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Sounds of Silence

Kyle Gann argues for inclusion of Cage's 4'33" in America's trove of cultural icons.

Book Cover Avante-garde composer John Cage's composition 4’33” created at the midpoint of the twentieth century, was conceived of without a single musical note. In his monograph No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, composer and Bard music mentor Kyle Gann writes:
4’ 33” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avante-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult or get a reaction from the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many it was a kind of an artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew.
Gann unpacks Cage’s craft and explicates in detail the context for his pioneering artistic gesture. And having performed 4’33”, he offers both an interior and exterior perspective of this iconic musical “composition.” He also reports that the piece cost Cage some friends and prompted his mother to ask, “Don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?”

Gann concludes:
And, fittingly, 4’33” cleared the deck for a new American music, freer from European influences than the nationalist streams of music of the 1920s and 1930s. From 4’33” younger composers imbibed a freer attitude towards sound, adding their own processes into Cage’s emptiness… and leapfrogging his logical constructs to create the conceptualist sound art movements of the 1960s, the minimalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the post-minimalist and totalist movements of the 1980s and 1990s. The rise of experimental music in the late twentieth century can be traced to the lineage of composers who took 4’33” very seriously indeed. Nor were they the only ones. Yoko Ono and John Lennon paid homage to 4’33”, as have a number of pop musicians and rock bands. Despite all those who still call it the “emperor’s new clothes,” it has become a cultural icon, a beginning point, a permission to dart off in any new imaginative direction.
Incidentally, the Cage book is part of Yale University Press’s “Icons of America” series, which includes about a dozen titles on subjects ranging from Fred Astaire to the hamburger to the Empire State Building.
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Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum

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