Perfect Sound Forever


4'33"- From Silence to Time
by Daniel Barbiero
(August 2022)

Seventy years ago this month--on August 29, 1952--John Cage's signature composition 4'33" was premiered by pianist David Tudor in Woodstock, New York, at the Maverick Concert Hall. Although the initial reception for the piece was hostile, over time it has come to be seen as a key work of the postwar avant-garde not only for its formal audacity, but for the conceptual questions it raised and continues to raise about sound, silence, listening, compositional intention, and what counts or doesn't count as a musical performance. In what follows, I attempt to reveal one more layers of meaning in this hardy perennial of a composition.

The Anechoic Chamber and the Empty Canvas

It's an often-told story. In or around 1951, John Cage went to Cambridge, Massachusetts to experience the soundlessness of one of Harvard's anechoic chambers. Cage's interest in silence at that point wasn't new; it dated back at least to the 1940's. His 1947 score for a Hans Richter film contained several significant passages of silence, and as early as 1940, as a recreation leader for the WPA, he put on a silent children's program at a hospital in San Francisco. More recently, his interest in silence had been augmented by his studying Zen with D. T. Suzuki. When he sat in the chamber, Cage expected to be exposed to complete silence, but instead, he heard two sounds--one low-pitched and one high-pitched. When he asked the room's engineer why he heard those two sounds in an ostensibly sound-free anechoic chamber, the engineer replied that the low sound was his blood circulating, the high sound his nervous system working. The engineer may not have been right--the high-pitched sound was more likely tinnitus--but regardless, the insight Cage obtained from the experience became central to his work and his life. It was that there was no such thing as 'silence.' There were only sounds attended to, and sounds unattended to.

Cage's insight was further reinforced by an encounter with visual art during the same period. In the summer of 1952, he was teaching at Black Mountain College, where he saw a series of all-white paintings that Robert Rauschenberg, who was a student at Black Mountain, had made the previous autumn. Cage saw that the paintings only seemed to lack images or figures; rather, they caught and made noticeable the dust, light and shadows thrown off by events in their environment. From Rauschenberg's paintings, Cage took away the point that the seemingly empty canvas was never really empty, just as the anechoic chamber hadn't really been silent. Further, Cage saw the all-white paintings as analogous to the composition he'd been incubating, a composition that would contain no intentional sounds but would nevertheless create an opening for ambient, unintentional sounds to make themselves heard--just as Rauschenberg's paintings had created an opening for changes in light and shadow to make themselves noticed.

And "an opening" is just the right metaphor to use in describing 4'33." Cage's "silent" piece is above all an opening of the field of perception. Ordinarily, the perceptual field it provides an opening onto is taken to be the aural field, for which it acts as a clearing through which sounds can be themselves and can make themselves available to be heard, or not (hearing these usually unattended-to sounds is always no more than a possibility for the listener- 4'33" invites, but does not compel). And undoubtedly, it is this. But it is an opening that opens out beyond itself and invites attentiveness to more than just the subtleties latent in the sonic environment. It brings us beyond that--to a particular perception of time. But to get there, it first passes through "silence."

From the John Cage Trust

The Enigma of "Silence"

As Cage's experience in the anechoic chamber dramatized, "silence" is a seemingly simple thing whose seeming simplicity conceals an enigma. What makes silence enigmatic is that it is not an unambiguously defined, clearly delineated condition remaining constant under all circumstances and within all contexts, but rather is multi-dimensional and variable.

The enigmatic nature of silence often eludes our ordinary assumptions about what silence is. We naturally think of "silence" as simply the absence of sound and as a quality of the way things are in the world around us. And certainly, the surrounding world has to be a certain way for it to count as silent. But as Cage discovered at Harvard and as 4'33" was meant to bring out, under many circumstances--musical performances among them--what we ordinarily think of as silence reveals itself instead to be a ground against which sounds seem to appear and into which they become submerged and vanish. When we experience silence this way, we experience it as an event or--to return to our original metaphor--as an opening through which sounds can disclose themselves by making themselves available to our hearing. Which means that silence is essentially phenomenal, which is to say an appearance to us rather than an objective quality of the world as it is in itself. This was the lesson Cage took away from the anechoic chamber. "Silence," it turned out, is just another way of saying "sound not attended to," or better, "sound intermittently attended to." As he told his biographer David Revill, "Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind."

What Cage wished to show with 4'33," then, is that silence is not reducible to a property of the world per se, although it may, and perhaps even must, in fact consist in attentiveness to an actual property of the world independent of our perception. Rather, we intend the world as silent through the way we attend to the world. In other words, "silence" is something intentional--it is a way of being in relation to the world as we are directed toward that world, through our attentiveness. What Cage very specifically wanted to draw attention to is that "silence," as an intentional and attentional relationship between ourselves and the world, also is a judgment that the world is something there to be attended to. More than that, "silence," for Cage, is an acknowledgment that the world is in fact something worth being attended to.

Musical Time and Anticipation

The overt subject of Cage's "silent" piece, then, is the subjective nature of silence, and the way that we tend to understand intended sounds--like a piece of music, for example--as sound, and unintended or unattended to sounds as non-sounds, or "silence" (another way to put this might be in terms of wanted versus unwanted sounds--the aural desirable and the aural undesirable), But beyond the overt subject that makes up what we might think of as the piece's text is, as it were, a covert subtext, an unelaborated condition--or better, precondition--in relation to which the overt subject is grounded, and in fact made possible to begin with. That unelaborated precondition is the presence of time and its apprehension. Time is the secret subject of the piece. But to get there, we have to move through "silence," and 4'33" is able to get us there because it frames itself in musical terms and plays on our expectations of how musical time functions.

By its very nature, music provides the ideal opening through which to come to terms with time through the way it structures intentional sound. This is because music is a temporal art that by its very nature renders time explicit. At one fairly obvious level, music is a linear art for which duration, a temporal measure, is an essential feature; a musical performance mirrors the flow of time as it unfolds in a set of discernibly sequential sounds, each with its own duration and all of which add up to an overall duration that defines the finite stretch of time the piece inhabits. These sounds color time, and through their engagement of the senses, make time's passage explicitly felt. Music is the flow of time made audible.

We are able to hear the flow of time in music by virtue of way it solicits us to listen through anticipation, that is, by projecting our expectations forward. Anticipation is an imaginative, synthetic activity that structures the experience of time by projecting a future on the basis of a past; in musical terms, we anticipate a piece's next move on the basis of what we've already heard. That next move could consist in the return or variation of a phrase, the beginning of a new melody or entire section, the denouement of a harmonic cycle--in short, any next event through which the piece conforms to our expectations for its development, or surprises us by taking a different direction. What makes 4'33" so rich as a conceptual work of musical experiment is the way that it exploits the absence of intentional sound to overturn this ordinary experience of musical time as forward movement.

In essence, a musical silence consists in the absence of a subsequent event. It signals the end of audible movement forward. A brief silence will register as little more than a pause in forward motion, but the longer and more substantial the silence, the greater the weight it takes on, until in extreme cases it puts time in check and negates the listener's anticipation by bringing forth--nothing. 4'33" is the extreme case taken to its extreme. In its deliberate renunciation of intentional sound altogether, it provides nothing for anticipation to base itself on, and nothing for it to project forward to. It makes anticipation impossible by bringing forth nothing out of nothing and extending nothing into nothing. It is a limiting case beyond which it no longer makes sense to think in musical terms even if, as a creative work intended for a concert setting, it impels us to think of it in musical terms.

Destructuring Musical Time

If anticipation is the way that the temporal structure of music discloses itself to the listener, then 4'33," as the complete absence of intentional sound, is musical time without anticipation, which is to say, musical time destructured. 4'33" dismantles the chain of musical events by dissolving it entirely; it short-circuits the synthetic work of anticipation by refusing to set out the sounds that could form the past on the basis of which future sounds could be imagined. And once musical time is destructured in this way, something of time in a larger sense is revealed. Musical time destructured through the absence of intentional sound presents an image of time in a guise other than that of a forward-moving flow of events; it reframes the performance and dramatizes its status as a finite thing bounded on either side by a kind of nothingness stretching indefinitely in each direction. This apparent nothingness is empty time or time as such; as revealed by the "silent" piece, it is a limitless limit: a limit marking the boundaries of the performance, and limitless in its reach backward and forward.

But like "silence," which turns out to be not an absence of sound but instead an opening to the unintended and unattended, yet still palpable, sounds that saturate our perceptual field, "empty" time isn't empty but instead, like those sounds, is itself a palpable presence that only requires an event of openness in order to impinge on us and solicit our attention. "Empty" time allows us to experience time in a way very different from the ordinary, everyday way of experiencing time, just as "silence" allows us to experience ambient sound in a way very different from the ordinary, everyday way of experiencing--or not experiencing--ambient sound. The two experiences are intimately relatable, for whether or not it was intended that way, what Cage's "silent" piece showed was how "silence" could be an effective way for us to experience "empty" time in its apparent emptiness. Through its reduction of intentional sound entirely to "silence," 4'33" correspondingly reduced musical time entirely to "empty" time. As a result, during a performance of 4'33" time becomes available as a nothingness in the guise of a palpable presence quietly, but insistently, soliciting our attention. Like the ambient sounds the piece opens up to notice, time offers itself as the focus of our attention.

By emptying the musical performance of music and thereby making apparently empty time a palpable presence, 4'33" draws the listener's attention to time in a way that the busyness of everyday activity tends to obscure. The "silence" that the piece opens up empties time of the distractions that events in time--intentional musical sounds among them--ordinarily hold for us. For musical events, as beautiful or compelling as they are as manifestations of art and craft, are analogous to everyday, distracting busyness. It's an analogy that would not have been lost on Cage, who wrote 4'33" at a time when he was deeply influenced by the profoundly distraction-averse philosophy of Zen.

Time Is a Change of Mind

In the end, the effect of 4'33" if not its intention, was to create the conditions showing that attentiveness to ostensible silence, as a relationship of receptivity to the ordinarily unattended-to sounds surrounding us, opens a clearing to an analogous attentiveness to time as such. Inevitably, to draw attention to one's attentiveness in silence is potentially to draw attention to time as the frame encompassing sound, silence, and all else. 4'33" can do this in no small part because of its status as a musical work--even if it is a musical work minus the music. By being a musical work without intended sound, 4'33" can push to a critical point the effect that musical silence can have on the awareness of time as a sequential flow of events. At that point, the awareness of time is transformed from a sense of events preceding and following one another in an endless series, to a grasp of time as limitless limit, as a palpable presence from which the distracting busyness of the everyday has been stripped. Time, no less than silence, is a change of mind.

Taken to an extreme, as 4'33" indeed takes it, musical silence makes us aware not only of the sounds in the environment around us, but of the reality that time ultimately enfolds and limits us, just as it enfolds and limits a musical performance of a finite duration. Thus, the ultimate meaning of 4'33," the meaning that overspills its intended meaning, points us beyond ourselves and--to those willing to listen and to become aware--allows us to grasp ourselves for what we essentially are: finite beings for whom our finitude is bound on either side by an infinite stretch of nothingness.

Also see Daniel Barbiero's article on an album of silent recordings

See Daniel Barbiero's blog

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