Reading with newEars: “No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” “

This is what four minutes and thirty-three seconds looks like to me.

A group of mostly strangers sat in an old house in the Valentine neighborhood staring at the walls. We were listening to a recording by Frank Zappa, performing the most famous piece by one of the last century’s most innovative composers. The HVAC system swirled, the beams of the old house creaked. Bewildered, some people began giggling; some self-consciously avoided the eye-contact of their neighbors, examining the art. All eyes were suddenly drawn to the center as one listener shifted and her glasses fell out of her hand, tumbling onto the rug.

A light thud came from the speakers. The group visibly relaxed, after an uncomfortable four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

The group was gathered at The Writers Place to discuss Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”. The book was a selection for newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s “Reading with newEars” Series.

This is the first season they’ve organized a pre-concert discussion associated with their performances, led by research adviser Andrew Granade (who was also one of my music history professors at UMKC). Past discussions focused on Aaron Copland’s What to Listen For in Music and Leonard Bernstein’s An Unanswered Question. The discussion also included audio and visual elements, as well as snacks. It’s open to musicians and non-musicians alike and I don’t think even reading the book was necessary to attend. It certainly seemed like a few people hadn’t.

4’33” is still, despite its 60-year history, a controversial piece. It continues to blow the minds of undergraduate students every year. Granade stated, “they are never not shocked and amazed.” People think of it as a gimmick, and treat it like a joke. Or people take it very, very seriously, demanding the audience to take it as seriously as they do.

Cage claimed to have performed the piece in his apartment, alone, many times. I could see that. The Zen-like qualities of stillness could easily filter into a performance on the piece. On the other hand, as one person mentioned, it could be taken from the point of view as “intensity is building in the rests,” mentioning Merce Cunningham. This discussion was the first time I had contemplated the term “Cagean silence” and the understanding that by making parameters, Cage created an entirely different experience of music making.

Participating in a performance of this piece, whether as a player or audience member, is a near perfect antidote to the techno-garble of modern day-to-day living. Even as I write this, I’m fact-checking on Google, answering texts, jotting notes for other projects, updating my facebook status and bookmarking blog posts and articles for future research. Even with only the accompaniment of my fingers on the computer keyboard, I do not live in a quiet world.

Gann’s book was a fast, informative read. I often turn to his work with The Village Voice and thought his own voice a fantastic alternative to a field (i.e. music journalism) that seems to vary widely between expert-specific tomes and general audience fluff. There’s not a whole lot in the middle for the interested, intelligent, non-expert reader … or as I like to think of him, “my Grandfather.”

4’33” was first introduced to me by my high school theory teacher (also the first person to demonstrate that if you’re good at theory you shouldn’t teach it, but I’ll work that out in therapy). He mentioned it as “the only piano piece I can play…you just sit there until it’s over.”

The piece didn’t resurface in my consciousness until years later when, while doing research on Charles Ives for my masters, Cage came back. I was drawn to his writings (which I didn’t understand) and his beautifully wrought scores. I had visions of framed pages for “Aria” in my living room.  I performed his “Solo for Sliding Trombone” on my recital. And for some reason, 4’33” resonated in my weird little soul.

A few years after that, I finally had the chance to perform 4’33”. I was subbing with the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City for their monthly gig at the RecordBar. Before the show, pages were passed through the band, instrumentation labeled, for the piece. About half-way through the set we busted out our rendition of this seminal piece. The first few seconds were filled with the bar patrons’ chatter, followed by shushing from the group’s supportive fans, and then the bar’s environmental clatter: phone ringing, ice clicking in glasses, martinis being shaken, cash drawers sliding open and clicking shut.

A moment or two into the second movement, a guy came down the front hallway, paid his cover, walked through the entrance and then stopped, blatantly confused by the fifteen-piece band and fifty-person audience sitting in rapt attention. It is one of my favorite musical memories.

The discussion last Wednesday night, though, didn’t just stick with 4’33”. Granade played excerpts from Cage’s “First Construction (In Metal),” three versions of “Sonatas + Interludes,” and “Music of Changes.” Open-ended questions stalled the group at points, but a lively debate surrounded the ideas that the piece was one big joke, the ultimate farce, about the feelings of tension the piece conjures in the listener, the history of the piece, and its influence on our current culture. One participant admitted to having the score framed in his office as a constant source of inspiration, a reminder of “sticking with convictions, seeing things through fully … an embodiment of purity to aspire to.”

The group was asked to offer a value judgment on the influence of 4’33”, which I thought a bit unfair of Granade. It is obvious that the piece was, is, and continues to be influential, and whether that influence is good or bad is more determinate of whether one thinks that music that came after is good or bad. That, I think, is your answer.

There was the added surprise of the author attending the meeting, too, though he didn’t join in unless prompted. I guess he, having literally written the book, didn’t have much more to add.  I had to get a little fan-girl, though, and ask him to sign my book. There just isn’t a suave way to do that.

My favorite part of the book, though? When Gann worked “mushrooming” into the introduction.

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