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"
Yale University Press, 272pp, £16.99
Nikil Saval is an assistant editor of n+1