On 29 August 1952, in Woodstock, NY, David Tudor gave the first public performance of John Cage’s “silent piece,” Tacet for any instrument or combination of instruments, more commonly known today as 4’33″. The audience’s reaction was something like this:
…Actually, it went something more like this:
The audience was taken aback. It was accustomed to shock at Cage events, but of a more aggressive kind; many people took the new work as an insult to their expectations. “Good people of Woodstock,” an artist in the audience stood and exclaimed, “let’s drive these people out of town.” (Rich 165)
Here’s David Tudor performing 4’33″. I don’t know what year it’s from, but Tudor passed away in 1996 so it’s obviously from sometime before then:
Cage apparently first conceived of the piece in the late 40s, possibly even as a slight joke. During a lecture at Vassar College at the time he said:
I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them); first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4½ minutes long—these being the standard lengths of “canned” music, and its title will be “Silent Prayer.” It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility. (Pritchett 59)
In 1952, Cage used the I Ching to devise a work in three movements (30”, 2’23”, and 1’40”). Each movement contains a single instruction: “Tacet,” meaning “be silent (directing an instrument or voice not to play or sing).” In other words, the performer shouldn’t make any intentional sounds. Cage later recalled: “I was forced to move [...] from structure to process, from music as an object having parts to music without beginning, middle or end, music as weather” (Rich 164). In this approach to music, the composer works to draw the audience’s attention toward unplanned sounds, rather than working to eliminate them.
David Tudor, as we saw above, raised and lowered the keyboard cover to signal the start of each movement. (I believe this was Tudor’s own decision. Some performers have since then made this, or variations on this, part of the piece.)
Any audience reaction is A-OK:
As Cage himself said:
…”I consider laughter preferable to tears” (3:20).
I’d argue that one of the reasons why Cage was as successful as he was, despite the challenging nature of his music, was that he was always charming, and maintained a good sense of humor about his work—see how playful Water Walk is! He was also a very skilled performer of his own compositions.
Today, 4’33” is widely regarded as Cage’s most significant work, encapsulating his entire philosophy of music. Specifically, Cage argued through the work for a new definition of “silence.” He tells the following story in Indeterminacy:
It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, “Describe them.” I did. He said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”
Cage argued that there was never a total absence of sounds; silence is, then, a matter of perception. Through 4’33”, Cage argued for the inclusion in compositions of unintentially-made sounds, traditionally regarded as noises and/or accidents.
The work has become fairly popular, both as a serious composition and also (it must be said) as something of a musical stunt. At YouTube I’ve found arrangements for acoustic guitar (all four of these being, I think, very good performances):
…boombox and CD (this being, apparently, something of its own little project):
…full orchestra (a pretty amazing performance):
…Mario Paint (very cute):
…nose flute (a bit overdone, I think):
…piano (all of these are pretty interesting):
…Second Life (also pretty cute):
…toy piano (a natural conclusion given Cage’s own Suite for Toy Piano):
…train (a la Kraftwerk):
There are also performances for multiple instruments (the last of which is particularly good):
Naturally, one also finds numerous parodies:
…although it’s disappointing that this was the best one I could find. C’mon people—do better!
Finally, here’s some footage of Cage himself performing 4’33″:
Cage, John, and David Tudor. Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Ninety Stories by John Cage, with Music. CD. Smithsonian/Folkways, 1992.
Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge, Australia: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1993.
Rich, Alan. American Pioneers: Ives to Cage and Beyond. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.