“I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it,” said John Cage in an interview in 1973, “would appear as if I were making a joke.” Continuing, he said, “I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements, and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.”
Cage was certainly not joking. His piece 4’33” has been “performed” many times and in many venues since its debut in 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York. If not a joke, then how about Dada? Kyle Gann, author of the NEH-funded No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” (Yale University Press, 2010), says, “On Cage’s own authority the possibility that 4’33” was a Dada-inspired gesture, even if also more than that, cannot be entirely dismissed.” And, regarding Dada, Cage noted once, “What was Dada in Duchamp’s day is now just art.” That’s a bit opaque perhaps, but music critic Gann finds much to say about silence in his 213-page book on Cage’s movement without sound.
So, if not Dada, then how about theater? “One of the crucial aspects of 4’33”, at least in the first performances, is that there was a pianist onstage, whose presence, and whose behavior in the previous pieces on the program, clearly led the audience to expect that his hands would at some point engage the keyboard, and that they would hear deliberately made sounds coming from the stage.” The dramatic movement of the performance arises from the audience’s growing expectations. “That the listeners’ expectations were deliberately flouted,” Gann continues, “cannot be entirely divorced from the sonic identity of the piece, even though the way Cage talked about 4’33” later in life—claiming, for instance, that he often ‘performed’ the piece while alone—seems to suggest that it can.”
In spite of its seemingly recondite nature, Gann concludes that 4’33” may be one of the “best-understood pieces in avant-garde twentieth-century music. Cage got his point across. Who—aside from Thoreau perhaps—realized there was so much to listen to?”