a column by
Stuart Broomer

...silence becomes something else—not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds. The nature of these is unpredictable and changing…. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them....There are, demonstrably, sounds to be heard and forever, given ears to hear. Where these ears are in connection with a mind that has nothing to do, the mind is free to enter into the act of listening, hearing each sound just as it is, not as a phenomenon more or less approximating a preconception.

– John Cage, “Composition as Process”


John Cage’s 4’33”—first performed as a piano piece in 1952 by David Tudor and consisting of three movements in which a pianist sits at the piano, closing the lid at the beginning of each of the work’s movements and opening it at the end – looms as one of the critical musical events of the twentieth century, an inquiry into the definition of music itself. Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33’’ (Yale University Press; 2010), appearing appropriately in a series entitled Icons of America which surveys such phenomena as the hamburger, Superman, the Empire State Building and Fred Astaire, is an often insightful study of Cage’s work, including Cage’s early career and the different elements in his thought and environment that went into the making of 4’33”.

Gann looks in detail at Cage’s forebears like Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Cowell and the aesthetic philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, as well as Cage’s immersion in Zen and the Christian mysticism of Meister Eckhart. While these touchstones informed Cage’s Silence, the collection of writings (including “Composition as Process”) published in 1961 that first resulted in the broad dispersal of Cage’s thought, Gann does an admirable job of leading each path to the singular event of 4’33”. Picking up on Cage’s pastoral and meditative dimensions, Gann also emphasizes the impact of the first performance space, the Maverick Concert Hall, an open air theatre in a woodland setting in the Catskills, a site far more conducive to a reflection on natural sounds than the noisy city rooms where hostile reviews would be written.

Gann also looks at the strange precedents for Cage’s silent sonata, including Robert Rauschenberg’s monochrome paintings and, much further afield, Satie’s friend Alphonse Allais, who wrote A Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man in 1897 that consisted of blank bars, and a witty 1932 cartoon from Etude in which a child reluctantly practicing the piano composes a piece consisting only of rests. Gann explores the influence of Muzak as well and describes a news story published seven months before the debut of 4’33” dated 1952 and found among Cage’s papers that describes the Student Council president at the University of Detroit inserting silent records as selections on the Student Union juke box as respite from pop music.

Gathering together the work of numerous Cage scholars, Gann demonstrates that Cage’s idea germinated for some four and a half years before he actually composed 4’33”, and that given the various currents of the time, the work had a kind of inevitability. It was a kind of dramatic break and more than a moment’s silence dividing the music that came before it and the music that would come after. For Cage it represented a triumph over the artist’s personality and the incessant demand for making arbitrary choices in the creation of a work. Above all, 4’33”’is elastic: it’s a framing device superimposed on unconsciously occurring sound that seems to identify anything within its purview as a kind of sonata.

While it’s been recorded and performed numerous times, Gann finds a consistent critical understanding of it as an invitation to listen to the varied riches of one’s environment, whether it’s a wood finch or a jackhammer. It’s a process at once perceptual and philosophical, and it creates a fascinating separation between the acts of composing, performing and listening. By 1982 the sonata form and the piano had dropped away and the piece had become indistinguishable from the act of listening. Gann quotes Cage describing its persistence to William Duckworth: “No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work...I realize that it’s going on continuously...More than anything else, it’s the source of my enjoyment of life.” (p. 186) 

It’s one of the ironies of Cage’s career that his special celebration of listening never kept him from composing extraordinary amounts of music, and it is part of the legacy of 4’33” that we now look repeatedly and intently at the act of listening, its relationships and meanings (David Toop’s recent Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener [Continuum, 2010] is a fascinating study of representations of listening in visual and literary arts and makes an interesting companion to No Such Thing as Silence).

I think recent improvised music has created some special relationship between musician and listener that bear exploration in the context of Cage’s thought. While Cage made some disparaging remarks about improvisation during his career, it’s interesting to see the phrase “group improvisation” (Gann; p. 61) leap from a course description that he wrote for Chicago’s School of Design in the early ‘40s. There’s a kind of special connection between the processes of listening celebrated in 4’33” and the improvised music that has been created in recent decades. Like an act of improvisation, 4’33” is a new work whenever it’s performed. It’s an exercise in freeing both the composer and the performer of exhibitionist impulses, placing the listener at the center of the event. Even the performer gets to hear things he can’t ordain.

Improvised music has found different ways to examine some of the same dynamics. If Cage devoted himself largely to chance procedures in music, degrees of chance increasingly enter improvised music, both in the music’s ultimate form and its on-going assemblage of particles. While it’s clearly assembled as the discourse of a provisional community, perhaps no other musical activity except 4’33” has ceded so much authority to the listener.  

Improvising free music is the quintessential existential act, something apparently coming fully into being in the moment of its creation and perhaps ideally indistinguishable from that moment.  The recording has a problematic relationship with improvised music. To hear something again that has previously occupied only the time of its making is to impose a new order of listening on an object, something completed where before there was only process. No longer coming into being, the improvisation is a thing fixed permanently. If this extends to all musical performances, then it is most problematic for freely improvised music. Even traditional improvisatory forms like jazz have a pre-determined recurring structure. In a sense improvised music is immediately continuous with our experience of the world and with consciousness itself.

There is a special relationship between free improvisation and the CD. Just as the CD threatens to disappear largely from view, replaced by the transitory download, CDs of improvised music appear with a frequency out of all relation to the size of the audience or market, an insistence on the artefact that would seem to be at odds with the fundamental transience of the improvisatory act. Improvised music persists in celebrating the nostalgic artefact, avatar of the economy and ease of recording and reproduction ushered in by the digital age and residual evidence that such a thing as improvisation took place. Improvisation is validated by recording, at the same time that its status as self-erasing activity – as original experience – is diminished.

The recording converts the performer into full-fledged listener. The CD is the curious badge of that rank-shift.  For an improviser, listening to a recording that he or she has just made is always a novel experience, less so with time and experience, but always very different from a musician listening to a performance of written music. With the latter, the surprises are often negative: was the microphone that close to the trumpets? Was the oboe really that flat? To listen to a recording of improvised music is to hear it for the first time, since the first time the musician wasn’t listening to it in its entirety but responding usually as quickly as possible to the surrounding information. Qualitative judgments are always new.  The music may wander in directions he had been unaware of. There may have been parts he was unaware of, almost private exchanges elsewhere in the music that arose while he was responding to something else more prominent in the mix both available to and assembled in his ears during the performance. Improvised music can seem like a cocktail party for mathematics.

This is the strange thrill of hearing music that you did not know you had made and it is also part of the strange thrill of the random, the joy of the disconnect and the rise of the chance encounter, the friendly collision that so evidently occurred but which was not recognized at the time. The musician who listens to his or her own group improvisation is no longer the creator but has been superseded by the listener.

It is this strange division between the performer and the performer as listener that creates a significant part of the performer’s interest in improvised music. Often the performer only learns after a performance what an independent listener may have already discovered during the moment that the music was coming into being. Improvisation is often music without formal intention, and that music is best realized by the listener, who lacks both the performer’s pretext and subtext and, also, the performer’s relatively insistent point of view.

The listener functions as composer, free to assemble all the relations and meanings available in the music, including those that are denied to each of the participating musicians, whose views are necessarily partial and biased. In the inter-subjective world of improvised music, the listener foregoes playing to enjoy a unique perspective. If improvised music may sometimes seem to exclude the listener, it also confers a status as creator that’s denied in any other form. The listener as composer is free to be fully in the music, letting it unfold without pretext, or intuit or impose any kind and degree of system that one might imagine is coming into being. The listener, in or out of music, is a composer anywhere and anytime.

Stuart Broomer©2010

Hat Hut Records

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