The Problem With 4’33”

1. Making Ideas Clearly Manifest

A few months ago, I participated in a ludicrously enormous Facebook thread about the relationships between composers and listeners. Somewhere in the middle of it, I wrote this:

“I actually think a lot of composers don’t care enough about the audience. But I don’t mean that they aren’t writing the kind of music that the audience wants to hear — after all, audiences aren’t monolithic, and you don’t know who’s going to hear your work anyway. What I mean is that a lot of composers don’t seem interested in making sure their ideas (formal, cultural, philosophical, or any other kind) are clearly manifest in the work. I often read program notes where a composer has said ‘this is an attempt to do XYZ,’ and then find that I can only hear the vaguest hint of XYZ in the actual piece. And very often I suspect that this results from the composer being so wrapped up in their own intimate knowledge of the piece, in light of which every detail is magnified enormously, that they never stop to think what it would be like to hear it for the first time. This is a problem that exists across all musical languages, styles, and levels of density, and the issue is worth thinking about no matter how musically educated you expect your listeners to be.”

I’ll come back to that later. But first…

2. A Diversion

John Cage’s 4’33” is often misrepresented as a sort of Dadaist prank, like Duchamp submitting a signed urinal to an art exhibition — a bit of performance art designed to provoke the audience. And apparently that’s how the audience at the premiere interpreted it too. But that’s not actually what Cage was trying to do. In his words:

“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
(from Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage (2003), via Wikipedia).

In other words, listening to 4’33” is supposed to put you in an aesthetically receptive frame of mind — pretty much the opposite of trying to make you mad. And if you go into it knowing that, it’s a beautiful experience. I’ve seen it performed several times, and I’ve actually done “performances” of it by myself, setting a timer and sitting in silence until it goes off, listening to the sounds going on around me. I’ve always admired the piece for being such a clear, unequivocal statement of the idea that any sound can become music if you put a frame around it.

And yet…

3. The Problem

If 4’33 is so clear and unequivocal, why is it so widely misunderstood? Because clarity of form and gesture, which I had in mind when I wrote that Facebook comment above, aren’t always enough to convey your ideas to another person: sometimes you also need clarity of presentation. Cage chose to have the performer(s) sit on stage, obviously not doing anything. That decision actually makes it extremely unlikely that an audience who isn’t already familiar with the piece will respond to it by contemplating the beauty of the ambient noises in the hall. Instead, it focuses their attention squarely on the confrontational figure of the performer who isn’t performing.

If Cage’s goal was really to make people listen closely, there are other ways he could have staged the piece that would have encouraged them to do so. For example, he could have instructed the performer(s) to stay silent but make gestures as if they were playing very quietly, thus taking advantage of the audience’s natural curiosity to trick them into listening to the sounds in the environment. Or, as my friend Bex suggested in a recent conversation, he could have had the piece performed in the dark, so that the audience wouldn’t know where the sounds they heard were coming from.

Cage spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a composer. I find it hard to believe that the audience’s misreading of 4’33” didn’t occur to him until after the premiere. And that makes me wonder if maybe he staged it the way he did because he was looking for a scandal after all.