John Cage and the utopia of silence

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“Everything we do is music”. A strong mission statement by John Cage, outstanding in his ability to both confirm and refute the very definition of music: art and technique of combining sounds, simple or complex, according to different rules and genres. “Combining sounds” indeed, but what about silence?

Before the amor vacui made explicit in the tetralogy of incommunicability by Michelangelo Antonioni and in parallel with the White paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, the American musician tests himself with what he later would call his most important work. The original idea, born around 1947-1948, is inspired by Cage’s experience at Harvard University in an anechoic (almost completely soundproofed) chamber. The composer realizes that absolute silence does not exist. On the contrary, he experiences the “sound production” of his own body: the heartbeat, the flow of blood in the veins… The revolutionary intuition concerns the nature of silence, which is no longer the absence of sound but matter that dialogues with other sounds and that can be used in artistic expression.

We must think about this work as the epitome of a gradual three-stages process in the creative and massive use of the absence of music, the first represented by Duetto for flutes of 1934 (with an initial period of silence) and the second as Waiting of 1952, anticipating 4’33’’ by a few months and only including a short instrumental ostinato.

The playing time expressed in the title is not accidental. In fact, it refers to absolute zero (0° K, i.e. -273.15° C, equal to 273 seconds of the piece), the lowest possible temperature for matter but which, like absolute silence, is impossible to achieve.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the score (for any ensemble) does not prescribe any instrumental nor vocal intervention. Nonetheless, it is crucial to take a step forward the common conception of what music is and try to follow Cage’s idea. If it is true, that everything we do is music and that absolute silence is a utopia, 4’33’’ is a composition rich in sound possibilities. In the quiet of the ensemble, the concert hall gets full of any other sound. People breathing, the buzz of a fly, a cough, the creak of a chair…

The three movements – thirty seconds, one minute and twenty-three and one minute and forty respectively – bear a single indication, “Tacet”, extremely eloquent on the nature of the work. John Cage asks the instruments to be silent. But what about the life that goes on around the stage? That, evidently, can and must continue. On the contrary: it is important that it goes on, in such a way as to become the composition itself. What needs to be emphasised, however, is the spontaneous and casual essence of what becomes part of 4’33”. No sound nor noise must be intentional, and the execution requires mental openness and concentration.

Although the study of the nature of silence and its possibilities of application in musical discourse is only one chapter of the immense research carried out by the American musician, the world of the avant-garde soon realizes how revolutionary and important this specific contribution is. John Cage opens the door to a profound reflection on the composer’s work, on the quantity and quality of the material he shapes and proposes according to his own sensitivity, as well as on the attitude to adopt in a moment of great changes that also affect the context of classical music.