John Cage 4 minutes and 33 seconds

Maybe the proper way to write this article is to write nothing at all. But would it then even be considered an article. It is, if you think it is. Well, the title and meaning of this article is taken directly from John Cage’s music piece 4’33”. It’s literally 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence (with the score indicating 3 distinct movements). It’s also the only piece ever made that can be played on every instrument, even on the pots and pans in your kitchen. Most will wonder how “silence” would qualify as music. In response, I ask, what is music?

Everyone has seen Mondrian’s “Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue.” How many have actually understood it? I remember saying that I could do the same with a ruler, a box of crayons, and an hour of time when I was in the fifth grade. And sure, I could, and so could you, but then it would just be a series of lines and colored boxes. Mondrian, however, presented the world with a new idea (which I won’t get into here). Think of his painting as a combo package; the painting itself and a well-researched, well-written paper on the meaning of the painting, except that the paper is invisible, and the exact words (while hinted at by the artist) is up to each individual viewer. Do some research and try to appreciate it before writing it off as new-age nonsense. The same applies to music. Attending a John Cage concert might not “sound” the best to you (or “sound” at all), but you will leave it with a new concept of what music is, and, in turn, a new appreciation for all kinds of music. Modernist art can’t be enjoyed, or even appreciated, if you don’t understand it first.

Check the internet for the countless performances of Cage’s 4’33” before and after reading this article. Now it may seem like silence to you, a lack of music of really. But, after it is explained to you, it should seem as musical as anything.

Cage was an advocate for something called “chance music.” It relies on random occurrences to decide the music that will be performed. For example, a performer might draw a card to decide what key the piece will be played in, or flip a coin to decide what instrument to play it with. Or maybe play an instrument in such a difficult and uncomfortable way (like up-side-down) to ensure that it can’t be played the same again. This way every performance is truly unique. Cage took this idea to the limit with 4’33”. The piece isn’t 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence as it would seem, but rather 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the random noises the audience and the surrounding environment happens to make. The rationale behind this is that during every performance, the performers can’t control everything (a baby may begin crying, or someone could hit the wrong note), so why try to control anything at all? In 4’33”, the audience and the environment are the performers.

It can also be interpreted in a more “Zen” fashion; sometimes the best thing to hear is nothing at all. A few minutes of no noise every day, other than the random sounds of the surrounding environment, could be very relaxing. If you think about it, the random background noises of everyday are an entire opera really! The chirping of a cricket could be the basso continuo, a man’s series of coughs could be a recitative, and the buzz of a fly gradually becoming more prominent could be a grand string crescendo leading up to the aria, which happens to be a woman yawning.

So, now since your almost finished reading this article let me remind to watch a performance of John Cage’s 4’33” and at least try to appreciate its message now that you understand it. You don’t have to like it. And to truly make this article worthy of its title, I need you to act like you just read nothing at all and leave your own ideas in the comments below. Imagine this article has no words at all; I’m leaving the task of writing it up to you…

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