The Sounds of Silence

In honor of the current exhibition at the Renaissance Society, “Several Silences,” curator Hamza Walker invited music critic and Bard College professor Kyle Gann to give a lecture last Sunday on John Cage’s “4’33”,” a controversial piece which inspired many New Music composers at its premiere in 1952. Gann, whose book on Cage will be released this autumn, helped herald and legitimize New Music as a genre for critical study in his writings for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005.

In a 1955 article titled “The Aging of the New Music,” philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno writes, “[Avant-garde music] has in its essence the refusal to go along with things as they are, and has its justification in giving shape to what the conventional superficies of daily life hide and what is otherwise condemned to silence by the culture industry.” According to Gann, Cage helped bring about a sonic liberation in avant-garde music in the same vein. As the “enfant terrible” of modern music, Cage had a Zen-like acceptance of all sounds–even silence–as valid sources of music. Silence is part of sound; sound is not heard just in terms of pitch and harmony, but in duration. To an unschooled public, Cage’s “4’33”” was a piece of silence, verging on a joke, as he instructed its performers not to play their instruments for the entirety of the piece’s three movements. However, there was no such thing as silence in the sense of an absence; to compose silence was a paradox of a theoretical condition as well as impossible.

In his lecture, Gann explained the traditional interpretation of “4’33”,” which states that the piece opens the listener up to the sounds that exist in his or her surroundings, but added that it opens one up to this possibility only when zero is taken as its basis. According to Zen principles, there is no distinction between playing and not playing; the division between art and life is artificial, and drawing a distinction separates one from the richness of life’s surrounding. “4’33”” took the ego out of music by refusing to let the performer’s ego overshadow his sounds. Cage once said that “4’33”” did not need a performer at all, only an audience. Each performance of the piece is a new piece entirely. Cage told composer William Duckworth that he listened to the piece every day, and that its influence and philosophy guided all the music he wrote.