidly catalogues the "specifically American mix" of influences - Duchamp, Zen, Erik Satie, Thoreau, Robert Rauschenberg - that fed Cage's invention and sifts through the composer's often contradictory explications of the piece, which included three official scores, each in a different notation system. 4'33" Gann argues, though often suspected of being merely a "provocative stunt," is actually one of the best understood and most influential works of avant-garde music: Cage's contention that everyday ambient sound is itself a sort of music worth listening to has become a near-commonplace. In describing the piece's premi¸res and reception, Gann recaptures its "Promethean" impact, which cost Cage some friends and prompted his mother to ask, "Don't you think that John has gone too far this time?" - The New Yorker
Gann, a composer, considers Cage's 4'33" - a performance piece in which the pianist never plays a note - from just about every possible angle, explaining how it can be simultaneously "one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-gardeÕs best-understood as well." (To illustrate that latter point, Gann rounds up many of the descriptions of the piece included in Cage's obituaries after his death in 1999.) Following a biographical summary of Cage's early musical development, Gann considers the various influences that got him thinking about "silence, meditation, and environmental sound," from 20th-century composer Erik Satie back to the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, moving on to a sensible reconstruction of the piece's developmentŃdown to telling details like the fact that its length is roughly the same as the temporal space on a 12-inch 78 rpm record. Though Gann clearly respects Cage and 4'33", he doesn't worship either blindly, and that critical appreciation makes his argument that this is a radical "act of listening," not a provocative stunt, all the more compelling. - Publishers Weekly
In No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33", Kyle Gann tackles the experimental composer's infamous "silent piece" with superb knowledge and skill. Writings on Cage are profuse, especially in the academic realm, and Gann's book serves as an artful condensation.... No Such Thing as Silence connects all of the dots, outlining the composer's influences - everything from the Hudson River School and Erik Satie to Robert Rauschenberg's "White Paintings" and Morton Feldman - as well as the legacy that followed 4'33", including the birth of minimalism and a variety of reinterpretations, reactions and tributes.
4'33" was one of the most controversial compositions of the 20th century (among many), and Gann does much to set the record straight. It would be hard to come away from No Such Thing as Silence with, if not great admiration, at least a firm appreciation of Cage and the thought and energy that he poured into those four and a half note-less minutes. John Ruscher, Bomblog
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....
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?" Jason Zasky at Failure Magazine
With Cage in mind, Susan Sontag wrote in 1969, "The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc." This radical vision of the artistic and experiential potency of silence is at the heart of Kyle Gann's investigation of 4'33", No Such Thing as Silence. The former Village Voice new-music critic examines the ways in which Cage's piece was and is boosted and derided, and the result is an easily digestible yet illuminating volume.
Gann recognizes that for many listeners, 4'33" seems simply a gag or a provocation. Yet he concludes that really it is "an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention." To Gann, the piece frames Cage's entire oeuvre, at a stroke communicating his interest in the sounds of nature, the uses and limitations of avant-garde music practice, and his debt to influences from composers like Erik Satie and Morton Feldman to the philosophical writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Meister Eckhart....
While compelling as poetry and primary source, Cage's own volume titled Silence (1961) should be preceded by Gann's fascinating primer. Moments of textbooklike exposition (do we need a definition of the Bauhaus movement?) are counterbalanced by energetic accounts of Cage's avant-garde exploits. Gann's keen understanding of the period allows him to productively explore Cage's misinterpretations (of Zen, of the artwork of peers like Robert Rauschenberg), which informed the composer's practice as well. - J. Gabriel Boylan at Bookforum.com
As the former Village VoiceŹcritic Kyle Gann notes in his eloquent and briskly informative book, CageÕs 4'33" is "controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential". ItÕs also still routinely misunderstood and disparaged.
Apoplectic listeners (if that's the word) to a performance on BBC radio in 2004 rehearsed a few of the stock whinges: "Absolutely ridiculous . . . clearly a gimmick . . . patronising and disturbing . . . is this how our licence fee money is being used?" As Gann points out, these poor saps - they could have switched the silence off - were not at odds with reputable critics, including admirers of the work, who insist that itÕs essentially "conceptual": all gesture and intention, devoid of content. But 4'33" is actually rich with sonic experience and emotional meaning; more than anything, it's a work that makes audiences listen, and alters forever their understanding of silence.
It's easy, and not in fact entirely wrong, to put Cage's "silent prayer", as he briefly considered calling it, alongside the great vacant works of art of the last century: the blank paintings of Kasimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg, Yves KleinÕs empty exhibition Le Vide, Andy WarholÕs laconic persona and desire to disappear. "So far as he is serious," wrote Susan Sontag in 1967, "the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience." But Cage was not really one for existential voids, nor for obnoxious avant-gardism; though he was well aware of the experimental precursors to 4'33" (and close to Rauschenberg, for example), the most striking aspect of GannÕs account of its genesis is just how rigorous and reflective was CageÕs approach to the piece. He claimed to have built its three (indistinguishable) movements up "note by note", and the piece demands to be listened to in the same way, with Zen-inspired patience. - Brian Dillon in Irish Times
Gann (music, Bard Coll.; Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice) places 4'33" in the context of Cage's life and many influences, including his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises), fellow composer Morton Feldman, Buddhist scholar Daisetz Suzuki, Henry David Thoreau, and contemporary artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg. For readers inclined to dismiss 4'33" as a hoax, Gann offers a thoughtful, convincing rebuttal, and one emerges with a heightened appreciation for the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings that led to the workÕs four-year gestation period and 1952 premiere. Verdict: Compared to Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman's John Cage: Composed in America, Gann's book is equally scholarly and more personal in tone. Highly recommended for readers interested in 20th-century music and culture. - Larry Lipkis at Library Journal.com
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