As the year, decade, century and millennium all draw to a close, every arts writer invariably will succumb to the temptation to announce The List. To avoid the rush, I'll crawl out on my own critical limb a bit early to proclaim (fanfare and drum-roll, please) the greatest classical piece of the century.
The long history of classical music has evolved too patiently for a single year or even a decade to have much significance. And yet, too much has happened over the millennium for meaningful comparisons: who can say whether some anonymous monk who first dared to sing a fifth within the monody of Gregorian chant was a more daring and influential innovator than Beethoven?
So I'll focus my pretension on our century. In search of its greatest classical work, many would look to Stravinsky, not just for his astounding Rite of Spring but for an amazingly eclectic career that legitimized a melding of disparate influences into a cohesive art. Or perhaps Schoenberg for systematizing the yearning dissonance of the late 19th century into 12-tone expression. Or Stockhausen, for integrating studio electronics into traditional musical timbres and forms. Each was a visionary who pushed music to a new level and irreversibly influenced all that followed.
My candidate may not make many other lists. But its ultimate influence over the music of the future may come to tower over all of the more obvious choices. It's John Cage's 4'33" ("four minutes, thirty-three seconds").
I knew John Cage only briefly when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan University, whose music department lauded him as a guiding genius while others disparaged him as a negligible buffoon. His performances were more "happenings" than 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, music 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 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 promised 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 how one performance went: A tuxedoed performer came on stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid, occasionally turned some music pages but otherwise sat as quietly as possible for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, then rose, bowed and left. And that was it.
Although often described as a silent piece, 4'33" isn't silent at all. While the performer makes as little sound as possible, Cage breaks traditional boundaries by shifting attention from the stage to the audience and even beyond the concert hall. 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 –shifting in seats, riffling programs to see what in the world is going on, breathing, the air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. This is a deeply personal music, which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4'33" the same way. It's the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer.
Let's tackle a few obvious questions. Is this music? Sure it is - each sound has a distinct tone, duration, rhythm 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 he? Did you?
If all this still sounds more like noise than real music, don't feel bad - you're in very distinguished company. As chronicled in Nikolas Slonimsky's perversely wonderful Lexicon of Musical Invective (Washington University, 1965), even 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 damned as "odious meowing" - and not music - decades after its premiere.
The "point" of 4'33", and the appeal of most avant-garde stuff, is that unlike most music it presents an open process rather than an attempt to realize a composer's prescribed directives to achieve a specific intended result. It's an invitation, not a command.
And yet, few people genuinely like to listen to modern classical music. (And here I don't mean mainstream derivative stuff, but real cutting-edge avant-garde.) Often the concept turns out to be far more interesting than its execution - once you acknowledge the basic scheme you really don't want to have to sit through it. 4'33" is one of the very few pieces that has the opposite appeal. Its idea sounds simplistic and even stupid, but performances are fascinating, since they involve each listener so fully and intimately. And it's over before you can get bored or uncomfortable.
One more question: is this stuff really classical music? I think so. The huge variety of music of all eras that we call classical (and here I'm certainly including classic pop, folk, blues and jazz) seems to share two key traits. The first is a respect for tradition. Beyond being a wickedly keen variation on the conventions of the formal concert, 4'33" fills a crucial slot in history. Music began as an imitation of natural sounds and human voices but then became increasingly stylized. Cage brilliantly brings the process full circle, bridging the cultural distance that has developed between conventional performance and the sounds of nature where it all began.
The second hallmark is staying power. I've heard Mozart's dozen mature piano concertos dozens of times each over dozens of years, but right now I can recall only a few of their melodies. I heard the Cage piece just once (and three decades ago), but I remember it so vividly.
The ultimate wonder of 4'33" is the profundity of its simplicity. While staying within the concert hall, Cage transcends its rigid confines. He combines anarchy with sly humor. His result is universal, but his means are deeply personal. 4'33" is strikingly original, yet easily imitated. (For example, the graphic for the printed version of this column was an empty border; but upon publication it contained print-through, paper grain and other unplanned "imperfections" and so it really wasn't empty after all.)
But where can music 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 shouldn't erect a barrier between art and the outside world but should rekindle our partnership with nature, and that music shouldn't be an escape from reality but a tribute to the genius of mankind. Like Cage himself, 4'33" is 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 make our own judgements, to live our own lives. No other work in the history of music has expressed so much, and yet achieves its meaning with such disarmingly efficient elegance.
Let me end with a prediction and a suggestion. Here's the prediction: in future decades or centuries even Stravinsky will become an historical relic, his sound quaint and old-fashioned, while Cage will remain ever-fresh and vital. And here's the suggestion: take four minutes and thirty-three seconds from your own life and find some way to perform the piece yourself. Genius, like music, comes in so many varieties.
A few further thoughts:
First, a confession: as much as I love 4'33", extreme modern music is one of the two gaping holes in my personal classical music culture. (The other is opera.) It's not that I don't appreciate these two genres; I just do so from a distance. So any perceptions I may offer need to be placed in that perspective.
While opera is widely enjoyed, I can take a certain comfort that so many other well-informed classical buffs share my hesitancy toward the avant-garde. Perhaps the problem stems from its inherent newness - without standards of traditional taste, it's so hard to separate the brilliance from the dross, the true innovators from the screwballs, the serious artists from the pretenders. Without a basis to serve as a frame of reference, informed opinions are difficult to develop or justify (or perhaps all opinions become equally valid).
Another issue is the Top Forty syndrome. Remember the huge ratings those pop radio stations got with their narrow playlists that plugged the number one record every hour? They tapped into something very basic in human nature - we all crave the familiarity of repetition, whether it's coming home after a long trip, seeing long-lost friends at a reunion, or the structure of a song in which the same chorus comes around after each verse. Really modern music lacks this comforting assurance. It may grab our attention with its novelty, but deep inside, that's not what we really want. Indeed, the modern classical music industry (both recordings and concerts) isn't built on innovation but on constant repetition of a core repertoire which hasn't changed in several generations. Performance, too - iconoclasts tend to be pushed to the periphery, while the most esteemed artists are those who perpetuate the traditional approaches of the past.
There's also the question of exposure. As the Slonimsky book makes clear, in every age conservative keepers of the flame decried music produced by their contemporaries. The last century, though, has brought a far more disturbing development - now, truly modern music isn't being condemned so much as being ignored. (And just to be clear, I'm not talking about derivative stuff that, while newly created, sounds like it could have been written decades or even centuries ago. Rather, I'm referring to the cutting edge - music whose very concept is previously unheard.) While Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stockhausen all had their critics (many of them!) at least they had critics. They also garnered performances for exposure to potential fans. The artists producing really new, innovative stuff nowadays are writing and playing for extremely small, isolated circles and garner virtually no notice in the music press. Cage's 4'33" may strike us as the radical fringe, but remember: it's already a half-century old. What's happened since then?
Ironically, we may have arrived at a point where further progress requires backtracking. The history of Western music can be viewed as one of constant exploration of the physical laws that govern harmony, rhythm and timbre. The great conductor and philosopher Wilhelm Furtwangler (and many others) have written pursuasively about how our emotional reaction to music is premised upon the degree to which a piece follows the organic laws of nature; respect those natural laws and novelty can fascinate, but stray too far and the result is alienation. But once we've arrived at the point where extreme dissonance, incomprehensible rhythms, bizarre synthetic noises and even random events are accepted as not just spicy garnishes but the entire meal, fully equivalent to carefully-prepared traditional elements, what's left? If we accept Cage's 4'33" as valid music (and I truly do), then what do we do for an encore? 5'28"? 6'14"? Is the spate of stuff that followed Cage (ie: Yoko Ono's early output) an extension or a regression (or worse, just imitation)?
Clearly, 4'33" presents a severe challenge. It heralds the replacement of traditional classical music, based as it is on the repertoire of the past rather than the developments of the present, with a far different notion of conceptual art, in which an idea or process (and not necessarily a "musical" one) is taken to an extreme. Here are two personal favorites among the few avant-garde works I've come to enjoy.
The first is Alvin Lucier's 1969 I Am Sitting in a Room. I have a deep personal attachment to this work because 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 tape recorder. He then played the tape on another machine and recorded the playback, 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 profound 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.
Here's another one - Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain. An introduction deconstructs a sermon chanted by a preacher in a park. Then, copies of a half-second tape loop of the title phrase ("It's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN...") are played simultaneously on two machines whose slight speed variation causes them to diverge and then regain sync over the course of several minutes. After a fascinating evolution of slowly-changing cross-rhythms the inevitable convergence approaches, and the tension becomes as palpable as anything in Wagner, finally released with the completion of the phrase ("... it's gonna RAIN after a while") as the piece ends.
If you've happened to hear these two works (they're both on CD), I'll ask one further indulgence. With music, like other significant events, I truly believe that the impact of a strong initial exposure is often only compromised by repetition. For example, despite its excellence, I won't see Schindler's List again. The first weekend of its release I saw it with an elderly audience whose deeply emotional reaction created an overwhelmingly moving experience which I could never hope to replicate. For a similar reason, I've never tried to hear the Lucier and Reich pieces again after my initial encounter and over the years my recollection may have become more wishful thinking than an accurate recollection. But to me, at least, that's a worthwhile tradeoff. The gift of these works is a profound but fragile lasting memory that another hearing could ruin; hopefully that's a testament to their value as legitimate art.
All I can say in conclusion is this: as with all music, what really matters is to preserve and disseminate works that have the potential to make a positive and lasting contribution to humanity. Classical music can't stay forever stuck in a rut of increasingly old product. But what will eventually turn on future generations? Where will they look to find the splendor of truly meaningful music? Will today's avant-garde become the classical repertoire of the future? Or has this stuff already strayed too far from the traditional psycho-acoustic moorings that enable us to understand and internalize music so it can immeasurably enrich our lives?
Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann