No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33''

No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33''

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by Kyle Gann

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First performed at the midpoint of the twentieth century, John Cage’s 4'33", a composition conceived of without a single musical note, is among the most celebrated and ballyhooed cultural gestures in the history of modern music. A meditation on the act of listening and the nature of performance, Cage’s controversial piece became the iconic


First performed at the midpoint of the twentieth century, John Cage’s 4'33", a composition conceived of without a single musical note, is among the most celebrated and ballyhooed cultural gestures in the history of modern music. A meditation on the act of listening and the nature of performance, Cage’s controversial piece became the iconic statement of the meaning of silence in art and is a landmark work of American music.

In this book, Kyle Gann, one of the nation’s leading music critics, explains 4'33" as a unique moment in American culture and musical composition. Finding resemblances and resonances of 4'33" in artworks as wide-ranging as the paintings of the Hudson River School and the music of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he provides much-needed cultural context for this fundamentally challenging and often misunderstood piece. Gann also explores Cage’s craft, describing in illuminating detail the musical, philosophical, and even environmental influences that informed this groundbreaking piece of music. Having performed 4'33" himself and as a composer in his own right, Gann offers the reader both an expert’s analysis and a highly personal interpretation of Cage’s most divisive work.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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-garde’s 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 development—down 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. Photos and illus. throughout. (Mar.)
“Deftly profiling Cage and his influences in the process, Gann entrancingly communicates his love and fascination with Cage’s musical milestone in a spellbinding chapter of high-cultural history.”--Booklist, starred review

The New Yorker

“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. . . . In describing the piece’s premières 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


“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.”—J. Gabriel Boylan, Bookforum

— J. Gabriel Boylan

American Music

"Gann''s book amply demonstrates [that] Cage''s so-called silent piece is as resonant with philosophical, historical, and acoustical complexities as many a noisier composition. . . . Gann''s account so perceptively synthesizes the irreducible disparity about the origin of Cage''s seemingly simple gesture that it will doubtlessly become the (unstable) foundation for many future interpretive engagements with the piece. . . . It is the great merit of Gann''s book to have revealed just how multidimensional even Cage''s most seemingly unidimensional gesture can be."—Brandon Joseph, American Music

— Brandon Joseph

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Yale University Press
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Icons of America
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No Such Thing as Silence

John Cage's 4'33"

By Kyle Gann


Copyright © 2010 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16301-8



4'33" at First Listening

The Maverick Concert Hall is a lovely open-air theater just south of Woodstock, New York, rustically fashioned to blend with its natural environment. Built like a large barn but with a more gradually pitched roof and striking diagonal windows, the hall opens in the back through four double doors onto additional rows of wooden benches in the open air. There are about as many seats outside as in. Oak, maple, hemlock, and shagbark hickory trees intrude gently on the listening space. The hall, and the concert series founded there in 1916, were the vision of novelist, poet, and entrepreneur Hervey White, who broke away from an earlier arts organization to found it (thus the name Maverick). Tucked away in a residential sector of the Catskill mountains, Maverick Concert Hall isn't easy to locate from the main road; even once you've found the right dirt path, you creep your car into the parking lot without getting much reassurance that there's anything there. But for over ninety years the Maverick concerts have remained a prized venue for classical chamber music in a lovely natural setting.

The most famous event in the history of the Maverick series occurred in the late evening of August 29, 1952: the premiere of John Cage's 4'33". Pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano on the small raised wooden stage, closed the keyboard lid over the keys, and looked at a stopwatch. Twice in the next four minutes he raised the lid up and lowered it again, careful to make no audible sound, although at the same time he was turning pages of the music, which were devoid of notes. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed, Tudor rose to receive applause—and thus was premiered one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps.

Of course, what the audience heard during the work entitled 4'33" (Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds, or just "four thirty-three" as Cage tended to call it) was not literal silence. Years later, Cage described the sounds heard during the 1952 performance, which conveniently fell into three movements, paralleling the intended structure: "What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. 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." In 1985 Cage said to Ellsworth Snyder, "I had friends whose friendship I valued, and whose friendship I lost because of that. They thought that calling something you hadn't done, so to speak, music was a form of pulling the wool over their eyes, I guess." And again: "They didn't laugh—they were irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen, and they haven't forgotten it 30 years later: they're still angry."

One can get an idea from the program what it was that shaped people's expectations. The first work of the evening was a theatrical piece by Cage that was at the time intended to be retitled at each new performance for the current date; the program listed it as Aug. 29, 1952, but he later more conveniently gave it the permanent title Water Music. This was a theater piece notated with a single page of instructions rather than a musical score, and involving a radio, whistles, a duck call, and a deck of cards, along with other paraphernalia. Lasting six minutes and forty seconds, the piece directs the performer to perform certain actions at given times determined beforehand by chance methods: blowing the duck call into a container of water, shuffling and dealing the playing cards, playing the radio, sticking objects into a piano's strings to alter the sounds, and blowing a siren whistle. Water Music may well have seemed pure comedy, a mini-play reminiscent of the nonsense of the Dadaist movement of the early twentieth century. Yet, as noted on the concert program, the performance was a benefit for the Artists Welfare Fund. The audience was made up partly of sophisticates of the avant-garde, partly of local music lovers, and partly of vacationing members of the New York Philharmonic; for the first group, even the soggy duck call wasn't quite beyond the pale, and perhaps even the others found it entertaining. Moreover, Cage was not an unknown figure in the area. The previous year, a film festival hosted by the Woodstock Artists Association had awarded a certificate for Best Musical Score to his music for the film Works of Calder.

Following Water Music, the bulk of the program consisted of brief pieces by three younger composers closely associated with Cage: Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and a precocious teenager named Christian Wolff, who was only eighteen at the time of the performance. (Cage, the oldest composer, was a week shy of forty.) All of these were modern, abstractly titled, pointillistic pieces in which notes were disconnected from each other, giving little sense of melody, harmony, or even cohesion. Feldman's Extensions #3 would have stood out for its steady tempo and seemingly unmotivated pianissimo reiteration of sonorities and brief motives. One of Wolff's pieces, For Prepared Piano, involved objects placed in the piano strings to mute the sound, an innovation Cage had developed several years before. In the middle of the program came the huge and difficult First Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, a twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman who would become very famous in a few years—would someday conduct the New York Philharmonic, in fact—but who was not yet well known. This violent and more ambitious work, couched in the twelve-tone idiom developed by Arnold Schoenberg before World War II, would have been a stark contrast with the rest of the program.

Cage's more controversial piece came next to last and is listed mistakenly on the program: it was not "4 pieces" but one piece with three movements, the title being 4'33" and the lengths of the three movements being 30", 2'23", and 1'40", adding up to 4'33".

The final work was Henry Cowell's The Banshee, a classic of the 1920s avant-garde by one of Cage's teachers, made up entirely of eerie noises coaxed and scratched directly from the piano strings, without use of the keyboard. No one seems to have left any document of how The Banshee's performance went or, indeed, whether it managed to get played at all; though one supposes it did, because following the concert there was a tumultuous question-and-answer session with the composers, climaxing in one artist's exhortation, "Good people of Woodstock, let's run these people out of town."

However unconventional, this was a piano recital, and the pianist was a twenty-six-year-old named David Tudor who would become a legend in the international world of contemporary music. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, he began as an organist and served in that capacity at Swarthmore College from 1944 to 1948. He also studied composition (as did Morton Feldman) with Stefan Wolpe, an émigré Jewish composer of fiercely atonal yet whimsically intuitive proclivities. In December 1950 Tudor had given Boulez's Second Sonata of 1948 its American premiere. Having trouble internalizing the work's relentless yet fragmented continuity, he learned that Boulez had been inspired by the avant-garde French dramaturge Antonin Artaud, and so Tudor pored through Artaud's book Le théâtre et son double, leading to a realization that what Artaud called affective athleticism was the key to playing Boulez. Such devout preparation and total immersion in a composer's aesthetic forecast the level of devotion to his repertoire for which Tudor would later become known. He was quickly gaining a reputation as a leading pianist for the most avant-garde and difficult new music around—the musical page "could be black as sin [with notes] and I could still play it," he later said, and it was no boast, just fact—and at the moment he was on the faculty of the eccentrically progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (Later, in the 1970s, Tudor would desert the piano to return to composition, becoming a pioneer in the field of electronic performance and sound installations.)

Cage, at the time, was best known as a California composer of percussion music and the inventor of the prepared piano—a piano with bolts, screws, rubber erasers, weather stripping, and other objects inserted between the strings to alter the timbre and pitch. Such preparations turned the piano into a percussion orchestra playable by one person. Though still nearly indigent, Cage had already enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety, notably a well-publicized 1943 concert at New York City's Museum of Modern Art which was written up in Life magazine. Cage met Tudor in 1949 through dancer Jean Erdman; Cage sometimes supplied music for Erdman's dances, and Tudor was her accompanist. That same year, Cage also visited Paris and met Boulez, and it was Cage (with Feldman's help) who arranged for the premiere of the Second Sonata. Though Cage was fourteen years older than Tudor, the two were tremendously simpatico and, following the Boulez premiere, formed a close artistic bond that would last until Cage's death. In 1951 his younger friend's volcanic pianism inspired what was easily the most difficult piano piece Cage had written, a forty-five-minute tour de force of violent and systematic randomness titled Music of Changes; Tudor premiered the work on New Year's Day, 1952. When Cage had the wild idea for 4'33", an unflinching Tudor encouraged him to finish the piece for his upcoming concert on the Maverick series.

At this point Cage's infamy as a proponent of chance techniques and Zen paradoxes, and the widespread influence of his provocative writings, still lay several years in the future. He had so far been indulged as an amateurish but entertaining proponent of percussion noises. With 4'33", the controversy that afterward surrounded his life and work was just about to begin.

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. Many presume that the piece's purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.

What was this piece, this "composition" 4'33"? For so famous and recent a work, the number of questions that still surround it is extraordinary—from its lost original manuscript, to its multiple notations, to unexplained deviations in the lengths of the movements, to the peculiar process of adding up silences with which it was composed, to the biggest ambiguity of all: How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior?

Let's try the hoax hypothesis. Here are some definitions for hoax:

1. An act intended to deceive or trick;

2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means;

3. Deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage (synonym: fraud);

4. A deception for mockery or mischief.

In what was Cage trying to deceive the audience? Attempting to make them think they had heard something when they hadn't? The audience was fully aware that Tudor was sitting onstage and neither touching the keyboard nor making any audible sounds. If Cage was trying to fool the audience into thinking he had written a piece when he really hadn't, who was deceived? One could argue that Cage was mocking the audience, but he wasn't doing so by deceiving them. There was no attempt to cover up what 4'33" was: a man sitting at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing. There was no moment following the performance at which listeners learned that what they'd heard was not what they thought.

Perhaps it was trickery intended to gain an advantage? Ah yes, the advantage! And what was that advantage? Why, money, of course! Every time I have ever played or explained 4'33" to a class, one student has always exclaimed indignantly, "You mean he got paid for that?" According to the common understanding of how musicians lead their careers, the musician makes some music, it gets played, and the musician is given some money through some means or another. But Cage wasn't paid for writing 4'33"; the piece wasn't commissioned. The concert was a benefit for a good cause. The money people paid to hear David Tudor play did not go to Cage, or even to Tudor.

And in fact, while songwriters usually get paid for their performances and receive royalties for the use of their songs, classical composers like Cage sometimes compose for commissions, but also often write pieces with no commission at all. Often they compose simply because they have an idea, or they're building up a portfolio for future performances, or they're trying to advance their careers by doing something impressive, or—quite often—they compose for the sheer love of composing, which can be an enjoyable and fulfilling activity. At that time, Cage was, as he said, "poor as a church mouse," and he had been so for many years. He had spent the year 1951 composing his piano piece Music of Changes on the sidewalk and on the subway, and asking friends and strangers to support him by buying shares in his music in case it ever did actually make some money. The year following the 4'33" premiere, the old Lower West Side apartment house Cage was living in was scheduled for demolition, and he was forced to relocate. Not affluent enough to find another place in the city (even with cheap 1950s rents), he eventually moved with friends to an artists' collective upstate at the community of Stony Point, where he could enjoy two small rooms for $24.15 a month (about $194 in 2008 dollars). Not until the 1960s would Cage gain any measure of financial security. The idea that he might have made any money off an avant-garde gesture like 4'33" is a raw caricature of a composer's life. (In the 1960s, however, when he was much more famous, Cage did sell the manuscript of 4'33" for a large sum of money, much as one might sell any document that had come to have historical significance.)

Or perhaps Cage was just lazy, "writing" a piece that took no work at all and hoping to make some money off it later. Any such impression is belied by the sheer volume of Cage's lifelong output, the detailed complexity of many of his scores, and the loving care he put into copying his manuscripts. He would later say that 4'33" took longer for him to write than any other piece, because he worked on it, as a concept, for four years. And in 1951 he had written the tremendously virtuosic and complex Music of Changes, more difficult to conceive and compose than anything a lazy person would have ever contemplated.

In 2004 the BBC broadcast an orchestral version of 4'33"—which meant that the BBC Symphony Orchestra sat onstage for four and a half minutes without making sounds, and people listened to their silence in the hall and over the radio. Some of the comments the BBC received over the Internet played into the "hoax" theme:

I'm sorry, but this is absolutely ridiculous. The rock 'n' rollers and the punks were wrongly bashed in their day, but this genuinely deserves a big thumbs down.

This is clearly a gimmick, when he 'wrote' this piece he was testing who was stupid enough to fall for it. I think you'll find he wrote it on 01 April 1952.

I find it quite patronising and disturbing that self proclaimed intellectuals are trying to convince us that this is art—just another nail in the coffin for the world of art!

Is this how our licence fee money is being used? I've never heard of such a stupid thing in my life! God rest his soul, but this 'composition' by Cage smacks of arrogance and self importance ...

Emperor's new clothes anyone?

Yet for the rest of his life, Cage talked about 4'33" as his most important work, the one he returned to again and again as the basis for his other new works. He knew what it consisted of and was well aware of the range of receptions it generated.

How about the "joke" theory? Well, Cage was certainly afraid it would be taken as a joke, which is why it took him four and a half years (nice coincidence) from conceiving the piece to actually presenting it publicly. ("I have a horror of appearing an idiot," he once told a critic.) In a 1973 interview he admitted, "I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it would appear as if I were making a joke. In fact, I probably worked longer on my 'silent' piece than I worked on any other." Cage explained the "joke": "I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements, and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall." For a joke, this is an awfully earnest philosophical program.

How about Dada? Dada was an art movement, or perhaps anti-art movement, associated with the period during and after World War I. Disillusioned by the great world of European culture being plunged into war, artists like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Täuber, Erik Satie, and others dove into a world of nonsensical art that eschewed reason and logic in favor of chaos, randomness, and paradox. In the foreword to his seminal early book Silence, Cage acknowledges a debt to Dada, and Satie was one of his favorite composers. Cage also notes that "what was Dada in Duchamp's day is now just art," but on Cage's own authority the possibility that 4'33" was a Dada-inspired gesture, even if also more than that, cannot be entirely dismissed.

Excerpted from No Such Thing as Silence by Kyle Gann. Copyright © 2010 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kyle Gann is Associate Professor of Music at Bard College, a composer, and former new-music critic for the Village Voice. He lives in Germantown, NY.

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No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JAMANN More than 1 year ago
This book is about John Cage's controversial piece, 4'33''. For those of you who don't know the piece, it is basically four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The author, Kyle Gann, describes how Cage wanted to illustrate what happened in the silence of the piece, however, his first audiences did not understand his music. Gann relates personal experiences to Cage's work, and describes in detail the thought behind the piece. I like this detail because it gives me insight into what was going on in the brain of the composer. An obvious theme of the book is that there truly is no such thing as silence, as the book's title suggests. As a musician and composer, I can relate to this book because it is always nerve wracking to think that people will not understand or accept your music.