This is my midterm paper for my theory elective, Music and Ecology. In this essay, I explore the connections between Schoenberg's Twelve-Tone music and John Cage's "silent piece," 4'33".
In the first half of the 20th century, the twelve-tone movement emerged, making the masses question if it was the end of the line for music. Surely, arranging music mathematically and meticulously defeats the emotional impact of this art-form! As a result of this system, music grew increasingly complex and difficult, eventually requiring only the most virtuosic musicians to be able to perform it. At a time when tonality is being twisted and knotted in a multitude of different ways, it became difficult for most to muster up the attention span to truly listen to the music. What Schoenberg described as “precisely definable aesthetic discipline” (Whittall 377) registers as noise to much of the public, which subsequently caused many to check out mentally. John Cage’s 4’33” is in many ways the complete opposite of twelve-toned music. Without a single note on the page, Cage forced his audience to listen thoughtfully, to meditate, and to register whatever emotions they may be having, all while making them a part of the piece. As simple as the piece may appear to be, it is also a culmination of the complexity of sounds, for nature is the most complex and most often ignored sound-machine, making it a logical next step after experimentation with tonality has been exhausted for the time being. Thus, the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” acts as a palate cleanser, bridging ultra-complex tonality and experimental music based on chance and nature, a whole other level of complexity.
After a particularly difficult harmony class with Schoenberg, a young Cage confessed that he does not have a feel for harmony, to which Schoenberg replied that “a composer with no feeling for harmony would necessarily always encounter an obstacle, a wall through which he could not pass” (Hicks 128). It is not difficult to see how devoted Schoenberg was to tonality and harmony - the guy worked with all twelve notes in an octave in all octaves all the time! However, according to an article entitled Arnold Schoenberg: Do Not Approach With Caution in the Guardian, his music is rarely performed because it is deemed “too difficult” and not “approachable” (Napolitano). His music is complex, but mostly surfaces in music history classes and advanced music theory classes instead of in front of, for the lack of a better description, a real audience.
4’33”, on the other hand, has no tonality, no harmony, no rhythm - at least, none that was put down in ink, destined to happen a certain amount of measures into the piece. All sounds heard during the piece is purely by chance. The anticipation for the pianist to depress a key and make musical sound causes the audience to be hyper aware of any and all noises made during the performance. And, as the piece was premiered in a semi-outdoor venue at Woodstock, New York, as the second to last piece of a modern piano recital performed by David Tudor, anticipations were high and the noises were plenty. In Kyle Gann’s book No Such Thing As Silence, he states that, according to Cage, the “silence” 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” (4). Cage achieved something simple instruction could never accomplish: he succeeded in bringing attention to the noises often tuned out and ignored. By adding the element of anticipation, 4’33” catapulted the audience into a state of hyper awareness, turning noise into sound.
To say that 4’33” is a simple piece is to do it a great disservice. After all, it took Cage four years of thinking and another year of doing to complete it (Gann 14). Though it may look simple on paper, the philosophy behind it is quite complex. By erasing all deliberate and organized sounds, the piece becomes a framework for the complex sounds of nature. It is, in a way, a logical next step from the chaotic atonal phase of his harmony-obsessed teacher. After reaching a high level of chaos in tonality, eliciting few emotions from the audience except for annoyance and confusion, the inevitable successor is a relatively calm piece filled with varied and colorful emotional responses.
The complexity of the piece is not limited only to the emotional responses of the audience. With each subsequent performance, the piece changes, making it a special event every time. It is unpredictable, which makes it exciting. The piece is also inclusive, for the audience becomes the piece. The sounds of people shifting in their seats, whispering, and walking out adds to all other ambient noises, and for the four and a half minutes dedicated to this piece, everyone present were performers. What is more complex than a piece written for one to one thousand performers?
It is impossible to talk about 4’33” without addressing the question that will inevitably come up: is this really music? In Cage’s book Silence, he argues that tonal modern music simply rearranges old “musical habits” and that pitches are just “stepping stones twelve in number” (9). Cage strived to experiment with elements other than pitch and rhythm for this work, opting to use natural sounds instead. Painter Willem de Kooning states while dining with Cage, “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs [on the table], that isn’t art.” However, “Cage argued that it indeed was art” because he was “framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived” (Gann 20). The idea of framing is quite a cinematic one. Different framing draws attention to different things and create different moods. By framing “silence,” Cage has framed life as art, drawing attention to everything but the silence.
When asked to give a distinct definition of theater (the art form), Cage gave a very inclusive definition: “Theater is something which engages both the eye and the ear… I want to make my definition of theater that simple … so one could view everyday life itself as theater” (Cage, Kirby, Schechner 50). By that definition, 4’33” can also be described as a piece of interactive theater, for it takes a certain amount of concentration in the seeing and listening department. The performer plays an important role. Cage could have just as easily removed the pianist all together and had the audience sit in silence waiting for four and a half minutes, but he chose not to because the presence of a talented pianist draws the attention of the audience and raises expectations. The fact that this seemingly simple piece is so difficult to categorize speaks to its underlying complexity.
The fact that whether 4’33” is music has to be discussed shows how peculiar this piece is. With no pitch and no rhythm to speak of, Cage has succeeded in developing a piece of music that not only used new techniques, but ignored the previous constraints of the idea of tonality, therefore opening the door for the period of experimentation with and without traditional sounds. The use of chance procedure to determine the length of the piece inspires later Cage compositions, such as his Cage Circuses. This shift from math to chance also started the de-professionalization of the music industry by changing the definition of musical composition and not requiring virtuosity to perform or appreciate it. Cage succeeded in stopping the chaos that pitched music has become and opened the doors for future musicians such as Steve Reich and even Kanye West to manipulate sounds and frame it as music.
Cage, John. Silence. University Press of New England, 1961.
Cage, John , et al. “An Interview with John Cage.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 1965, pp. 50–
72. Jstor, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1125231.pdf?refreqid=search%3A13fa0b822d31b7089d9847c8
Gann, Kyle. No such thing as silence. Yale University Press, 2011.
Hicks, Michael. “ John Cage's Studies with Schoenbe.” American Music, vol. 8, no. 2, 1990, pp. 125–140.
Napolitano, Pina. “Arnold Schoenberg: Do not approach with caution.” The Guardian, Guardian
News and Media, 21 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/music/2017/feb/21/music-arnold-
Whittall, Arnold. “Schoenberg.” The Musical Times, vol. 114, no. 1562, Apr. 1973, pp. 377–378. Jstor,