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No Such Thing as Silence

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

Kyle Gann
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    No Such Thing as Silence
    Book Description:

    First performed at the midpoint of the twentieth century, John Cage's4'33", a composition conceived of without a single musical note, is among the most celebrated and ballyhooed cultural gestures in the history of modern music. A meditation on the act of listening and the nature of performance, Cage's controversial piece became the iconic statement of the meaning of silence in art and is a landmark work of American music.

    In this book, Kyle Gann, one of the nation's leading music critics, explains4'33"as a unique moment in American culture and musical composition. Finding resemblances and resonances of4'33"in artworks as wide-ranging as the paintings of the Hudson River School and the music of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he provides much-needed cultural context for this fundamentally challenging and often misunderstood piece. Gann also explores Cage's craft, describing in illuminating detail the musical, philosophical, and even environmental influences that informed this groundbreaking piece of music. Having performed4'33"himself and as a composer in his own right, Gann offers the reader both an expert's analysis and a highly personal interpretation of Cage's most divisive work.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16301-8
    Subjects: Music, Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. ONE 4′33″ at First Listening
    (pp. 1-31)

    The Maverick Concert Hall is a lovely open-air theater just south of Woodstock, New York, rustically fashioned to blend with its natural environment. Built like a large barn but with a more gradually pitched roof and striking diagonal windows, the hall opens in the back through four double doors onto additional rows of wooden benches in the open air. There are about as many seats outside as in. Oak, maple, hemlock, and shagbark hickory trees intrude gently on the listening space.¹ The hall, and the concert series founded there in 1916, were the vision of novelist, poet, and entrepreneur Hervey...

  5. TWO The Man: 1912–1949
    (pp. 32-70)

    It is a curious contradiction that, for someone who eventually tried to expunge all personality from his music, John Cage was a phenomenally distinctive personality himself. Musicians of my generation (I first met him in 1974) remember his gentle and omnipresent laughter, his refusal to argue, his ability to turn away wrath with soft answers, his delight in the details of any nonmusical subject he didn’t know about—and most of all, perhaps, his personal generosity toward young composers. His youthful good looks turned rugged in old age, masked later in life by a beard that suggested an old philosophical...

  6. THREE Dramatis Personae (Predecessors and Influences)
    (pp. 71-120)

    The meme that Cage was more of a music philosopher than a composer has become a commonplace, most of all, it seems, among people who don’t like his music and are in need of a way to justify his celebrity. Cage was not a philosopher in any sense that the philosophy profession would recognize, but he was very much a composer who drew inspiration for his music from philosophical ideas. The list of artists, writers, and thinkers he names in justification of his musical trajectory is a long one: Meister Eckhart, Huang-Po, Kwang-Tse, Erik Satie, Henry David Thoreau, Gertrude Stein,...

  7. FOUR The Path to 4′33″: 1946 to 1952
    (pp. 121-166)

    Ultimately, the genesis of4′33″seems overdetermined. One could imagine that another composer, having seen Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, could have written4′33″as a response; or, having discovered in the anechoic chamber that there was no such thing as silence, might have written the piece as a demonstration of the fact. Cage, however, seems to have been urged toward4′33″via a redundant multiplicity of routes. It was a controversial step to take, one that might damage his reputation as a serious composer—as, indeed, for many people, it still has. Perhaps he would never have summoned the necessary courage...

  8. FIVE The Piece and Its Notations
    (pp. 167-187)

    It may seem silly to embark on an analysis of a piece of music containing no intentional sounds. But in fact the exact form of4′33″is riddled with ambiguity: its notation changed twice, and the latitude of its performance directions, as described by its composer, has expanded over the decades. To simply describe what4′33″is, at this point, requires almost a philosophical treatise.

    Given the radicalness of the gesture, the division of the piece into three movements is a curiously “classicizing” feature, unmistakably suggesting a sonata. As we’ve seen, music without structure was anathema to Cage, and an...

  9. SIX The Legacy
    (pp. 188-214)

    Cage didn’t believe in recordings and wouldn’t listen to them, and he doubtless preferred his4′33″live and in situ. Nevertheless, as of this writing the John Cage Trust documents about two dozen commercial recordings of4′33″(see Appendix). To record the piece forces one to choose an aspect from which to consider it. One can issue a recording of total digital silence and allow the listener to enjoy the sonic phenomena of his or her own home; this most treats the work as a philosophical idea. More common, one can perform the piece in front of a microphone, permitting...

  10. Appendix: 4′33″ Discography
    (pp. 215-218)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 219-232)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-240)
  13. Index
    (pp. 241-255)