During the couple of days I spent in London last week, I read this new book by Kyle Gann called ‘No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33’
Perhaps because I was – and probably still am – absolutely myopic when it comes down to the music of John Cage, the book and, subsequently, the piece 4’33 itself really dazzled me. 4’33 is, according to Gann and many others, one of the most misunderstood pieces of music even written. It has been characterized as pure provocation, Dadaesk, mockery on the one hand and as one of the most important avant-garde compositions of the 20th century on the other. What makes 4’33 so intruiging is the fact that it consists of silence, that is; no note is played, the piano is left untouched by the pianist who remains on his chair looking at a stop-watch set on 4 minutes and 33 seconds. For sure, Cage was not deceiving anyone; 4’33 took a long time coming and the audience is fully aware that 4’33 consists of a man sitting at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing. It is fascinating to see that Cage repeatedly stated that he considered 4’33 of being his most important work. For Gann it is meta-music and Zen at once.
All of this instantly made me think of Nietzsche (and probably 4’33 can also serve as an interlocutor between Nietzsche and Zen) and, specifically, the affirmative moment in his thinking. That is to say; 4’33 makes manifest that silence does not mean ‘a lack or abscence of sound’, but, instead a presence. To Cage it seemed that he was framing someting, enclosing unintended sounds that weren’t, previously, considered of as being ‘music’ but who must be when heard during a silent composition. That is; it is not the opposite of sound, but the affirmation of silence as sound. Cage was, therefore, not composing anti-music or anti-sound but created a structured silence. Consider the following: ‘On a philosophical level, such talk could have led Cage to think of the emptiness of 4’33 not as something negative, but as the perception of ultimate reality’. We could replace ‘ultimate reality’ for ‘positive reality’ meaning recognizing everything as existent and not judging of reality as lacking something. ‘Cage needed to go through experiences that would lead from attempting to listen to ‘nothing’ to redefining silence as being not ‘nothing’, but ‘something’. In a beautiful fashion, this sentence utters the affirmative decision embodied in the composition of 4’33 and can, therefore, be related to Nietzsche in that sense that it is an affirmation of what is already present. That is, the sounds heard during the silence of 4’33 are already there, they just have to be affirmed or being granted existence. As Deleuze remarks in ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’, ‘becoming cannot have started to become, it is not something that has become. But, not being something that has become it cannot become something. Not having become, it would already be what it is becoming– if it were becoming something. That is to say, past time being infinite, becoming would have attained its final state if it had one. And indeed, saying that becoming would have attained its final state if it had one is the same as saying that it would not have left its initial state if it had one.‘ In the context of 4’33, the sounds heard are not becoming something they weren’t before, but they are being affirmed by the framework of the composition.
It’s fascinating to read that Cage actually made different versions and notations of 4’33. In his last version he decided to let go of the title 4’33 all together and stating that ‘the title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance.‘ This doesn’t only mean that the piece consists of ‘uninted sounds framed by silence’ but is a different piece everytime it is being performed.