"Silence" is golden for composer John Cage's legacy

Thu Oct 18, 2012 12:02pm EDT
 
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - American avant-garde composer John Cage staged one of the world's first "happenings", used a remote-controlled blimp in one of his operas and turned a piano into a percussion orchestra, but in his centenary year he is perhaps best known for a piece anyone can perform in his or her head.

Cage, who died in 1992 just shy of his 80th birthday, created a stir in the music world in 1952 with the premiere of the now famous, in some circles notorious, 4'33" in which a pianist sat at a piano in upstate New York and played no notes for the four minutes and 33 seconds specified in the title.

David Tudor lifted the piano lid at the beginning of each of three movements and lowered it at the end, according to pre-set timings, taking care not to make a sound. The open-air Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock was nevertheless filled with the outdoor chirpings of insects, the rustlings of the audience and perhaps the psychic vibes of outraged concertgoers as they began to realize he wasn't going to play a single note.

"For a lot of people there's the indignation that an artist is getting paid for something he didn't do," said Kyle Gann, author of "No Such Thing as Silence" (Yale University Press), a book about Cage, his piece and its enormous influence on music in the latter half of the 20th century.

Cage recounted that some of his friends never spoke to him again, but his piece, sometimes inaccurately called "Silence", had an impact far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Cage had established what Gann uses for the title of his book, that there is no such thing as silence, bringing music into the new mainstream of the late 20th century in which Cage's friend Robert Rauschenberg painted all-white canvases, Samuel Beckett wrote a play in which two men wait for someone who never arrives and people's expectations are turned on their head, forcing them to re-engage with art and the world around them.

"I think a lot of non-classical musicians see the poetry of it (4'33") and the really simple idea of dividing a silence into three parts and listening to the landscape," Gann said in a telephone interview from his home near Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he is an associate professor in the music department.

"It had an appeal the more sophisticated would frown on but a lot of people with no axes to grind find it an attractively poetic idea, and it's something anybody can do, anybody can perform it, it can be performed anywhere and rock groups have really made a thing of it," Gann said. Cage said he sometimes performed it in his head.   Continued...