Kyle Gann: No Such Thing As Silence

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Gann, Kyle. No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)

I've mentioned John Cage's 4'33" a few times before--here and here--and have listed his book Silence as being among my favorites; it should be no surprise that Kyle Gann's book on 4'33", No Such Thing As Silence, wound up on my desk demanding to be read. Gann sets the scene from the piece's first performance this way: "The most famous event in the history of the Maverick series occurred in the late evening of August 29, 1952: the premiere of John Cage's 4'33:"

Pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano on the small raised wooden stage, closed the keyboard lid over the keys, and looked at a stopwatch. Twice in the next four minutes he raised the lid up and lowered it again, careful to make no audible sound, although at the same time he was turning pages of the music, which were devoid of notes. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed, Tudor rose to receive applause--and thus was premiered one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. (pp. 2-3)

In the biographical and contextual arenas, Gann places Cage's work into its era admirably well--from his tutelage under Schoenberg to his extra-musical interests in everything from Thoreau to Zen. Although not explicitly called out, I noticed how Cage's wide-ranging sexuality

The reentry of Merce Cunningham into Cage's life from 1942 on spelled the beginning of the end of Cage's marriage to Xenia. The trio experimented with ménage à trios, and in so doing Cage realized that, sexually, he was more drawn to Cunningham. (p. 64)

mirrored his musical and intellectual appetites:

Throughout his writings, Cage collects authors to buttress his views on music and life but often projects his own meanings into them, taking what views he needs and transforming them to fit into his own context. (pp. 90-91)

After all the contextualization and explication is done, writes Gann, "we arrive at perhaps the simplest understanding of 4'33": that it is an invitation to (or, if you weren't aware of what was coming, an imposition of) zazen:"

If you desire certain things to happen in music, you will often be frustrated by it, and you must let go of desires and preferences. The attention to sonic phenomena, the understanding of them as the Deity, quiets the mind and renders it susceptible to divine influences. And what else is music supposed to do? If you are able to appreciate, at least on an intellectual level, that from a Zen standpoint there is no difference between playing a note and not playing a note, that a chord on the piano and a cough from an audience member behind you and the patter of rain on the Maverick Concert Hall roof are not different, but the same thing--then you may be able to think of 4'33" as something more profound than a joke, a hoax, or a deliberately provocative and nihilistic act of Dada. (p. 144)

Toward the end of the book, Gann writes that "It may seem silly to embark on an analysis of a piece of music containing no intentional sounds:"

But in fact the exact form of 4'33" is riddled with ambiguity: its notation changed twice, and the latitude of its performance direction, as described by its composer, has expanded over the decades. To simply describe what 4'33" is, at this point, requires almost a philosophical treatise. (p. 167)

Gann has given us as delightful and concise an attempt at such a treatise as could be written--one which thoroughly illuminates its subject. No Such Things As Silence could serve as a case study in how to write engagingly about modern music.


links:

the author's page about the book

OpenCulture observes that "Cage does make an important distinction between 'music' and 'sound':"

He favors the latter for its chance, impersonal qualities, but also, importantly, because it is neither analytical nor emotional. Sound, says Cage, does not critique, interpret, or elaborate--it does not "talk." It simply is. But the distinction between music and not-music soon collapses, and Cage cites Emmanuel Kant in saying that music "doesn't have to mean anything," any more than the chance occurrences of sound.

The new paperback edition of Alex Ross' Listen to This includes his New Yorker essay on John Cage entitled "Searching for Silence." In it, Ross writes that Gann's book "doubles as an incisive, stylish primer on Cage's career," and provides his own assessment of Cage and his most famous work:

Nearly six decades after the work came into the world, "4'33″ " is still dismissed as "absolutely ridiculous," "stupid," "a gimmick," and the "emperor's new clothes"--to quote some sample putdowns that Gann extracted from an online comment board. Such judgments are especially common within classical music, where Cage, who died in 1992, remains an object of widespread scorn. In the visual arts, though, he long ago achieved monumental stature. He is considered a co-inventor of "happenings" and performance art; the Fluxus movement essentially arose from classes that Cage taught at the New School, in the late nineteen-fifties. (One exercise consisted of listening to a pin drop.) Cage emulated visual artists in turn, his chief idol being the master conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. The difference is that scorn for avant-garde art has almost entirely vanished. [...]

The simplest explanation for the resistance to avant-garde music is that human ears have a catlike vulnerability to unfamiliar sounds, and that when people feel trapped, as in a concert hall, they panic. In museums and galleries, we are free to move around, and turn away from what bewilders us. It's no surprise, then, that Cage has always gone over better in non-traditional spaces. [...] Like it or not, Cage will be with us a long time.

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