In John Cage's best known work, 4'33", a person approaches an instrument as if to play it and maintains that poise for a brief time. Audiences for the piece place their attention in the particular state usually reserved for hearing more conventional music, but then hear, instead, the sounds of their environment. The point of the work is to open one's ears, in the outside world as well as in the concert hall, so that one can listen to any sounds in one's environment as one would listen to music.

Although Cage was known for exploring the boundaries between noise and music, 4'33" infuriated his audience when it debuted in 1952 at The Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York.

Instead of watching a typical concert performance what the audience witnessed was pianist David Tudor sit idly at his instrument without playing a note. Cage later said, "What the audience thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds."

Tudor sat motionless at the piano when he wasn't opening or closing the lid to indicate a new movement, turning pages in the blank score, or keeping track of the time on a stopwatch. The rear of the theater was open to the sounds of the wooded area which surrounded it. Rustling trees accompanied the first movement while wind and raindrops joined in the second and third.

4'33" has subsequently built up a rich interpretive tradition amongst musicians. I once heard a performance on the radio, as an encore to a piano recital in which, judging from the noises off and audience laughter the performer took it as an opportunity to leap off stage and run around the auditorium, timing his arrival back on stage with the end of the piece. (I may of course have been entirely misguided about this since radio is hardly a visual medium). In another performance (again on the radio) the silence was filled with a veritable cacophony coming form the orchestra (presumably off stage) - sounding like the Tom and Jerry cartoon where they have a fight in an orchestra.

Imagination and experimental music

One of the concerts during Composer's Choice week at the National Concert Hall, Ireland, 27 March 2002 was that selected by Jennifer Walshe. Born in Dublin, Jennifer Walshe is currently completing her doctorate at the Northwestern University, Chicago, where she is studying with Amnon Wolman. This biographical detail is more than incidental to the concert of 27th March, for Northwestern University holds the 'fluxus' achieves, and the city has a lively experimental music milieu in which Jennifer Walshe has clearly become thoroughly immersed. For this was a concert deeply concerned with the John Cage and the relationship between imagination and music. The first item on the programme was Luciano Berio's Sequenza for trombone (1966). The performance of which was by John Kenny. The Cage connection to the work was explained in the pre-concert talk. In 1955 Cage had been unable to find a trombone player for an unconventional solo in his Concerto for piano and orchestra, and had called upon the services of a jazz player. Dempster, a trombonist in the audience for the concert relished the eccentric use of the instrument and when, shortly after, he met Berio he encouraged the composer to write a piece for the trombone that also experimented with the unconventional sounds that the instrument could produce. The fact that there is humour in Berio's music was evident by Kenny's wearing of violent canary yellow waistcoat. Compared to the rest of the programme, this was a relatively conventional piece, even though at times the performer had to produce vocal sounds simultaneously with, and in tune with, the trombone. Kenny's vigorous facial and arm movements also served a purpose in that they maintained the tempo of the music through its stops and starts.

The second piece was Jennifer Walshe's own Dirty White Fields, commissioned for the concert. She performed the music herself, and indeed it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to do so, for it involved the use of a violin in a non-traditional way and extraordinary vocal sounds. Tampering with an instrument often seems like a relatively pointless activity. Why compose for the noises produced by the strings of a piano say, when a conventional use of the keys is capable of producing so much beautiful music? Walshe's use of the violin in an unusual manner was no gimmick though but essential to the music. The first movement relied on the inexorable soft rasp sound of the bow moving over the rim of the violin to create a fast tempo and to interact with the sounds of her voice, which were like that of the wind. Very rarely a pure note would sound momentarily from the violin, which gave the movement a sense of forcible containment of potentially explosive musical possibilities. The second movement was an intimate one, and Walshe's utilised the sounds that could be created by stroking the tuning pegs of the violin very effectively. A vocal sound that nearly approached a giggle fitted closely with its sense of ticklishness. The third movement was by contrast much darker and more sinister, again bowing over the violin created an underlying tempo, but this time an absolutely committed vocal performance evoked shivering and sobbing. The final movement was a dialogue between a sustained vocal sound and its similar counterpart from the violin. The whole piece was surprisingly musical given the unusual use of the violin, and the vocal sounds were totally enthralling as they were so graphic and bravely performed.

Now, probably like many readers, I had read about John Cage's Silence, 4' 33" (1952) but never actually seen it performed. Not many concert organisers in Ireland would dare program it. When you read about the work, you can't help but think that the audience listening to it are being made fools of. Or, more generously, that the idea is a joke in which the audience is invited to share. In fact, ironically, having seen it performed I now believe that 4' 33" is a profoundly musical work. John Kenny was the performer. He performed it in something of a pantomime style, at first at the piano, then with the trombone, play-acting as though on the verge of playing. This had the advantage of highlighting the fact that there is humour in the work, but it was mistaken to make too much of this. Nor did using the trombone to point out members of the audience that were making sounds really work. It is true that the piece can be interpreted as the audience listening to themselves, and if it was a test to see whether we could actually sit in silence for that time, then we clearly failed. But in both these regards I felt that Cage was being sold short, for the piece operated on another, more fundamental, level as well. In front of us was a performer and two instruments, full of potential life. When Kenny lifted his hands to play the piano, or raised the trombone, suddenly your imagination flared. The trombone was particularly appropriate in this regard as it is such a powerful instrument and all the time that it was poised to play, you couldn't help but feel that you were on the verge of hearing its huge voice ring out. There is an analogy here with quantum physics, just as the actual path of an atomic particle is surrounded by the possibilities of other paths, a fog of probability that collapses once the position of the particle is recorded, so with music the actuality of a sound is hedged with our imagination. If so much virtual, unfocused, sound is evoked by silence, what are our brains doing when we listen to music?

Next came George Brecht's Water Yam. Brecht was a member of the post-war 'fluxus' artistic movement. Knowing something about the art and theatre of these inheritors of Surrealism and Dadaism, I was on guard. Unlike Cage, many of the works of fluxus artists did set out to mock audiences - such as the infamous theatre piece where the curtain goes up and two audiences are looking at one another across the space. Brecht, himself a student of Cage, seems to have been interested in playing with the expectations of a concert audience, without going so far as his theatrical colleagues. Water Yam has some ninety cards to give a schematic direction to performers, but the order and interpretation of the sounds is up to the performers. This version kept intelligently to the spirit of the composition by utilising modern equivalents to the items called for by Brecht - such as a mobile phone, whose ring tone was the cheesy 'maniac' - and also by not falling for half measures of the events. So Natasha Lohan had her hair cut and Donnacha Dennehy ordered pizza, which came. It was an entertaining work, mildly amusing, but a long way short of 4'33" as a musical experience.

John Maxwell Geddes' composition for the trombone, Leo Dreaming, was the fifth work of the evening. Leo, he explained in the pre-concert talk, was a twenty-year-old cat, whose dreams were off days when he was a great hunter. The music was very much in keeping with theme of the evening as it required at times very unconventional playing by John Kenny, and yet all the sounds were absolutely appropriate to the music. At times purring slowly like an Australian didgeridoo, at other times working with the voice to produce harmonics and overtone, or menacingly hunting down fragments from Messaien's oiseaux, the trombone produced a celebration of Leo who was clearly a king amongst cats.

Jennifer Walshe's they could laugh smile (1999) for trombone and tape was commissioned by John Kenny, who performed it at the concert. After a certain amount of preparatory play-acting, which was redundant given the earlier part of the programme, the piece began to accelerate in power. The ominous growth of the tape sounds were accompanied by disturbing sounds from the trombone and the distressed breathing of John Kenny. The tension grew to a massive dark explosion of anger in which the performer swore violently at the top of his voice but could barely be heard over the crashing electronics. Again the commitment called for by Walshe produced really impressive results.

For Amnon Wolman's imaginary music (1999), the audience were given a sheet with two passages describing sound. We were asked to slowly read over the passages and think about the sounds evoked by the descriptions we were reading. Again, this was most definitely a musical experience. The fact that a whole concert audience were imagining the sound of waves on the shore, or a seagull, or approaching voices, meant that we were participating in a similar way to if those sounds were broadcast before us. It would have been interesting to experiment further with the event, it seemed to me that to try and stimulate musical imagination from written cues was in fact extremely hard and to move from the part of the brain processing language information, to the more sensual experience of music was going to require practice. However the piece had to be curtailed due to the restlessness of the audience, at least half of which did not join in the experiments, and indeed began whispered conversations.

Finally, the concert finished with Jennifer Walshe's unaccompanied vocal performance of The Beatles' Happiness is a Warm Gun. This song was performed in Walshe's typical vocal manner, so distorted by gulping breaths and concentrated sighs that it was hardly recognisable at times. Not only did the effect highlight how disturbing the song is, but it made the music much darker, much stronger, and much less easy to assimilate. The Composers' Choice series at the National Concert Hall in Ireland gives a valuable opportunity to contemporary composers to organise a programme. Judy Walsh and the organisers deserve great praise for inviting Jennifer Walshe to participate. She seized the occasion with both hands and the resulting concert was the most thought provoking and enjoyable that I've been to this year (2002).

There is a common myth that the length of 4'33" was a deliberate choice. Since the piece is silent, some believe that it was selected because the number of seconds (273) corresponds to absolute zero (which is -273.16º celcius). However, John Cage selected the lengths of the movements via chance operations, as he did many of his pieces. In this particular case, as with many of his compositions of this era, he used the I Ching as a basis for generating random numbers for use in his composition. This is fairly well documented, especially in one of the few biographies of Cage, "The Roaring Silence".

It should be noted, that with pauses between the movements (as it is sometimes performed), the time is actually longer than the title would indicate. 273 seconds is a neat coincidence, and nothing more.

There has been a recent bizarre development with this "song". A British composer named Mike Batt became subject to a plagiarism charge after he included a song, A One Minute Silence, on his band -- The Planets' -- classical rock album.

When originally presented with the court case Batt was astonished. He said, "Has the world gone mad? I'm prepared to do time rather than pay out. We are talking as much as £100,000 in copyright."

Despite his initial amazement, on September 23, 2002 Batt settled his case with the John Cage Trust by paying out an undisclosed "six-figure" sum and released these words: "We are ... making this gesture of a payment to the John Cage Trust in recognition of my own personal respect for John Cage and in recognition of his brave and sometimes outrageous approach to artistic experimentation in music."

Ironically Batt's love for John Cage is probably what hurt him the most. The liner notes on Batt's version of the silent song list the songwriting credits as "Batt/Cage" -- in effect admitting he knew that his song was based on the earlier work.

Humorously Batt also remarked, "Mine is a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds."

Update 6/12/2022. It appears that Mike Batt later claims in a 2010 BBC interview that the entire lawsuit and settlement never really happened and it was all a publicity stunt. See:

Zerotime says re 4'33": Rob Dougan did a 33-second silence as a track on his Furious Angels album, and I'm pretty sure he hasn't been sued yet.

note: disk 1 - track 13 Pause on Furious Angels is the song mentioned by Zerotime.

Disclaimer: The following is somewhat in the form of a rant with no sources mainly because it is not something to be taken entirely seriously, but also because I feel like it is the best way to get across what I felt as I listened to 4'33".

What the fuck is this shit?! The first (and only) time I listened to this..."composition" (I refuse to call it a piece), all that went through my mind was "This is a joke, this isn't real, this is just some Youtuber trolling me by having a video about nothing". So I looked it up on Google. I learned that not only is this a real thing, but it is generally well received by people and various critics...four minutes and thirty-three seconds of nothing was well received by people. People sat and listened to nothing for four and half fucking minutes, and called John Cage a God damned genius for writing it and giving them the privilege of experiencing it. I'm sorry, but that is up there in terms of the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard in my life.

As far as I can tell, there are three main groups of people who like this shit (there's probably more, but these are the three I can think of). The first are the people who think everything is art. These people are the type to think a gallery consisting of paint drying is incredibly engaging, so why not silence? The second group are the people who enjoy high art, especially the kinds that push the boundaries of the norm, so music consisting of silence? Why that's revolutionary! The third group are the hipsters who like it ironically, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.

I pride myself on being able to like and listen to music from practically every genre of music, with the possible exception of a small set of genres that challenge what the definition of "music" is, for example Noise Music. My motto with respect to music is, "If it sounds good, it's probably worth listening to". The key point in that statement is the fact that there needs to be something to listen to! There is nothing worth listening to in this God damned waste of time. If I had paid money to attend a piano recital and some guy came out and, for four and a half bloody minutes, did nothing but keep time, I would feel (quite legitimately) ripped off.

What pisses me off the most about 4'33" though is the fact that people are celebrating it. I can't think of anything lazier or more pretentious than this. I mean even Noise Music requires some effort to create the noise. Cage probably just sat there at his composing desk, went through four minutes and thirty-three seconds of writer's block, and then suddenly had the brilliant idea to exhibit to the whole world the vacuum of his mind during that period of time. To add to that, he sued another composer who "composed" a variation of 4'33". One composer who composed something consisting entirely of silence sued another composer who composed something consisting of a different length of silence. I wish I was making this up, but even fiction isn't this ridiculous.

I get that the point of 4'33" is to showcase the natural sounds of the place where it is being "performed". It is supposed to be something that includes the audience, one where any and all sounds made by all those present contribute to the unique interpretations of this composition. To add to that, it also has a more subtle characteristic, namely that of bringing out emotions that might not ever come up while listening to more conventional music. For example, in my case it was anticipation, followed by confusion, and finally irritation bordering on rage.

However, that doesn't mean it should be thought of as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yes, it is somewhat clever, but it is also lazy and pretentious. Waiting for Godot is, for all practical purposes, about nothing. However, it somehow manages to get the viewer wanting to know more about what happens. 4'33" on the other hand manages to get the listener wondering "What am I doing with my life?". Claude Debussy may have said "Music is the space between the notes", but this is pushing it.

In a world dominated by electronic devices, staying connected all the time, always being distracted by something or the other, and never letting oneself get bored, one might argue that going to a "performance" of 4'33" would be a nice and needed break from the fast pace of modern life. However there are so many ways of achieving the same thing without having to call some lazy prick a genius for it. Take a walk in the park, listen to the birds and the sounds of nature; go sit by a waterfront and watch the waves roll in, the sea birds fly over the water, the boats bob up and down; go take a hike in the hills, get outside the bustle of society for a bit.

If I was to review this, I would give it a 0/10, and not only because there was nothing to review. 4'33" is the epitome of phrase "leaves something to be desired". Something? How about anything? Possibly the worst consequence of having listened to this is I now end up having to admit that although Ass by Big Sean, We Dem Boyz by Wiz Khalifa, and Anaconda by Nicki Minaj are examples of terrible, terrible music, at least they're still music and as such, still better than 4'33".

Still, it moved me enough to create this writeup, so I suppose that counts for something.

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