Kyle Gann on "No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"

Jim Fleming: It was the perfect for venue for such a momentous musical event. Well, it wasn't chosen for that reason. It was just one of those happy accidents that the piece's creator may have enjoyed. The Maverick Concert Hall is an open-air theater just south of Woodstock, New York. It's designed to blend in with its natural environment. On the evening of August 29th 1952, the pianist David Tudor made history by performing the premier of John Cage's 4'33." Kyle Gann is the author of "No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"."  He tells Steve Paulson what happened that night.

Kyle Gann: The next to last piece was 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Tudor just without any explanation just sat down. According to him and Cage, he lowered the lid on the piano keys. Other people say he raised at in the beginning. But he seems to have lowered the lid and then raised it a couple of times to mark the 3 movements of the piece and then quit. And it's a little unclear what happened next cause there was one more piece on the program, Henry Cowell's "The Banshee," which is a very odd little piece that's played entirely inside the piano. There's no real documentation on whether the Cowell got played but there was a question and answer session after the performance and people got very irate and stood up and shouted and somebody finally yelled, "Good people of Woodstock, let's run these people out of town."  Most of the audience should have known what they were getting into, but there were apparently quite a few vacationing members of the New York Philharmonic present.

Steve Paulson: So from the audience's perspective, they must have thought here was this pianist sitting up there doing nothing for 4 and a half minutes, and then he finishes and they want to call this art?

Gann: Yeah, pretty much. The idea of a composer taking credit for something he didn't actually do.

Paulson: David Tudor never actually touched the piano keys, right?

Gann: Right.

Paulson: What did he do?

Gann: Well, Tudor says afterward he turned pages because the score was originally written out on several pages and for Tudor he said it was very important to him. He didn't use a stopwatch the way most people do. The tempo was supposed to be quarter note equal 60 and he simply counted the right number of beats and as they would go by, he turned the page. And he thought that was the only authentic way to perform it.

Paulson: You said that it got outraged reaction by some people sitting in the audience. What about the press? When word got out about this bizarre piece of music, what was written about it?

Gann: Its reputation took off rather slowly. It was really not well known for a long time. The New York premier took place two years later. It got two reviews. One of them just dismissed it as kind of the usual downtown bohemian exhibitionism. The other was kind of bemused and tolerant. It's gotten lots of mixed press ever since, although I was really impressed when Cage died, how many critics wrote in their obituaries wrote about that as his most striking piece and really seem to understand what it was about.

Paulson: You write that John Cage's 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet also one of the avant-garde's best understood. Can you explain what you mean?

Gann: It's very widely misunderstood by people who aren't familiar with the whole context even at that time by some who were. It was seen as something kind of cheeky and arrogant.

Paulson: Just a joke. I mean he was gonna get up there and thumb his nose at the music establishment.

Gann: Right. Given some of the initial impetus behind the piece, I think there is something of a joke aspect of it. He first got the idea as a response to Muzak because in the 1940s composers and musicians of that time were really really horrified by the advent of Muzak, and what it was doing to the way people listened and the way it was imposing music on people and taking away people's quiet and so the original idea was to write a four and a half minute piece of Muzak, because four and a half minutes was the longest thing you can get on a 78 rpm record and that's what Muzak used at the time. To sell to the Muzak company so that people can get four and a half minutes of silence. It's hard to say that that's not a joke. He didn't really go through with the piece until 4 and a half years later when he had decided it was more than a joke. There was an actual joke. There was a student at the time who got in the newspaper for his plan to make silent records for jukeboxes so that people who didn't want to listen to jukeboxes could put in a quarter and buy a few minutes of respite from them.

Paulson: Is that what Cage was after? I mean he'd been thinking about this idea for years, right?

Gann: He had.

Paulson: Doing a piece that was silent yet maybe not totally silent?

Gann: There were so many different things that led him to it. He was influenced by the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg painted some canvases white and in Cage's idea that meant that they would accept whatever shadows or lint or dirt got onto them, which was his idea of environmental noise. It was a response to having gone into the anechoic chamber at Harvard and heard that most of the time there is no such thing as silence. Even your body makes noised and so you can't really escape hearing something.

Paulson: Now this is the echo-free chamber at Harvard that supposed to be totally silent and yet apparently it's not because you hear your own body?

Gann: Right.

Paulson: What do you actually hear in your own body?

Gann: Well, the technician told Cage that he was hearing his blood circulating and his nervous system in operation. There's been some doubt placed on that since then.  It seems more likely that Cage probably had tinnitus as most musicians do by a certain point. He was hearing that and that's what was interpreted as being his nervous system in operation.

Paulson: Why was that experience so influential for Cage?

Gann: Well, it probably wouldn't have been except that he had been for the last few years getting interested in Zen and the Zen idea of not making distinctions between one thing or another, accepting all reality as being pretty much the same thing. And so he was very open at that point to the idea of all sounds that you heard having the same significance as the music you were listening to. He saw a big big division in the history of music coming with the advent of electronic tape, because he said now with tape you could put any sounds into music. You can make any rhythms. You can make any pitch continuum that music had now opened up to include everything and so there was no reason in his mind to separate off the sounds coming from the loudspeakers and a tape piece from the sounds that weren't coming through the loudspeakers.

Paulson: So somehow this was liberating for him, this idea. I mean it was sort of breaking the distinction between music and the rest of the world that generates sound?

Gann: Mm-hmm. Some of it had to do with eastern thought. He was very influenced by a writer, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was the Curator of Fine Arts at the Boston Museum, one of the world's leading authorities on eastern art. Coomaraswamy wrote a lot about how in other cultures there is not this separation of art from everyday life, that it plays a part of it, that every implement people use in certain cultures is an artistic product that you just live your life artistically and everything you do has to do with art in some way or another and Cage was trying to bring that into a western consciousness.

Paulson: Now I think most people when they hear about John Cage's piece 4'33" that they see this as an exercise in silence.

Gann: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: But it's not totally that, is it?

Gann: No.

Paulson: The performer might be, I don't know, if he's making actually any sound as he's lifting the piano cover up and down off the keys. I mean you can hear the ambience in the room as well. I mean for Cage, those things mattered, right?

Gann: Yes, they did. Cage's idea of the piece changed so much throughout his life and he later said that her performed 4' 33" every day for long periods of time. He actually removed the title from the piece and said it can be as long as you want it to be and said it was something he listened to every day. But it's impossible to subtract from the piece the theatrical aspect of its premier and its early performances with the idea that somebody sitting on stage, everyone expects they're gonna play and they don't play. And that is the aspect of the piece that relates to Dada. The Dadaist movement around World War II when people were doing, you know like Marcel Duchamp taking a normal men's urinal and signing his name onto it as a work of art. It's a very similar kind of gesture. It seems to me really important to the identity of the piece that it actually is in three movements.

Paulson: Why?

Gann: Because there's a kind of framing mechanism to it, which kind of makes it a piece of classical music. No other tradition has pieces in three movements except for European classical music. It makes it a little bit like a sonata in three movements.

Paulson: Does this piece matter in the long history of music or in the way we think about art?

Gann: I read it in a couple of places that people say it is the best known piece of American classical music, which is an odd thought. Even better than Copland's "Appalachian Spring."  I think you would have to put Gershwin's :"Rhapsody in Blue" in front of that probably. It not only matters, it has mattered a lot more than most avant-garde music has mattered. I couldn't keep track of the number of rock albums that covered 4'33."  I published a list of them and as soon as the book came out, I found out about six or eight more.

Fleming: Kyle Gann is the author of  "No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"."  He spoke with Steve Paulson. You are listening to John Cage's 4' 33"."  What do you think of it, John Cage's 4'33"? You can let us know by sending us email through our website at or you contact us via Facebook or Twitter. You'll find links to our Facebook page and Twitter account on our website. It's always nice to hear from you.