As much as I think his theories are composed of aether, I wish, and heartily too, that John Cage’s masterpiece 4′ 33″ were pumped through public speakers more often. I would that it replaced en masse—in every bar, restaurant, radio station, grocery store and public gathering space (Penn Station excepted)—what now seeps like toxic waste from a Chinese drywall factory from our nation’s woofers and tweeters. Place it on continuous loop and let it gain and hold with a death grip Billboard’s number-one-hit slot forevermore!
After “writing” pieces composed “for 12 radios whose tuning dials had to be randomly twiddled, another for a pianist who also had to play cards, blow whistles and slop water”, Cage despaired of finding new musical boundaries to push. He also knew true that his forays were not unique. That whistle-blowing, water-sloshing work of art was already anticipated by Spike Jones, for example. Inspiration struck after
a visit he made to a perfectly silent â€“ anechoic â€“ chamber at Harvard University in 1951. Instead of silence, he heard two sounds, which the engineer told him was the sound of his nervous system in action and his blood flowing. This taught him that true silence is unattainable. As he wrote in his Juilliard Lecture: “Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.”
It was at this point that Cage felt the insidious grip of theory. It put the squeeze on his cerebellum and demanded obedience, which he gave willingly, even eagerly. It told him to compose, which he did. But it was a benevolent theory, and did not demand excessive labor. The result came when
David Tudor walked on to the stage, sat down at the piano, and closed the keyboard lid. Thirty seconds later, he opened it. He then repeated the action twice, each time varying the gap between opening and closing. The first time it was two minutes and 23 seconds, the second time it was one minute 40 seconds â€” so 4’33” in total. After the final opening, he stood up and took a bow.
That bow brought applause both in the hall and outside of it amongst the intelligentsia, who are ever ready to appreciate theory. This concert in 1952 also allows to date exactly the point at which American audiences begin allowing performers to accept praise for nonexistent achievements.
What about the piece itself? Cage’s theory whispered that silence is “pregnant” with sound. This is true, but Cage has forgotten that pregnancy progresses by stages. Non-orchestrated sound can be as small as a zygote’s swishing or as large as twins making their maternal jail break. Not all silences are created equal.
Like all deceivers, Cages’ theory mixed truth with gross falsities. If it is true that we can never escape sound, then to call all noise “music” is an abuse of language and a bad joke (but not the funny kind). Cage’s title is thus a deliberate falsehood. There is nothing to demarcate the beginning of his work, nor any natural ending. If the theory is true, then all life turns into a “concert” (one which began long before Cage breathed his first).
Cage claiming authorship of silence is, and always has been, absurd. It became ridiculous when those in powerful places feared admitting a lack of understanding of Cage’s pretension. There might be something there in the theory that they had not discovered, something deep and imponderable. So to say publicly that the Emperor is naked is like confessing to an intellectual disability.
Yet, given all this, given this bold entry in the never-ending contest of human comedy, Cage’s work is clearly superior to nearly all that which came after. To go to nearly any public place today and be forced to endure waves of tortuous sound would have been grounds for assault in earlier days. Therefore, the reason to study Cage’s critical success is to see if we can convince modern musicians to emulate Cage’s methods.
Can we, that is, prevail upon, for example, Cee Lo Green to compose a hip-hop version of 4′ 33″. Given that genre’s purposeful mangling of language, perhaps Green’s work could be entitled 3′ 93″. Can we talk others into riffing on Cage and produce remixes? We could then look forward to pieces such as 33′ 4″, etc., etc.
If this could work, I would be first to nominate Cage for every prize even remotely connected with music. Plus, a world filled with Cage-like sounds would be a better, less harrowing place.