A 4'33" Story - John Cage at 100

Music, what does it communicate?
Is what’s clear to me clear to you?
Is music just sounds?
Then what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
If while I see it I can’t hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I’m inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?

-John Cage, Silence 

Happy 100th,
John Cage!  What if share my own favorite experience with John Cage and his infamous 4'33"?


John Cage, with his cat

I performed 4'33" on the viola at student musicale in college. It started as a lark, something interesting to do when I didn't have other music that I was quite ready to perform. I had fun researching the piece and the movement lengths, borrowing a friend's pocket watch to keep me on track, printing out pieces of paper with the times, and deciding to play the middle movement pizzicato.

Then, when I stood on the stage of Kemp Recital Hall, holding my viola on my shoulder, staring at the audience, it was amazing. Some people knew the piece, others didn't. A woman in the audience kept trying to get her husband to sit still, which just made his winter coat rustle even louder. I heard laughter from the green room. It took a lot of effort to raise my head to look up at the audience, instead of just at the watch on the stand. But once I did, I felt wonderfully calm, which is a very unusual experience for me, especially on stage. I think my staring at them made the audience even more uncomfortable than the silence. 

At the end of the piece, when I took my viola from my shoulder the third time and bowed before walking off of the stage, the sound of the applause and the rush of ... confidence, adrenaline, something ... was heady. But the feeling of those few minutes of silence on stage has remained with me. Every now and then I remember and capture that same feeling, the silence and the focus.

Is it what the composer intended? Does that matter? Although you won't hear me playing it on the radio any time soon, Cage's 4'33" is one of my favorite pieces. Because of what this music has given me, I'll defend Cage's infamous composition against all the eyerolling and disbelief that it often provokes.

Originally posted on WV Public Radio's Classically Speaking. Anyone else - Cage fans or foes - have a story to share?



4' 33"

I was unfamiliar with this piece until I heard about it yesterday on NPR. I loved the whole idea, but reading about your experience actually performing it - WOW!. Thanks so much for sharing that - it will stay with me a long time!