This week I fulfilled a long held wish – to attend a live performance of John Cage’s infamous and iconoclastic ‘silent’ work 4’33”. The performance was part of a special visit to a recording studio at City University to see how Edition Peters create content for the innovative and high-spec Tido Music piano app. This involves a filmed masterclass where the pianist (in this instance Adam Tendler) sets the work in context, with information about its creation and critical reception, and advice on practising the music, together with a live performance (more about Tido Music here). The decision to include 4’33” in the Tido Music library is entirely due to the work’s extraordinary and for some, controversial, place in twentieth-century music – and for pianist Adam Tendler the work should be regarded as a “standard” of piano repertoire.
Ever since its premiere given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a programme of contemporary piano music, the piece has courted controversy and opprobrium, its detractors claiming it is not “real music” or that the work is some kind of joke. Some audience members felt cheated or angered by the performance, saving their loudest, most uproarious protests for the post-concert Q&A session. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” someone reportedly shouted after the concert.
So why is 4’33” so controversial? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received. The work is an example of “automaticism”, and was, in part, Cage’s reaction to a seemingly inescapable soundtrack of “muzak”.
Neither composer nor artists seemingly have any control over or impact on the piece; the piece is created purely from the ambient sounds heard and created by the audience. In this way, the audience becomes crucial: this aural “blank canvas” reflects the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, which emanate from the players, the audience and the building itself. Maverick Concert Hall, where the work was premiered, is partially open to the elements, and thus the audience at that first public performance could hear the “accidental” sounds around them: birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, and the sounds of the audience members themselves. This of course was one of Cage’s intentions for the piece – to prove that the absence of musical notes is not the same thing as silence.
Cage was not the first composer to conceive a piece of music consisting entirely of silence: examples and precedents include Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of twenty-four blank bars (Allais was an associate of Eric Satie, a composer whom Cage much admired), and Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty-minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence. And there are examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, friend and occasional colleague of Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, produced a series of white paintings, seemingly “blank” canvases, which change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung, the shadows of people viewing them and so forth. Like Cage’s work, Rauschenberg’s canvases are brought to life by their viewers and the venue in which they are exhibited (I saw one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at a retrospective at Tate Modern, together with other works dedicated to his friend John Cage, and the canvas really does shift and alter depending on the conditions of the room in which it is displayed). There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
On another level, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of traditional concert hall etiquette. By programming a work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened long before the performance begins – think of the excitement and anticipation generated when Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim or Jonas Kaufman come to town.
Cage was also experimental – he liked to try new things and challenge conventional ways of doing things. For him art was “a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” I am sure he felt the audience’s reactions – curious, puzzled, angry, intrigued, amused – to 4’33” were as interesting as the concept of a silent piece of music.
“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. 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.”
– John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”
Later in his life, Cage stated that he played 4’33” every day, and the notion of incorporating 4’33” into one’s daily practising regime is very appealing, never more so in our noisy, fast-paced, always connected modern world. The work was composed, in part, as a reaction to “muzak” and the “background noise” that seems to invade every corner of our lives. I’ve become more and more aware of this when I am out and about. There is music everywhere and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive – it’s in bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, leaking from other people’s headphones, even my bank, often at a volume which precludes comfortable speech or hearing, and which invades our conscious, creating unwanted “earworms” or aggravating my tinnitus. It seems that there is some unseen force which requires us to have a soundtrack for every moment of our day. In contrast, 4’33” impels us to to take time out to listen, and really listen. And it encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.
This intensity of listening and engagement with the work was very evident at the Tido Music performance by Adam Tendler. The performance took place not in a conventional concert hall but in a small performance space at City University. The audience was very small – just Tido and Edition Peters staff members and I, no more than 15 of us. The excitement and anticipation of the performance began before we entered the room, much in the same way as it would if one was at Wigmore Hall or the Proms. The pianist was seated at a gleaming Steinway D which stretched before us like a sleek black limo. On the music desk was the score and a stop watch. After a very interesting, articulate introduction to the piece (for the benefit of the Tido Music app content), Adam was invited by the film crew to begin when he was ready. A palpable ripple of expectancy vibrated around the room, a couple of people primed their smartphones to take photographs. I had expected to be able to hear the ticking of the stopwatch but it was not audible at all. Instead I heard the hum of the air-conditioning, the stomach gurglings of the person sitting next to me, someone stretching their legs. And all around me I could sense everyone else listening very intently, focusing, engaging. It was a remarkably intense experience, an intensity which made 4 minutes and 33 seconds feel much longer than it actually was in real time. When the performance ended, there was an audible collective sigh and the sense of the tiny audience releasing, unwinding, relaxing, before the applause came.
The actual performance began when Adam lowered the fall board of the piano and started a stop watch on the music desk. He sat almost motionless at the piano, but there was no sense of him disengaging from the performance or relaxing. He might not be playing any notes on the instrument, but he was still performing a piece of music. And this leads to another fascinating concept which 4’33” provokes: the idea of performance and the pianist’s presence, gestures and body language during performance.
In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But physical gestures and body language are important too (some performers seem to allow exaggerated body language to obscure the music; I’m no fan of this kind of pianistic histrionics). From the moment the performer enters the stage, we are engaging with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance. Through gesture the pianist can control audience reactions to the performance – the most basic being the lifting the hands away from the keyboard to indicate the end of a piece.
The issue of “what to do between pieces” came up at the recent Diploma Day event, at which I gave a brief presentation on basic stagecraft. A couple of people (adult amateur pianists who were preparing for performance diplomas) told me that they “didn’t know what to do between the pieces” in their diploma recital programme – i.e. how they should comport themselves, or what body language was appropriate. I explained that it very much depended on the music which had gone before and what was to follow in the programme. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.
When there are no audible notes, as in 4’33”, the pianist’s presence is even more crucial. If the pianist were to slouch at the piano, or stare around the room, pull faces, or study his finger nails, the presence would be lost, along with any sense that this was a “performance”. Thus to be successful, 4’33” demands the performer to be fully aware, in the moment, present and engaged – and that’s no mean feat when one is not actually required to play the instrument before which one sits. This makes 4’33” perhaps the hardest piece to perform convincingly.
I learnt a lot about performance and the performer’s “presence” while watching and of course listening to Adam Tendler’s interpretation of 4’33”. It has made me consider even more intently notions of public performance, stage presence and body language, and with this in mind, I will close this article with a quote from Adam himself:
Cage eliminates the details of notes, rhythm, tone, and leaves the performer with the basics of presence. It means the handling of (again traditionally) a piano lid, a clock, and a body—fingers, legs, torso. We use these parts of our body as instrumentalists, of course, but 4’33” isolates them, zooms in on them. It puts a microscope onto the passage of time and how our body—the thing that performs— behaves in that time.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have attended a fine, accurate, acceptable and perfectly usable performance from a musician who has never actually learned to sit.
Defending 4′33″ as a standard in the piano repertoire