No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"

No composition of the 20th century seems so inevitable as John Cage's 4'33". Like the Robert Rauschenberg white canvasses that partly inspired it, Cage's totally silent 1952 work - intended for a single performer, closing and opening the lid of a piano at the beginning and end, respectively, of each of its three movements - seems in retrospect like a historical necessity in musical modernism: someone had to do it. Does it matter, one wonders, that the someone happened to be Cage?

Kyle Gann, a composer, blogger and former music reviewer for New York's Village Voice paper, seems to think so. No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" is a solemn justification for what many at the time (and since) perceived as a prank or a hoax. Trawling through Cage's writings and examining the score and performance of the piece, Gann elaborately reconstructs the genesis of 4'33" in the hope of making a case for it as a serious, galvanising work in the history of music and, indeed, of the arts more generally. Gann's argument accepts and enlarges Cage's own: that by reducing the performer to silence, the hierarchy between music and noise was obliterated and the ambient sounds of the world set free.

Viewed from Gann's perspective, 4'33" begins to look less like an unavoidable step in the progress of music and more like a necessity for Cage, who, in Gann's view, was preparing for it his whole life - or even before he was born. Gann follows a number of previous Cage scholars in setting up the story nationally, placing Cage at the end of a long line of American musical eccentrics who drew inspiration from nature. Yet the very cosmopolitan nature of Cage's interests - Arnold Schoenberg as well as Henry Cowell; Erik Satie as well as Henry David Thoreau - hardly squares with Gann's suggestion of an ineluctable "Americanness" in Cage's music and thought.

Gann struggles, too, to see 4'33" purely as an outgrowth of Cage's interest in Zen practice. He notes that the younger Cage had an air of the polemical about him - he was "truculent and opinionated", convinced of the essential wrongness of most of the institutions and musical practices around him. According to the reflections of many of Cage's acquaintances, his attitude changed after his well-documented turn to Zen Buddhism, from which he learned to deny his merely subjective emotional needs and open himself to the world.

But Cage's actions suggest that his confrontational attitudes and competitive striving never left him. He wanted to get to the silent piece before anyone else did. A 1952 article from the New York Post, found among Cage's personal papers, describes a student's idea of placing silent records in jukeboxes, in order to provide relief from the constant streams of music. Gann wonders whether Cage wasn't worried about being beaten to the punch by a commercial version of his idea. Cage certainly thought of his work as being in total opposition to commerce: his first conception of the piece, Silent Prayer, was intended as a thumbing of the nose to the Muzak corporation.

Gann's largely biographical accounting of all the materials that Cage drew on when conceiving 4'33" leaves little room for scepticism, of which there has understandably been quite a lot. He quotes some disgruntled commenters on the BBC website, responding to a 2004 performance of 4'33" by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who found the piece "absolutely ridiculous", one that "smacks of arrogance and self-importance". Gann doesn't stop to consider these judgements, even if their familiarity suggests they should be taken seriously.

Cage himself appears to have been extremely concerned about such a reaction - so much so that he warned potential audience members about what they were about to experience. When the piece finally premiered at a theatre near Woodstock in New York State, it received polite applause.
Gann compares the event to the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; though he seems to forget that The Rite of Spring was greeted not by applause, but by a riot. Cage's audience, by contrast, was so thoroughly anaesthetised by knowingness that it forgot to be shocked. So, for that reason, it's hard to swallow Gann's claim that 4'33" blurred the distinction between art and life. Nothing does more to cement the authority of the
composer (or his compositions) than gathering a group of people together in a concert hall and commanding them to listen to the sounds around them.

In refusing to speculate about the reasons for the heated reception of 4'33" outside the concert hall, Gann takes it for granted that what matters most about a piece of music is how it is made, and not how it is performed or received. The result is that he strips 4'33" of many of the qualities that made it daring. With Gann so intent on turning the piece into a hallowed icon of seriousness, one turns with relief to those outraged BBC listeners. For if 4'33" has any importance at all, theirs are the kinds of reactions that register it.

No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
Kyle Gann
Yale University Press, 272pp, £16.99


Nikil Saval is an assistant editor of n+1

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide