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John Cage - 4’33”

On August 29, 1952, David Tudor walked onto the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down at the piano, and, for four and a half minutes, made no sound.

He was performing 4’33”, a conceptual work by John Cage. It has been called the “silent piece,” but its purpose is to make people listen.

“There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Indeed, some listeners didn’t care for the experiment, although they saved their loudest protests for the question-and-answer session afterward. Someone reportedly hollered, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” 

Composer and scholar Kyle Gann defines 4’33” as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

That last thought ruled Cage’s life: he wanted to discard inherited structures, open doors to the exterior world, “let sounds be just sounds.” Gann writes, “It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life.”

—Alex Ross, Searching for Silence

Read Ross’s article on Cage’s 4’33” in its entirety here.

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