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RETROSPECTIVE: John Cage's Silent Piece - Revolutionary or Fraudulent?

An article by Calum Hill

John Cage

According to 19th century American humourist Josh Billings, “silence is the hardest argument to refute.” Perhaps this is true; the absence of sound imposes no agenda, no ideal, nothing but the isolation of previous reckless ramblings, now in no need of rebuttal in the shadow of their own folly. That statement was undoubtedly challenged, however, when John Cage aroused the ears of an unsuspecting audience with the provoking music of silence. And provoke, it certainly did.

On the 29th of August, 1952, avant-garde pioneer John Cage unveiled a musical idea he had been contemplating for 5 years: 4 minutes 33 seconds of anti-convention. Through the absence of orthodox musical performance, he presented his findings on the question of silence; plainly, ‘silence’- the complete lack of sound- doesn’t exist. In 1951, Cage endeavoured to ‘hear’ silence by entering an anechoic chamber at Harvard University; a room designed to eliminate any form of sound reflection- in essence simulating a space of infinite scale. Cage, determined to hear nothing, entered the chamber only to observe that total silence is not compatible within the human experience; he could hear the whirring of his nervous system and the pulsing of his blood, but the utopian ideal of serene silence, absolute absence, was nowhere to be heard.

Cage concluded that “the essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention”; in the context of composition and musicianship- the medium through which Cage’s ideology is manifest- the lack of such intension is a radical proposition, even in the seemingly post-modern climate of today. “Silence is not acoustic… it is a change of mind” Cage stated, “a turning around”- these statements refocused the paradigm through which 4’33’’ was be to received- not simply as a musical demonstration, but a philosophical question: what constitutes as music?

Music is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce a beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.”; in most circumstances, the majority would support that definition. Of course, Cage et al disagreed immensely with that proposal, dedicating their lives to the dismantling of it. It can be argued, however, that without such a definition there would be no need or grounds for an avant- guarde movement in the first place; it is therefore the very existence of that definition that gives purpose to any rebuttal against it- if 4’33’’ was to be rule breaking, there had to be rules to break.

Predictably, the premier of 4’33’’- 4 minutes, 33 seconds of live “silence”- was rejected as fraudulent and Cage was bombarded with criticism. However, 4’33’’ was by no means provocation, nor was it charlatanry, but the framing of reality- 4 minutes 33 seconds of involuntary music; a fabric woven by its environment, where no boundary exists between performer and recipient.

John Cage - 4'33"

In conversation with Michael John White in 1982, Cage mentioned that during the debut performance of 4’33’’ he could hear the whispering amongst the crowd as the level of irritation reached DEFCON 1:

“People began to whisper to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh- they were just irritated when they realised nothing was going to happen.”

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that many of the audience members present at the debut of 4'33" were avant-garde enthusiasts. To cause such offence in an environment designed to be a safe haven for radical ideas propelled Cage into a whole new league of unforgivable maverick behaviour. Despite being characteristically more akin to meditation than a created work, it's now received with applause; whether to genuinely acknowledge its philosophical merit or to humour the undeniable irony that exists when watching a musician “not perform”- I lean towards to latter in most instances- the fact that 4’33’’, commonly called the “silent piece”, is now considered worthy of attention is a feat.

On Spotify, you can find a piece called 4’33” by John Cage. Sadly, the recording itself is just as inaccurate as calling it the “silent piece”. When you finally press play, you’ll quickly discover that what you are listening to isn’t 4’33’’ at all; but an amalgamation of mic hiss. Whilst the connotations of mic hiss aren’t always so obvious, its suggestive presence doesn’t go unnoticed. Far from the ideal, and purpose of the composition, the Spotify rendition renders itself utterly useless when compared to the real manifestation of “silence." Cage's piece, the product of purposeful absence, can never be fully realised if any sound is bound to its recital. If there’s any intentional sound exhibited, no matter how arbitrary, 4’33’’ will no longer be a product of its environment, but exactly what its critics claimed it to be- a hoax. With this in mind, 4’33’’ is not a piece of music for aural observation, but experience; the only way to authentically listen to it is to set a timer for 4 minutes, 33 seconds and listen.

4’33’’ is undoubtedly the most accessible and individualistic piece of music ever to be written in the history of mankind. Each performance is entirely unique and impossible to replicate. The question of authenticity lies in the ears of the listener- take it or leave it- but either way, it cannot be denied that the can of worms Cage tore open provides a musical freedom that no amount of experimentation can come close to obtaining. “Music is continuous”, it’s always *there* according to Cage, it only ceases to exist when you stop listening. Cage harnessed the wind- ‘silence’; music in copious amounts, yet rarely appreciated.


Calum Hill is a BIMM Bristol Graduate; he loves music, writing and Victorian bottles. Since returning from a year abroad in Malawi, he is currently living in the East Midlands… No, not the north… the Midlands.

Thanks for reading!Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.

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