One enduring memory I have as a sixth former was being taken, along with several other pupils studying A-level physics, to the Department of Acoustical Engineering at the University of Southampton. For me, the highlight of the trip was a visit to the anechoic chamber (apparently refurbished 1995-96) which used a variety of techniques to eliminate reverberation as far as possible. The experience was certainly unexpected and seriously eerie; almost instantly, one became aware of the near absence of any external sounds with only the faint registration of the circulation of one’s own blood as well as the workings of the digestive tract! It was only forty-five years later, or thereabouts, that I encountered something even stranger – the temporary absence of all sound, akin to classic sensorineural hearing loss. But that, as they say, is another story!
The musical career John Cage (b. 1912, d. 1992) can’t be easily condensed, not least in this particular context. Suffice it to say, his contribution to twentieth century music is probably as influential as that of Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg (his tutor for two years), Igor Stravinsky, Alban Berg and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Early on, Cage was noted for his use of ‘prepared pianos’ with Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) being perhaps his most celebrated composition. However, in the early fifties Cage was increasingly attracted by the idea of ‘aleatoric’ music, drawing not least upon the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination tool (the text precedes both Daoism and Confucianism). In Experimental Music (1957), the composer described music as "a purposeless play...an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living". Such a radical development, however, was not welcome by some of his contemporaries, most notably Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
4′33″ was composed in 1952, for any instrument or, indeed, any combination of instruments. The score instructs performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first performance given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952 at Woodstock, New York caused an uproar in the audience.
Three elements come together, almost gracefully, in the composition. First, there is Cage’s interest in the idea of duration as the essential building block of music. Secondly, there is his desire to subvert the idea of ‘social convention’ in musical performance. And thirdly, there is his conviction that audience reaction and, indeed, participation is supremely relevant to all live music.
To quote Cage himself on the work’s premiere:
“There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
This particular realisation of the work was first released in 2010. Turn the volume up to 11 and enjoy!
[NB The track below is offered in the lossless FLAC format (24-bit depth) which is now supported by most recent browsers and operating systems.]