As a presumed expert in all things musical, I'm occasionally asked, “So, what's your favorite piece of music?” I instinctively cringe at such an impossible question, yet if really pressed for an answer my choice would be John Cage's 4'33" (“four minutes, thirty-three seconds”).
I knew Cage briefly when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan University, whose music department lauded him as a visionary genius while most others dismissed him as a negligible buffoon. His performances were more “happenings” than conventional concerts, and could range from seemingly random events to a lecture about his beloved wild mushrooms. He was always happy and gentle, alive with awestruck wonder of the world, and especially fascinated by its sounds.
4'33" was Cage's favorite work. Written in 1952, it came at the exact mid-point of his 80-year life of discovery and culminated his exploration of indeterminacy, in which some elements are carefully scripted with others left to chance. The year before, he had written his Imaginary Landscape # 4 for 24 performers, each of whom adjusted the volume or tuning knob of one of a dozen radios; although the dial settings were exactly prescribed, the result depended upon the frequencies and formats of local stations. 4'33" was inspired by Cage's visit to Harvard's anechoic chamber, designed to eliminate all sound, but instead of expected silence Cage was amazed and delighted to hear the pulsing of his blood and the whistling of his nerves.
Most music is trivialized by attempts to describe it. (“The melody is announced by the flutes...”) That's not a problem with 4'33". Here's the performance I recall: A tuxedoed performer came on stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid, occasionally turned some music pages, and then after a few minutes rose, bowed and left. And that was it.
Although often described as a silent piece, 4'33" isn't soundless at all. While the performer is quiet, you soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic - nervous giggling, shifting in seats, breathing, air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4'33" the same way. This is deeply personal art, which each witness shapes to his or her own reactions to life. It's the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world at large) becomes the performer.
Let's tackle a few obvious questions. Is this music? Sure it is - each sound has a distinct tone, duration and timbre. Isn't it arbitrary? But so are all artistic conventions. Couldn't a 3-year old have written this piece? Perhaps. But did she? Did you?
If all this sounds more like useless noise and silly pretension than real music or earnest art, don't feel bad - you're in distinguished company. As chronicled in Nikolas Slonimsky's perversely wonderful Lexicon of Musical Invective (Washington University, 1965), the most comfortable and cherished staples of our current repertoire, including Brahms, Chopin, Debussy and Tchaikovsky, had been condemned by contemporary esthetes in the very same way. Even Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, now the most popular classical work of all, was still damned as “odious meowing” decades after its premiere.
Few people genuinely enjoy modern classical music (and here I don't mean recent mainstream derivative stuff, but cutting-edge avant-garde). Perhaps the problem stems from its sheer newness - without a reference point of time-tested standards and refined taste, it's hard to separate the brilliance from the dross, the true innovators from the screwballs, the serious artists from the charlatans.
There's also the Top Forty syndrome. Remember the huge ratings pop stations used to get with narrow playlists that plugged the number one record every hour? They tapped into something very basic to human nature - we all crave the familiarity of repetition. Really modern music lacks this comforting assurance. It may fleetingly grab our attention with novelty, but deep inside that's not what we really want. Indeed, nowadays the classical music industry isn't built on innovation but on constant reiteration of a core concert and recorded repertoire which hasn't changed in several generations.
There's also the issue of exposure. As the Slonimsky book documents, in every age conservative keepers of the flame decried music produced by their contemporaries. The last several decades, though, have brought a far more disturbing development - now, truly modern music isn't being condemned so much as being ignored. While Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stockhausen all had their critics (many of them!) at least they had critics - and performances. The artists producing genuinely innovative music in our time are writing and playing for small, isolated circles and garner only minimal notice. 4'33" is already a half-century old. Do you have any idea what's happened since then?
Speaking of the uncertain future, if the obscure structure and random content of 4'33" strikes us as the radical fringe, what's left to develop in the future? How much further can such "music" go? Once we accept Cage's 4'33" as valid music, then what can we do for an encore? 5'28"? 6'14"? Is the spate of performance art that followed Cage (eg: Yoko Ono's pre-Lennon output) an extension or a regression (or worse, just lazy imitation)?
Ironically, we may have arrived at a point where further progress demands backtracking. The history of Western music can be viewed as one of deepening exploration of the physical laws that govern harmony, rhythm, pitch and timbre. The great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (among many others) persuasively related our emotional reaction to music to the degree to which it follows the organic laws of nature; when music respects those natural rules it can communicate, but when it strays too far it only alienates. Once we've arrived at the point where extreme dissonance, incomprehensible rhythms, bizarre synthetic noises and even random events are accepted as fully equal to time-honored traditional elements, our psychological anchor is gone and we're utterly lost emotionally, if not intellectually.
One more question: is 4'33" really classical music? I think so. The huge variety of music of all eras that we call classical (and here I certainly include pop, folk, blues and jazz) respects and crystallizes tradition. Beyond being a wickedly keen reworking of formal concert routine, 4'33" is acutely conscious of history. Music began in imitation of natural sounds and human voices but then became increasingly stylized. Cage brings the process full circle, bridging the cultural distance that has developed between conventional performance and the hum of nature where it all began. Classical music also endures. Over the years I've heard each of Mozart's mature piano concertos dozens of times, but I can barely recall even a few of their melodies. I heard the Cage piece just once (and that was three decades ago), but I remember it vividly.
The ultimate wonder of 4'33" is the profundity of its simplicity. Cage stays within the concert hall, yet transcends its rigid confines. He combines anarchy with sly humor. His result is universal, yet his means are deeply personal. 4'33" is strikingly original, yet easily copied. (For example, the graphic I used in the printed version of this column appeared to be an empty border, but it contained print-through, paper grain and other unplanned “imperfections” and so really wasn't blank at all.)
The “point” of 4'33", and the thrust of much avant-garde art, is that it presents an open process rather than a narrow attempt to achieve a specific intended result by realizing a composer's prescribed directives. It's an invitation, not a command. Cage heralds the replacement of traditional classical music, based as it is on the repertoire of the past rather than the developments of the present or visions of the future, with a far different notion of conceptual art, in which an idea (and not necessarily a “musical” one) is taken to an extreme.
Consider Alvin Lucier's 1969 I Am Sitting in a Room. I have a deep personal attachment to this work, as I was privileged to have heard the composer play it shortly after its creation. Lucier read a one-minute narrative (complete with his charming stutter) into a cheap tape recorder. He then played the tape on another machine and recorded the playback, then rerecorded the second tape onto a third, etc., repeating the process 50 times. The master reel was assembled with the odd-numbered takes in ascending order followed by the even ones descending (ie: 1, 3, 5, ... 47, 49, 50, 48, ... 6, 4, 2). When the result is played back, the words become increasingly indistinct and progressively sink into the mechanics of noise, circuit resonance and tape dropouts, and then reconstruct themselves as the process reverses - a shrewd meditation on the relationship of man and machine, meaning and form, art and technique. Lucier was especially pleased when his wife created a visual analogue by making copies of copies on an early Xerox machine.
Clearly, Cage and his ilk present not only a severe challenge but a crucial opportunity. Classical music can't stay stuck forever in a deepening rut of increasingly ancient product. But where can it go from here? Perhaps Cage is telling us that we've arrived at a point where everything should be possible, that it is now up to each of us to select and enjoy whatever elements of our world are the most meaningful, that concerts can't erect a barrier between art and the outside world, and that music shouldn't be an escape from reality but a rekindling of our partnership with nature and a tribute to the multifaceted genius of mankind. Like Cage himself, 4'33" is an attitude: a joyful embrace of our world and all it has to offer. 4'33" empowers us to take charge of ourselves, to trust our own instincts, to unleash our creativity, to make our own judgments, to live our own lives. No other work in the history of music has expressed so much with such elegance.
Let me end with a prediction and a suggestion. Here's the prediction: in future centuries even our most modern traditional music will become historical relics, while Cage will remain ever-fresh and vital. And here's the suggestion: take four minutes, thirty-three seconds from your own busy life and find some way to perform the piece yourself. Genius is everywhere!
Copyright 2003 by Peter Gutmann
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.