Found Eloquence: 4’33” Of A Thing In Overabundance

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Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic during a concert that featured John Cage’s 4’33.” (Photo by Frederike Van Der Straeten)

COMMENTARY – This time, John Cage’s famous 4’33” really is about silence – the silence that comes with confronting such an unknown global future that even conspiracy theories are no comfort. Europe is locked down, and with it the symphonic and operatic institutions that were giving American music lovers so much hope for the future.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen (written in reaction to the devastation of World War II) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde were two ways of saying goodbye among European orchestras. The London Philharmonic ended on a hopeful note in its semi-animated version of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with the opera’s characters populating opera house seats. But the Berlin Philharmonic under Kirill Petrenko said farewell to live-audience concerts on Oct. 31 with a piece that in no way displayed the orchestra’s famous sound. Or any sound at all. 

Yes, Cage’s 4’33” – a piece that is often explained as something that’s not about a lack of sound but creating a space that admits all sounds that might be randomly floating in the air – in a performance that has had nearly 50,000 YouTube hits since its posting Nov. 3. It has become the ultimate unanswered question. 

With the pandemic going on far longer than anybody anticipated – and the performing arts in the U.S. appearing to crumble, along with so much else – what is there left to say? Cage’s silence, which actually clocked in around 4 minutes under Petrenko, didn’t prompt us to define our experience over the past eight months when it defies definition. You want to explain the COVID epidemic with comparisons to AIDS or polio. But those of us who lived through both can safely say that’s not it at all. It’s…it’s…and then you fall silent. And Cage’s 4’33” – with no apparent stage or audience noise in the Berlin video – confronts you with that silence, with that lack of explanation or context, and allows you to share it with others. 

Petrenko defined each of the three movements in 4’33” with a particular affect. In the first movement, he seemed to be conducting a conventional piece that wasn’t there. In the second movement, his hands were positioned near his face, as if asking for quiet or like a priest pronouncing a benediction. In the third movement, his hands stretched toward the orchestra, fingers splayed in one hand, with a searching facial expression.
He was near tears with sorrow and grief. “What is this? What is happening?” he seemed to ask. “I don’t understand!” The veins on his forehead stood out. His arms slowly moved across the orchestra. In the background, musicians could be seen communing with him intently or meditating with eyes closed. Then his arms came down in apparent resignation. The end.

4’33” (In Proportional Notation) is one of three versions of the Cage score.

The original piece was meant to intensify one’s sense of aural perception. In Cage’s own words: “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” The Berlin video has inner silence. I hear nothing. And feel everything. 

Even when watching remotely on a video screen, the experience feels communal. The future of everything is inevitably on everybody’s mind. And here was a place where such fears and grief could come together. In the performance history of 4’33”, the piece seemed to achieve maximum eloquence in Berlin – quite a switch from the past 68 years of being hailed as conceptually visionary or a high-tone prank, sometimes at the same time. 

During the 1950s, 4’33” was often thought of as conceptual art, a theoretical counterpart to the white canvasses of Robert Ryman. That created a convenient box for the piece. You didn’t have to take sides as to whether Cage was a visionary or a charlatan. Other composers grumbled about the lack of industry involved with conceiving, creating, and performing 4’33”. From a publishing standpoint, how could you “sell” silence? And when considering Cage as a conceptual artist, the music community could dismiss him as “not one of us.”

John Cage in 1988

As the years went on after Cage’s death, the haphazard cult around 4’33” skirted the line between the serious and the absurd. Even recently. In 2019, Mute Records put out a five-CD box set containing 58 versions of 4’33”. (One beneficiary of the profits was the British Tinnitus Association.) English songwriter/producer Mike Batt’s Classical Graffiti album had a tribute to 4’33” titled A One Minute Silence, in which Batt claimed co-authorship with Cage. The Cage estate sued. “You can’t copyright silence,” Batt said at the time. “There’s too much of it about.” (He reportedly settled out of court.) Meanwhile, the John Cage Trust at johncage.org has marketed a 4’33” phone app that includes the ambient sounds of Cage’s last New York apartment. You might call it the historically informed performance of 4’33”

Which is all quite droll, though I confess to being annoyed at my last live encounter with the piece during the Cage centenary in 2012. Orchestra 2001 in Philadelphia had conductor James Freeman gesticulating as if it were a Mahler symphony. Which it’s not. 

Years back, the visionary veteran conductor Sergiu Celibidache, who was Berlin Phil chief conductor shortly after World War II, used to emphatically proclaim, “Music is not sound.” At the time, that seemed to feed theories that he was a crackpot. How I interpreted that: Music is an idea that is manifested in sound. Literally, Beethoven’s Ninth was conceived by a deaf composer who was seized by the idea of universal brotherhood and expressing it in a hybrid symphonic form.