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John Cage

Mini-lecture from An American Concert, July 12, 2014
by Charles Hulin

John Cage’s 4’33” is a cornerstone of 20th century music and a provocative statement about the nature of music and the roles of composers, performers, and audience members. 4’33” revolutionized music in ways that, when all is said and done, might very well surpass the impact of even the greatest musical innovators such as Beethoven and Stravinsky. In brief, with this piece, Cage freed music from the preferences and the will of the composer. In so doing, he re-instated the wonders of sound and silence for many jaded listeners.

Essentially, Cage designed a piece using no particular sounds or silences of his own choosing. Instead, the music consists of whatever is heard during its 4 minute and 33 second span.

That approach to composition might sound a little abstract and a lot eccentric. But it has been suggested by experts on the subject that, beyond those philosophical issues, Cage was doing something very American with this piece.

It turns out that the first performance of 4’33” took place in a venue a little like this one. It was a small building in a wooded setting, far from the noises of the big city. And in the stillness of the performance, the sounds of nature were easily heard. In other words, on its first hearing, 4’33” was an American landscape painted with sounds, and from the earliest days of American music, a primary way of constructing an American identity has been to express something of the American landscape through sounds.

And so we are opening the doors and windows to invite you to hear the sounds and silences of our setting during these 4 minutes and 33 seconds as music.

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So you’ll know what to expect, I’m going to describe how the performance will unfold. When I come back into the sanctuary, I’ll walk to the piano, bow, and seat myself, just like I would if I were sitting down to play a work by Chopin or Bach, but instead of placing a score on the music rack, I’ll place a timer so I can keep track of the passage of those 4 minutes and 33 seconds during which I won’t be playing any notes. When it is time for the piece to begin, I’ll raise the fall-board, and when the piece is over, I’ll lower it. Then, I’ll stand up and take a bow. And if you like the experience, or if you’re just polite, you’ll applaud.

The purpose of going through those motions, of enacting the standard ritual of a concert, is to draw us all into the mode of listening we normally apply to the live performance of a piece of music. It was Cage’s hope that listening in that way would help us to notice the rich layers of sound our minds usually filter out and that we would realize through the process that, as long as we’re alive, we will be surrounded by sound that can become music to us.

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