Two Strains

Two Strains

Sometimes it seems like there are two competing strains of experimentalism in new music. One strain is very invested in intellectually justifying itself and placing itself within a historical tradition, while the other strain is more concerned with trying different things and is less invested in anything in particular. To extend the scientific metaphor, one strain conducts experiments to confirm or deny a suspected hypothesis, while the other doesn’t know what to expect. In my mind they should be allied, since they both hang out around the same fringes, but more often than not they studiously ignore each other.

This occurred to me while reading Ian Power’s “Thinking of Sound” essay over at Hearing Modernity. It’s an excellent read, and Power does a fantastic job of tying together composers from disparate aesthetics—Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Gérard Grisey—into a coherent narrative about the relationship between music and sound. But his interpretation of Cage’s 4’33” gave me pause, goading me into making what might be considered a somewhat pedantic distinction.

According to Power, 4’33” has “no measures, no duration, and no proper title: four minutes and thirty-three seconds is simply the duration of David Tudor’s first performance.” Power then quotes fellow composer Martin Iddon, who contends that this allows the piece to transcend representation of silence and actually become silence.

This lends a rarified purpose to Cage’s composition that I’m not sure I can totally endorse. While it’s true that the published version of 4’33” lacks any kind of traditional notation, the version that Tudor premiered did in fact have notated measures filled with rests. To regard this as a mere imperfection, to be excised from history, seems like a mistake to me. As Power points out, even the published version contains three movements, of all things, each marked “tacet.” This is a particularly Cageian koan. Why have movements in the first place when their boundaries are inaudible by design? This points to something more than silence, or something else.

(Hanging over this is the prospect that maybe Cage didn’t have one particular idea of what the piece was. But this doesn’t erase the present need to believe that Cage knew exactly what he was doing. Certainly, as probably the most unfairly maligned composer of all time, we may feel protective of him. And as instrumental as his music has been for so many, there may be a whiff of self-preservation there, too. I wonder, though, if this protectiveness does us any favors, as it leaves little wiggle room for productive failures or happy accidents in our own work.)

As a final disclaimer, I really don’t mean to fundamentally impugn Power’s compellingly constructed interpretation of 4’33”, but to suggest that a multitude of concurrent interpretations might be more fruitful in the long run. (After all, doesn’t this multiplicity account for the piece’s remarkable endurance in the face of near-constant assault from critics, jokers, and haters?)

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7 thoughts on “Two Strains

  1. Ian Power

    I suppose I should respond to a few things, though I think this post is a great contribution to thought about this piece.

    My main purpose in referring to a specific version of 4’33” was to point out that the onus is on the *listener* in the piece, and that the piece can be “performed” without any performers; any time a listener decides to listen to 4’33”, she can. Cage’s final score version attracted me not because of its place in the history of the work, but because only it led to this interpretation. This interpretation, specifically, I think has much more to offer than one taken up by a version of the score with measures.

    Frankly, I’m not sure what I said in the piece that would preclude my thinking multiple interpretations necessary. Of course 4’33” is more than silence; otherwise we would not be able to name it and discuss it. But its relationship to mimesis is very, very distinct, from almost everything else that we call music. I’m not sure that can be argued.

    I have said on twitter that we should move past the idea of splitting the audience and the performers when “doing” 4’33”; this is an extension of that idea.

    To be sure, I am lending a purposes to Cage’s piece that he may or may not have agreed with. Indeed, as you point out, Cage was far from hands-off about his music; when Julius Eastman used a performance of 0’00” to disrobe at June in Buffalo, Cage protested the next day by pounding on the table like Khrushchev and saying “I’m sick of people thinking they can do whatever they want with my music!” Cage presented me, and us, with maybe the most elegantly-articulated framing in all of music; I’m doing what I want with it; you should too.

    1. Kyle Gann

      Actually, Julius used a performance of Cage’s Songbooks to undress a young man onstage and try (unsuccessfully) to undress a young woman. Julius kept his clothes on. (I was there.)

  2. Phil Fried

    This leaves out the theatrical interpretation of 4’33″. That relies on the audiences expectation that something will happen that then does not. In that case expectation being denied creates tension in the audience. The pianist is essentially an actor on a stage. Just a thought.

  3. william wesley

    The Jainists of India believe the highest religious calling is to starve yourself to death, Cage takes it one step further and proposes the highest musical calling is to starve the audiences to death. We should arrive at a reasonable compromise and starve his compositions to death instead. It defeats the purpose to go on feeding them year after year. while leaving the audience famished.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      To continue your metaphor, there are actually very few compositions that satisfy my hunger for fascinating sonorities, rhythms, and–depending on what phase of his compositional career–melody (the chamber and vocal works from the late 1940s in particular) and harmony (the works from the mid 1970s based on deleting layers of early American hymns and the very late Number Pieces composed during the last five years of his life – 1988-1992) as much as those of John Cage. And surprisingly, even when I have voraciously binged on his music (which I have done quite a few times over the years), I have never felt bloated and exhausted, which is something I have upon occasion experienced after a steady diet of several of the canonical composers of standard repertoire classical music. In fact, digesting Cage’s generous musical output usually makes me want to go create something myself. So it is clear that it is possible for someone to have very different tastes than the ones you have put forward above which–with your admonish of “should”–seem to imply a universal truth that simply isn’t there. Most people prefer a more inclusive menu and should have the option of consuming whatever they desire.

  4. ictus75

    Far from being a trickster, Cage always knew what he was doing. The beauty of 4’33” is the Zen paradox of, “if you look for Zen, you won’t find it. But if you don’t look for it, it will find you.” With 4’33”, Cage is not telling us to look/listen for the music, but to sit there and let the music come to us, whatever each listener will experience. Now in creating a theatrical version of 4’33”, or drawing attention to it, the original intent is lost, because now we are looking for it…


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