8 November 2012
Is it music?
The Dispute about John Cage’s 4’33”
When someone thinks about music, he or she is most likely to think of musical instruments, broadcasted radio, albums, musical artists, or record companies. These are all associated with music, yes, but do they actually define what music is? Within the realm of music, there are many different common interpretations of what music is, but there are few people who find time to sit and think about what music is and where it can be found. John Cage was one of those people. He was a philosopher of music as well as a very interesting experimental composer. His most controversial composition was composed in 1952 and was titled 4’33”. It consisted of three separate movements. Throughout the three movements, the performer is to “tacet”—or play nothing—for a total duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. That’s it. It seems like a joke, doesn’t it? But Cage was very serious about this composition because he believed that music is everywhere and that it exists even in the quietest of silences; thus, while the performer is not playing, the audience still hears many things, from the air circulating in the room and other audience members’ breathing and murmuring to the cars outside on the road. Cage wrote this in his most famous book, Silence, in regards to this notion that there is never complete silence: For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber . . . I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. (8) Those two sounds heard by Cage in the anechoic chamber, among other sounds, are heard by all of us at all times, whether we notice them or not, and since we are all hearing these things at all times, no man or woman with the ability to hear can truly hear nothing. Silence, in our environment, is essentially nonexistent. Moving back to 4’33”, the generally accepted purpose for Cage’s writing of a piece like 4’33” is that he wanted people to stop thinking about the sounds all around us as noises and to start thinking about these sounds’ musical qualities. Furthermore, with Cage’s concept of silence’s nonexistence in mind, the main point of his 4’33” is to allow the audience to enjoy the music that can be found in their natural environment. 4’33” has an infinite number of variations of its music because everyone hears different things within silence, and everyone will hear something different each time he or she listens to 4’33”. Because it is such an individualized experience, Cage’s 4’33” is an extraordinary piece of music, regardless of how simple and comical it may first seem. Cage’s 4’33” should be classified as music because there is much more than just silence written into the piece and that it has long been a successful composition within the music market.
The first point to be made about 4’33” is that it is not silence. This is because the environmental sounds heard during the piece are the music. During the historical first performance of this piece in Woodstock, New York, the first movement consisted of sounds of wind in the trees outside the concert hall. The second movement happened to start with raindrops beginning to patter on the roof. The final movement brought about whispering of the audience and people walking out of the hall in dismay (Solomon Sec. 1). These sounds may not all be pleasant, but they are certainly music. In fact, any organization of sound is classified as music (Silence 3). Music does not have to be transcribed or have predetermined patterns to be considered music, and this is true throughout the universe and the...