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.
How many sounds is the piano capable of? I know the possibilities are infinite and I tell my students it can be any instrument they wish – a trumpet, a guitar, a flute, the human voice. With just a bit of imagination and wit we have the potential to create any sound we like on that magic box of wood and wires.
Occupy the Pianos, a festival of modern and contemporary piano music conceived and curated by pianist and composer Rolf Hind, gives performers and audience a unique opportunity to explore the myriad soundworld of the piano, and its seemingly endless possibilities, as evidenced by its vast repertoire which is constantly being added to by today’s composers.
The American composer John Cage (1912-1992) appreciated the range of possibilities afforded by the modern piano and he took this a step further – much further – with his “prepared” piano, creating what he described as “the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra……….an exploded keyboad” by placing nuts, bolts, nails and other objects inside the piano.
But Cage did not simply casually empty a bag of nuts and bolts into the guts of a piano. His instructions for preparation are obsessively precise – yet the resulting soundworld is of a piano set free.
Not many concert venues, and even fewer piano technicians, are prepared to allow a concert instrument to be prepared in this way and so Cage’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ (1946-8), his most famous work for prepared piano, is rarely performed. But at Occupy the Pianos, listeners were given a rare chance to hear this work, performed by Rolf Hind, a musician with a special affinity for this kind of repertoire.
The sound of the prepared piano is unexpected at first – akin to hearing Schubert for the first time on fortepiano – but the ear quickly adjusts, so much so that the “unprepared” notes are more unexpected than the prepared ones. In fact, the range of sounds, timbres and textures is greater than a percussion orchestra: there are gamelans and gongs, the deep “bong” of a long-case clock, the high tinkling of a northern European church carillon; there are “dead” notes and notes which resonate deeply, slowly decaying in the big airy acoustic of the venue (St John’s Smith Square). The music itself is generally tranquil and meditative, reflected by the pianist’s small gestures. The result is absorbing and other-wordly: this is music which takes you out of yourself – and out of time and place.
Contrast this with the second concert of the second day of Occupy the Pianos: a performance by the Françoise-Green piano duo which included contemporary works by Rebecca Saunders and David Thomas Duncan (receiving its premiere) as well as music by Ligeti at his most obsessive – a perpetuum mobile of sound, like a fly trapped in a window – and Kurtag. Here the sounds were created more conventionally (though ‘Choler’ by Rebecca Saunders called for elbows on the keys and strumming the strings with plectrums) while ideas about timbre, resonance, musical colour, dynamics, acoustics, sound decay, the sounds “between” sounds, the sounds of silence, and the sounds we imagine or continue to hear internally after the instrument itself has stopped sounding were explored through the contrasting repertoire. The concert closed with both pianists at one piano playing a selection of intimate, witty and playful miniatures from Kurtag’s ‘Jatekok’.
The “silence between the sounds” (real and imagined) is examined even further in the music of Morton Feldman, who exploited the instrument’s limitations to produce austere and haunting works. His music has been described as “minimalist”, yet it owes almost nothing to the repetitive, spooling sequences found in the music of Philip Glass, for example. It is certainly “minimal“, with strikingly spare motifs and simple harmonies unfolding slowly over time. It is also almost entirely contained within a very soft dynamic range, and, just as the person who speaks quietly often commands the most attention, so Feldman’s music forces us to listen intently.
‘Palais de Mari’ was performed by American pianist Adam Tendler, whose stillness at the keyboard contributed to the concentrated listening experience. He also played the entire work from memory, no mean feat since this music is not conventionally constructed in harmonic sequences. The resulting performance was meditative, intense and beautifully poised.
In complete contrast, John Adams’ ‘Phrygian Gates’ is an almost continuous stream of musical consciousness and although minimalist in style, it represents the composer’s desire to move away from the traditional conventions of minimalism. Over the work’s duration (approx 24 minutes) the music takes a tour of the classic Circle of Fifths, but via the Phrygian or Lydian mode. In doing so, the music moves through 14 sections each with a special character: fluctuations of pulse, different figurations and textures, a change of amplitude. The continuous motion of the piece creates extraordinary layers of sound which suggest other instruments – horns, gongs, cellos – or noises: electronics, machinery. Eliza McCarthy, who has performed this work for the composer himself, played with great sensitivity and nuance, creating a rich palette of colours and emotions and an impressive command of both instrument and the overall architecture of the work.
More about the Occupy the Pianos festival here
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
It was a combination of things. In one regard, I took piano lessons since the age of six and, at least in my own memory, was rather unremarkable as a student. By middle school, however, I was playing certifiably classical music, though not well. By high school, when I hit the more advanced work of Chopin I started to see the creative possibilities of classical music—how I could really express through it—and then a kind of riptide dragged me from Chopin to Rachmaninov to Prokofiev to Copland to a whole world of modern and classical music. Totally obsessed, it was then that I started to practice, study, and really hustle to prepare for conservatory. On the flipside, I was bullied pretty relentlessly growing up, and the piano eventually served as a kind of escape. Not only could I retreat into my practice regime and not really have to navigate the hallways of my high school, but my talent itself—you know, this idea being special or exceptional at something—worked as a kind of shield or barrier from the harassment. And I guess it almost worked.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The first pianist who really inspired me was William Kapell, an American virtuoso who died young, in a plane crash, in the 1950s. His playing had such personality and fire, and he had such strong convictions as an artist and such a complicated inner-world, almost debilitatingly nervous as a performer. I needed an idol who was both astonishing and complex, when in classical music everyone else seemed so perfect and unflappable. I should add that, while I’ve worked with dozens of teachers in my lifetime, all of them great artists, it was really my first teacher, a local piano instructor in Barre, Vermont, who let me truly explore music as I wished until I grew to love it on my own terms. He allowed me to play in the truest sense of the word, and as a musician I owe everything to him. He received my book’s dedication.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I tend to wrestle with time, and always have. If I’m not practicing or reading or working on something, I’m apt to spiral into depression and guilt over what I didn’t get to and how that’s a reflection of my own deeply personal failure. This probably stems from a sense that I started late as a musician. I mean, I don’t even really know if I started late, and evidence probably shows that I actually didn’t start late, but it’s a perception I have and I battle it all the time. Even at Indiana University, I told myself that I had a tremendous amount of catching up to do, even though I really had an astonishingly accomplished number of years there. So I might also owe my life in music to this impulse to absorb and perform and push forward, but still, it’s a challenge and can feel kind of miserable in the day-to-day. I tend to believe that everyone else has it all figured out and that I’m the only one who can waste a whole morning drinking a cup of coffee.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I love the recording I did of my book, 88×50, which I don’t think a lot of people know about even though it’s on iTunes, streaming on Spotify, and is pretty much anywhere online. I spent months recording it at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York, and the result is really fun and full of surprises. I also like the life that my live recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes has taken since I released it for free on the web over five years ago, though I think I play the piece quite differently now. Also, Autumn Lines, is a very personal speaking-pianist piece that I released a few years back. Frankly, I’ve found that it’s too traumatizing to do live, so I’ve stopped performing it, nor will I really listen to it or watch live footage from concerts of it, but people seem to like it and I do like it, too. It’s just an intense composition from an intense period in my life. I’m proud of it, I just don’t like being around it. In terms of performance, most recently I performed a concert of music by Cage and Cowell at the open-air Maverick Theatre in Woodstock New York, where Cage’s 4’33” had its premiere in 1952. That was an incredible honor and a huge career highlight for me. Also, this week I organized a twenty-four pianist performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, featuring mostly new music pianists, which was an epic and totally shattering experience in all the best ways.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I tend toward modern music by Americans, and love exploring the wide range of whatever that means. That said, I also like when a program pushes me out of my comfort zone, either backwards or forwards.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It really depends on the series, the space, and sometimes the specific requests of my hosts. This season I learned a program of music by Luciano Berio, another by Henry Cowell, and for this festival coming up in London, I learned Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari—all simply because my presenters asked. The great thing is, I’ll probably play this music for the rest of my life.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Probably the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas. The space itself… the air… it has a kind of epsom salt effect on a person, just pulling stuff out that one doesn’t even know is there. I’ve played three concerts at Rothko Chapel, and would like to do a fourth! They consistently present inspiring and fearless programming for free to the public, so I’m proud to call it home.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
There are certain pieces I come back to, like the Cage Sonatas and Interludes. I’ve played that for eight years now—not constantly, but coming back to it once or twice a year—and each year it feels a little more settled and a little more internalized. It’s like seeing an old friend and jumping right back into a conversation, but then being like, “Hey, what’s different? Did you do something with your hair?” Something’s always a little different when I come back to it. I finally think I play that work with total assuredness—no traps or doubts or anything like that—which makes me think that perhaps it takes eight years for me to truly know a piece! Honestly, though, I find myself totally enrapt and obsessed with whatever I’m working on at a given time. In the days before a concert, I feel totally consumed with that music and its world, and after, I feel a little lost and desperate. In terms of listening, I only occasionally listen to classical or concert music. My brain buzzes too much with it on. I’d rather listen to bluegrass or artists outside of my field.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Nonspecifically, I’m taken with musicians who have a firm sense of their own creative identity, an unshakable passion for their craft, and the humility to understand that their journey is their own, and they have no obligation to mirror anyone else’s life or standards. I have countless examples of these kinds of people in my life, and aspire to their grace every day, people who seek to move their listeners rather than impress.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Gosh, that’s really tough to answer. Every concert on my fifty-state tour from about ten years ago felt like a miracle. The good ones and the disastrous ones, they all still beat the odds in that I was creating a life in music when for all intents, people… experts…had told me that there were only certain ways to do it, certain avenues to take, and of course all were supposedly closed to me. So the experience of just getting out there and doing it and having people actually respond…well, yeah it was simply miraculous.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That there’s a place for anyone in music. Truly. Everyone has a seat at the table. One has to envision that place, though, be open to it shape-shifting over the years, which it will, and put in the work to build it, simply carving into that identity, that little niche, every day. Some days will feel super tough and other days effortless, but faith and tenacity and a great deal of devotion—those are the ingredients to a life in music. Not Hanon, I’m afraid.
What is your present state of mind?
Anxiety, worry, dread, fear, embarrassment, doubt, wonder, joy, gratitude… a regular morning.
Adam Tendler has been called “an exuberantly expressive pianist” who “vividly displayed his enthusiasm for every phrase” by The Los Angeles Times, an “intrepid…outstanding…maverick pianist” by The New Yorker, a “modern-music evangelist” by Time Out New York, and a pianist who “has managed to get behind and underneath the notes, living inside the music and making poetic sense of it all,” by The Baltimore Sun, who continued, “if they gave medals for musical bravery, dexterity and perseverance, Adam Tendler would earn them all.”
Tendler has performed solo recitals in all fifty United States, including engagements at Columbia University, Bard College, Princeton University, New York University, Kenyon College, Boston Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Portland State University, University of Nebraska, University of Alaska and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, as well as artistic landmarks including Houston’s Rothko Chapel and James Turrell’s Skypace in Sarasota, where he was the space’s first musical performer.
Tendler’s memorized performances of John Cage’s complete Sonatas and Interludes include a sold-out concert at The Rubin Museum in New York City and a featured solo recital in the “Cage100” festival at Symphony Space on what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday, listed by New York Magazine as one of the Top 10 Classical Music Events of 2012. In 2014, Tendler performed Cage’s 31’57.9864” in an appearance with the John Cage Trust at Bard College’s Fischer Center, presenting a realization of Cage’s 10,000 Things, and in 2015 he performed music by Cage and Henry Cowell, including Cage’s 4’33”, at the famed Maverick Theatre in Woodstock NY, where 4’33” had its premiere.
Tendler’s memoir, 88×50, about the year he performed solo recitals in all fifty states, was a 2014 Kirkus Indie Book of the Month and Lambda Literary Award Nominee. His premiere recording of Edward T. Cone’s 21 Little Preludes will appear in 2015, and he is developing an album of piano works by American composer, Robert Palmer. He also maintains the blog, The Dissonant States.
A graduate of Indiana University, Tendler presides over a private teaching studio in New York City, and in 2013 joined the piano faculty of Third Street Music School Settlement, the country’s first community music school.
This week I attended my very first ‘happening’ at the somewhat unlikely venue of London’s St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the 70th birthday of American-British composer Stephen Montague. A ‘happening’ is generally defined as a spontaneous event where musicians and performers come together, and usually involves audience participation. The friend who joined me at the St John’s event has been to many happenings (at music festivals such as Supernormal) and was able to confirm after the event that it was indeed a “proper” happening. We retired to a greasy spoon caff off Horseferry Road, where, over mugs of steaming, brick-red tea and egg and chips, we discussed the event, which moved into a wider discussion about what makes a concert or performance.
What I loved about the Stephen Montague event was its sense of spontaneity, how it began without fanfare or announcement (no applause for conductor, leader of the orchestra, etc, for there were none), and seemed to evolve over the space of around 50 minutes (in fact, a very clearly defined time-frame). It was as interesting watching the audience’s reaction as it was observing the performers (singers, string players, three pianists and an organist). There was the sense of several things going on at once, working on several layers and in different time frames, and yet at times, the seemingly disparate groups of musicians and performers came together to form a cohesive whole. The seating was arranged randomly; the audience was integral to the performance, and we were invited to wander around the space and actively participate.
Was it a concert? I thought so, because there was most definitely an audience and performers, and music, and these elements must co-exist to create that perfect circle (music-performer-audience) that is a concert.
The formal concert as we know it today, with all its etiquette and particular modes of behaviour – sitting in silence, knowing when to applaud, dressing up etc – did not really come into existence until the nineteenth century. Before that time people enjoyed music in many different settings, and performances were often a sideline or accompaniment to some other event such as a royal audience, religious ceremony, or banquet. In many ways, the Stephen Montague happening harked back to that earlier time, before we all got so het up about how we should behave at concerts. It was a liberating and instructive experience.
Read my Bachtrack review of A Birthday Happening for Stephen Montague
Supernormal Festival trailer, made by my concert companion, Andy Moore, of Little Matey Productions
The other day I was talking about John Cage’s infamous 4’33” with one of my students, while giving the student an overview of music history. When we got to 20th century music, it was Laurie, not me, who offered Cage’s iconic – and iconoclastic – piece as an example of 20th century music. Laurie seemed both bemused and confused that a piece of “music” should exist, with a full, written out score, which requires the musicians to stay silent. This prompted a discussion about silence in music, and what Cage was trying to say in the work.
When 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 listeners, 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 and perceived. 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 have any control 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.
On another level, as I pointed out to Laurie, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of modern concert hall etiquette. By programming the work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened before the performance begins. No wonder the audience felt “cheated” the first time they heard it, and the piece remains controversial to this day.
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 examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, and 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.
“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”
I’ve never been to a live performance of Cage’s 4’33”, though I did hear it on Radio Three, a “live” broadcast of a performance given at the Barbican Centre by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Listening at home, one could easily be distracted and drift off to do something else. Thus, I would love to go to a performance of the work to fully experience it, to sit and listen to the sounds of the concert hall – all the murmurations, breathing, whispering, programme-rustling, snuffling, air-conditioning humming, street sounds from outside (sirens, tube trains rumbling). And also to have the opportunity to “imagine the sound” in one’s own head.
Silence is very important in music. Why else do we have rest markings and fermatas (pauses) to demand silence from the performer? Composers use silence to create drama, suspense, anticipation, to allow us to savour a particularly delicious or sumptuous phrase, a really rich harmonic sequence, or cadence, and to prepare us for, or surprise us with new material. Composers such as Messiaen and Takemitsu employ carefully-nuanced silences to create atmosphere, and to allow the listener (and performer) time for repose or contemplation. And think about the two minutes of silence we observe on Remembrance Day and during the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday. While people fall silent in remembrance, we hear sounds around us more acutely. In 4’33” Cage is asking us to focus on the sounds around us, to listen to background noise, rather than blanking it out.
These days, in our busy lives, we are bombarded with sounds, and noise pollution is the companion to modern life. I quite often have the radio on all day when I am at home (even when I am practising), and when my son gets in from school, more often than not, he plays music on the computer via iTunes or Spotify, or turns the tv on. Then there are sounds from outside: street sounds (traffic, roadworks, aeroplanes), people sounds (voices, mobile phones, footsteps), nature sounds (dogs barking, birdsong, wind whistling, rain falling). Often, if I’ve had a houseful of people over a weekend, the first day I am alone, I leave the radio off and simply savour the “silence” around me – which of course isn’t silence at all, because I live on the edge of a huge metropolis.
So to me Cage’s 4’33” is important not just in the history of modern music, or the concept of artistic “creation” and our notions of what constitutes “music”, but because it forces us to listen to silence, to take time out to listen, and really listen. It is also the best example, in my mind, of audience participation: it is music which invites us to “join in”, take part, and make our own unique contribution to the whole experience.
A video of a performance of 4’33” at the Barbican, London in 2004