About Cage’s 4’33”
4’33” is the title of what is probably John Cage’s best-known, most provocative composition. It is without content. The idea of a silent piece had first come to Cage’s mind in the late 1940s at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, when looking at a Robert Rauschenberg painting that was, in fact, a completely blank canvas.
Why 4’33”? Cage seems to have derived the number 4’33” from the idea of absolute zero, which is -273 degrees Celsius, the lowest temperature theoretically attainable in any thermodynamic macroscopic system. For musical use, read as seconds, 273 equals 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Cage apparently wanted to achieve a “degree zero” of music, as Roland Barthes, French author and philosopher, would say. The composition was first performed in 1952 in Woodstock, New York, by pianist David Tudor, who articulated sections of silence by opening and closing the keyboard lid. The first section of 4’33” was 33″, the second movement 2’40”, and the third 1’20”.
My friend Michela Mollia points out that the silence of 4’33” makes the listener aware of the sounds of the existing environment, avoiding those produced by musical instruments, while keeping the traditional music context intact: concert hall, musical instrument, performer, even the score. This is very important because it allows Cage’s work, his “non-music”, to be accepted in a very traditional context. He sacrifices the notes of traditional music but preserves the ritual of the concert.
During this same time period, there was a great deal of provocation and conceptualization in the arts. As Marcel Duchamp had said, “I was interested in the ideas, not just visual products. I wanted to return the painting to the service of the mind.” Conceptually, Cage opened music to the world of sounds beyond the sphere of traditional music.
Michela adds, “It’s not by chance that 4’33” challenges the listener to participate in a completely different way with the very concept of music. It was important that the work be preformed in a concert-hall because any other place would not have caused such strong reactions. The same applies to Duchamp: If Fountain, Duchamp’s “sculpture” of 1917, in fact a porcelain urinal, had not been exhibited in a museum (= concert hall) nothing would have happened. Both Fountain and Silence are out of context intentionally, and thereby cause a public reaction.”
The silence Cage introduces with the non-music of 4’33” is radical. In the context of concert-hall music, Cage’s work creates a huge divide, a wall beyond which continuing to write new music with notes becomes redundant and limited. Cage’s idea of non-opera frees sound from its cultural and instrumental constraints and aims to make the world into a huge musical ensemble. The substance of the message, despite its apparent lack of content, or of music or sound, and going beyond its provocative nature towards a major conceptualization of a new idea, is one of Cage’s major works of art. One could even say that it qualifies as one of his greatest hits.
— Walter Branchi