One More (perhaps Superfluous) Webpage on 4´33˝

An old friend shared on Facebook a link showing four performances of Cage’s 4´33˝ (and one philosophy lecture about it) the other day, remarking that he couldn’t understand why it was that this piece was still being talked about. He thought that its point could have been made in less time and is astonished that it remains noteworthy.

Unsurprisingly, one of his friends soon echoed the same sentiments with a lot more invective for Cage, which prompted me to write the following. It’s amazing to me how riled up this little piece gets people. Anyway, it got me thinking that 4´33˝ is one of the most celebrated pieces of Cage, maybe the most celebrated one; it’s also overly celebrated and grossly misunderstood. I posted this thought on Facebook.

Why do I say the piece is overly celebrated? Because even to its advocates, it has eclipsed almost every piece he’s written since. And Cage made many pieces after 1952. Add those pieces to all the ones that he wrote before 1952 and you have an output of roughly 300 works. And there are more if you take into account certain pieces like the various parts from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra and the Music for _____ series, which can be played by themselves or in combination with any of the others, or pieces like Song Books and Variations III, which can be realized in countless ways. Poorly informed critics who like to argue that Cage was more of a philosopher than a composer point without exception to 4´33˝; very few have listened carefully to any other works. That situation has begun to change as performers and have programmed more of his music and record labels have released new and usually better recordings.

Shortly after I made my brief Facebook remark, Emil Israel Chudnovsky, the aforementioned friend, took the bait:

We all understand the concept: the sounds of silence, the impossibility of absolute silence, the meditative space of collective silence/non-silence. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yada yada yada.

Nice concept, might make for a legitimate essay or the occasional illustrative performance. Thus far, legitimate albeit a little too patently self-impressed; full of the pride of the pothead who’s come up with an intriguing question.

But then the son-of-a-mother has the cojones to publish and sell the “sheet music”. And then I know him to be a self-aware fraud. And know him to have the utmost contempt for the public as for the flock of trusting, neurotic sheep they prove themselves to be as they BUY said sheet music.

I offered to continue the discussion over e-mail because I know from experience that Facebook isn’t really a very productive medium for discussion. The following transcribes that exchange. (Thanks to Emil for allowing me to quote him.)

Me:

The significance of 4’33” has to do with a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, that everything in the world is important and valid, but only if one remains unattached to it. The question of this detachment is hard to describe—it doesn’t mean to be emotionally unmoved, but rather not to hold on to any feeling that the phenomena engender. It’s something really far past the notion of “any sound we make is music.” Cage mentioned in a 1980s interview that every day he turns his attention to it: a key to his devotion to the ideas of it.

As to the copyrighting of it, that was a condition that C.F. Peters made when it entered into its contractual relationship with Cage in 1960.  It’s too easy to make fun of the piece, I think—to oversimplify it, but also to overemphasize it, to hypostatize it. But one can choose to ignore that aspect of the piece. That’s what I would encourage people to do.

Emil:

So how exactly is

a) calling it a piece of music

b) making its “performance” a public event

c) allowing it to become a synecdoche for all things musical and avant-garde

Buddhist or unattached? What exactly does 4’33” encourage us to disattach from? I do understand the idea that attachment brings suffering, but it seems to me George Lucas’ Jedi knights did more to examine the idea, even with inane dialogue and epic special effects, than any number of Cage performances or debates ever did.

Me:

Calling it a piece of music was probably too simplistic on Cage’s part. But as he was a composer, and as it involved sounds, I’m not sure what else he would have called it.

Cage’s aim was for people to change their Mind in accordance with the tenets of Zen Buddhism. A performance is, I think you’ll agree, an extraordinarily potent way of making that point.

I am not sure 4’33” ever became a synecdoche for all things musical and avant-garde. To the extent that it did sort of speaks to my remark about it being grossly overvalued and misunderstood.

4’33” invites unattachment from all phenomena. I’m not sure I can make the concept of unattachment more clear. But it doesn’t have to do with forswearing all stimulus, but rather not becoming too overwrought by experiencing the stimulus.

George Lucas helped a lot too, but he made it more mystical than it needs to be.

Emil:

As for unattachment from all phenomena being in any way expressed by 4’33”, there is where I still disagree with you but need to formulate my thoughts a bit better to be coherent about why. As for the CONCEPT of unattachment, and how it means letting the world flow through and past you without necessarily altering you, I completely agree and hope to understand it fully one day, at the visceral level. Right now it’s just an intellectual construct. But 4’33” has certainly never done anything about moving the concept into the viscera. Indeed, the very fact that you had to point out the intention underlying the “piece” seems to argue for its being an ineffectual exercise in the alteration of Mind.

Cage was explicit about the connection, though? Between 4’33” specifically and Zen?

Oh, as for Peters, I’d still argue that true consistency would have made for a conversation of a separate contract, if need be. The act of publishing the work seems to argue against unattachment and to merely invite the kind of indictments that I – and millions of others – have leveled against Cage for many decades.

Me:

Buddhism is, ironically, an intellectual construct. So is every religion. (I can’t think of one thing that a person absorbs innately; can you?) One needs a little literature to introduce any spiritual idea, I think. But one soon realizes that words lose their effectiveness and meaning quickly.

I don’t think phenomena can pass through you without altering you. What I argue is that it doesn’t alter you permanently. :)

Cage famously avoided talking about these things because he was so terrified of imposing his ideas on others. But the interview with William Duckworth contains the ideas that I’ve used in my e-mails to you. (Talking Music; also published in the John Cage at 75 festschrift published by Bucknell Univ. Press.)

As for indicting Cage for 4’33”, I would say it’s sad that people do this when there are some 300-odd other pieces of his that are worthy of attention and don’t carry the same kind of baggage.

So there you have it. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this.

10 replies
  1. R.A. Moulds
    R.A. Moulds says:

    Strangely, the above discussion seems to point me in the direction of Cage being more a philosopher than a composer, even though you’ve told us that this is something that “poorly informed critics…like to argue…”

    Reply
      • Prabhat
        Prabhat says:

        Why is it when one car starts to honk its horn, all the cars stuck benhid it start honking their horns as well? This happened today right as I got home, set my bags down, sat down to relax a bit, and then I hear the constant honking of one car after another because one car was stuck in the middle of the street stalled. The person in the first car got out and actually tried to help the person in the stalled car however was unsuccessful. The honks continue. I look out my window and as the cars continue honking they start reversing down the street. Finally all five or six cars reversed their way out and went on their way. About one to two minutes later I hear one car honk its horn followed by many more cars again. The whole process of the stalled car and the people stuck benhid it continues again. This went on for about ten minutes. The sound of more than one car honking its horn repeatedly truly agitates me. It sounds like a loud blaring repeated flat annoying pitch over and over and over again. So I ask myself why don’t I think this sound is beautiful? Is it because I’m not in control of when the sound starts and when the sound stops? Is it because I can’t control pitch or volume? Then I got to thinking…maybe it’s because when many cars are honking at the same time it usually means people are agitated or stressed because they are in a hurry and need to be somewhere. So if that is the case, does that mean the sound makes me removed from my once calm state, and relaxation of being home to now a nervous, stressed feeling? Does this sound give me anxiety? I also ask myself, could it be such an annoying sound to me because in all truth, what is the honking going to do? Is it really going to help the person in the stalled car be able to move again?The funny thing is…when I’m one of those people stuck in the car traffic I might find myself honking my horn once or twice too. So if that’s the case, does the sound of numerous honking cars only bother me when I’m not involved? Maybe I just need to take a moment and understand the frustration of these people, and that will allow me to tolerate the sound of honking cars and its meaning.~Elizabeth C.

        Reply
        • Rob Haskins
          Rob Haskins says:

          I think you’ve explored the phenomenon of honking horns pretty thoroughly. It may have to do with control and with the way the sound might upset our calm. I try to drop the need for control and the feeling that I am upset, but I am not always successful.

          Reply
      • Chopper
        Chopper says:

        I have two sounds that I hate. This past wkneeed I shared a room with a stranger at a yoga retreat. I was in bed reading and she started to floss her teeth. The sound of it drove me nuts. There was a clicking sound every time the floss came up fromin between each tooth. My initial reaction was one of total annoyance and disgust. I found myself waiting for the next click, wondering how many teeth she had and sort of hating her (even though I liked her). Then I realized that I was having an impulsive negative reaction. I had just attended a lecture on “I am not my mind” so I tried to stay present with the sounds and with my feelings without imposing a judgment.It did work to calm me down a bit but if I am honest, I did know that there was a limit to the number of teeth and that it would stop. Thinking about it now (and relating to the blog about the car horns) I don’t get upset listening to myself flossing. The sound itself is not irritating. If I had heard that sound in the kitchen, it would not be irritating so I am thinking that it bothered me because I visualized the inside of someone else’s mouth, the debris being shifted and I didn’t want to be there.(Sorry, neither do you most likely). So it was the visual associated with the sound that made me hate the sound.The second sound I find really unattractive is the lady upstairs from me thumping her feet as she walks. I have come to hate the sound. Tonight, I tried to listen to it objectively and I realized that the sound itself is not ugly. It is sort of a booming drum-like sound. The person who is making the sound, however, has a lot of rage and as a result the sound makes me nervous. So in this case, it is the emotion attached to the sound that is making it unattractive!

        Reply
        • Rob Haskins
          Rob Haskins says:

          A great mindfulness exercise, of course, is to consider the sound of the flossing very comprehensively in spite of the fact that it might be irritating—sort of like dealing with an itch or other bodily discomfort when meditating. Pretty soon you find that the itch disappears. The same might occur with the flossing sound.

          Reply
  2. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    My apartment is on the first floor of my bdinuilg, close enough to the door that whenever someone goes in and out, I hear BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! (repeat 15 times) . The first couple of months I lived here, it drove me crazy. I tried stuffing towels under my door, playing music loudly all the time, and eventually, I gave up. I could not defeat the beeping door, and I resigned myself to the fact that it would be beeping at me for the next 10 months.At this point, I expected the door to become my worst enemy. BEEP! , it would yell at me, BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! . I could plead with it and beg it to stop, but it wouldn’t no matter how much I tried. I feared for my own sanity.Then, a weird thing happened. I was playing guitar on my couch, and I happened to hit an E major chord right as someone entered the bdinuilg. The beep, as it turned out, was on the pitch of a B. It fit right into the chord, accentuating the 5th. I decided to work with it.That night, I composed The ^&(%ing Door Song , which I now sing to myself whenever the door beeps. I won’t go into the lyrics here (there are some expletives), but the song began to serve as the perfect deflection for the madness the beeping had caused me. Whenever I hear the door, I sing the song, and if I’m holding an instrument, I accompany the door. When it stops beeping, I hit an E7 chord. Every time, it sounds like I just finished a 20-second blues jam.I found that it is possible to trick yourself into enjoying something you hate by incorporating it into something you enjoy. I have tried to use this strategy in life whenever possible, and it doesn’t always work. It has helped me enjoy long waits for the subway, fits of allergic sneezing, and listening to John Sterling and Susan Waldmyn call Yankee games on the radio. Figuring out a way to make an ugly thing beautiful is a fun mind experiment, and can help keep you from losing your sanity.

    Reply
  3. Ibhi
    Ibhi says:

    As I shifted turohgh my ugly sound memory bank, I had almost decided that I really like most sounds, and that it is largely the volume that can make me think of a sound that is ugly or not beautiful, mainly because it becomes physically painful like loud, straight-exhaust motorcycles, sirens, or even the 17-year plague of Stephen King locusts that will soon park their beady little red-eyed bodies in my oak trees back home in North Carolina. But then I remembered the sound of computer typing over the phone like rats tap dancing in the attic right over your head. Then I realized that just one particular sound, with no emotional or psychological associations or volume problems, could driveyoui n .s ..a ..n e.One other reflection on ugly sound. Loud highway noise, especially very loud 18-wheeler trucks, relentlessly speeding up a hill, one after another, has been a source of deep anger to me since I was 12 years old. It was then that our family farm was split in two by Interstate 85. The noise level made sitting outside and talking of a summer evening impossible. It nearly drove my mother mad, and it was only because my father went deaf that he could bear it. I always wanted to make a documentary of how sound can destroy lives and obliterate beauty. The opening scene would be a shot of rolling green pasture land, blossoming fruit trees and verdant woods. Bird song would be ushering in a summer morning. And then all natural sounds would eventually be demolished by the gradual increase in volume of the highway noise until the viewer felt as though she were watching a beautiful nature film but with a horror film soundtrack. That’s how I grew up. I played all sorts of games to try to make peace with those sounds, but in the end, they were always ugly and destructive to me. If John Cage’s philosophy can help me overcome that sonic nightmare memory, I’ll devote the rest of my performing career to playing his music!

    Reply
    • Rob Haskins
      Rob Haskins says:

      Thanks for this. When I lived in Rochester, my bedroom was next to a large, rusty metal sign that swung incessantly, making a very irritating sound. I never thought I would get used to it, but I did, and even found myself missing it when I moved. Louder sounds, of course, are probably a lot harder to get used to. Cage tells an interesting story of living in his last home in NYC and at first being unable to sleep because of the constant noise of traffic. What he did, he said, was to find a way to transpose the sounds into images in his mind. That is a typical solution for him.

      Reply

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