Reflections on musician John Cage’s piece, 4’33”

Lately, in the company of friends, the John Cage exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City often becomes the subject of conversation. I thus bring up, nostalgically, that I once performed John Cage’s 4’33”, to the best of my ability, at a local university when I was a music student.

John Cage (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was, according to Wikipedia:

. . . an American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist; a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments; one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.

4’33” is a work consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence (most often “performed” on piano), and is perhaps his best-known piece.

I will now recount what I learned by attempting 4’33”. But, I do fear that little can be said that could do justice to, or justify, a piece of this sort. It can be easily dismissed, or embraced, for unwise reasons. It would be best, I thought, to be covert about a legitimate performance of 4’33” in a recital situation.

John Cage, Composer

John Cage, Composer

Once upon the stage, a performer is likely to discover that this work of silence is not as simple a matter as one might suspect. While I had the pleasure of an audience largely unfamiliar with the work, this can make it difficult, as a typical one is only able to absorb two minutes of quiet, after which a noticeable transformation of expectations and demands is introduced to participants. Force is required to keep oneself at bay while all that is missing is palpable. However, the tension is resolved— the reader may be pleased to know — by a solid burst of applause at the conclusion of the extended reticence. One would be surprised by the impact performed silence can create. Even a highly doubting professor, after watching a video of my recital, was in complete agreement  that this was indeed a “composition” to be reckoned with. It is one thing to speak about or teach of the silence within the context of 4’33”, but it is quite another to embolden it.

Later in my academic career, in a speech for a linguistics course, I gave a brief explanation of Cage and 4’33”, after which I then proceeded to be silent for approximately three minutes. I reported  further information, then stood for a time without speaking again, and eventually just sat down. The class erupted, and the professor was more than pleased, believe it or not. Ten years later, I bumped into a woman who had attended that class. She gestured for me to meet her friend, to whom she had just been describing my demonstrative lecture on silence!

There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33” is being featured at the Museum of Modern Art through June 22.

I will leave you with one little secret which I feel compelled to divulge. When I performed 4’33” on stage, I had misread my borrowed watch and had actually performed for 3’33”.

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