A minute’s silence can feel like a long time when one is required to stop and focus on that time passing – as at 11am on Remembrance Sunday, for example. John Cage’s most famous and most controversial composition, 4’33”, at just over four-and-a-half-minutes, is surprisingly long when one is at a performance of it. Such is the way that this work is presented, one is required to listen, and focus on the performance just as one would any other piece of music performed in a concert.
In the last 18 months, I’ve been to three performances of Cage’s comment on what constitutes “music”, and an important example of conceptual art. The first was last summer in a performance by American pianist Adam Tendler, at which everyone in the tiny exclusive audience knew exactly what was going on (thanks in no small part to Adam’s fascinating introduction to the work – read about the performance here). The other performances have been this year, given by pianist Annie Yim as part of her MusicArt “conceptual concerts”, which combine music, words and art. Each performance has been unique, the experience determined by performer, location and audience, just as Cage intended.
Last week I attended Annie Yim’s latest MusicArt event, a Conceptual Concert in Three Acts, which drew inspiration from the creative collaboration between John Cage and American artist Robert Rauschenberg. The concert took place in a private gallery in Mayfair where Rauschenberg’s “spreads” collages were on display (full review here). Cage’s work was the final act, the finale. At this performance, I felt I came closest to the very first performance of 4’33”, and watching the audience’s reaction was rather fascinating.
As specified by the composer, the piano lid was closed and then raised to signal the start of the work – and subsequently closed and raised to indicate the separate movements (4’33” is scored in three movements). Large mirrors sited on either side of the piano allowed us, the audience, a sense of being on stage with the performers, which created an interesting and witty suggestion of “audience participation”, and reflected our reactions back to us – something I think Cage would have thoroughly enjoyed. As the piece moved inexorably through its silent bars, the ambient sounds of the gallery, the noise of the street outside (including a rather musical motorbike starting up), the constant rumble of a vibrant big city at nighttime, and the living, breathing audience all infused the performance. The audience was not the usual concert audience – many were friends of the gallery, as far as I could ascertain – and some were distinctly unsettled or confused by this “music” which was apparently completely silent (except of course it isn’t!). Ahead of me, a woman looked around anxiously, as if seeking some kind of reassurance that all was well from her fellow audience members. On the front row, someone tapped, somewhat impatiently, their ring on a wine glass, thus creating another note to complement the motorbike. There were embarrassed titters of laughter, some sighing and coughing, quickly suppressed as befits good concert etiquette. Behind me, about 3 minutes in, someone clapped, trying to pre-empt the end of the performance, but no one else joined in and the performers adhered assiduously to Cage’s directions, the work ending when the appropriate time had elapsed and the piano lid was finally closed.
This, for me, was the best performance of 4’33” I have attended so far – because it did exactly what Cage intended and proved that the work still has the power to intrigue, amuse and provoke.
“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”
So why is 4’33” so provocative? 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.
Presenting the work in a gallery full of Rauschenberg’s art was also significant for it was Rauschenberg’s white paintings – seemingly blank canvases simply covered with white paint – which initially inspired Cage to create 4’33” and which, like Cage’s work, rely on the ambiance of the space in which they are presented to bring them to life. 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.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of 4’33”, especially in our fast-paced, 24/7 21st-century world, is that it forces us to pause, to really listen, and encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.