Five statements on silence by John Cage: Questions, hypotheses, second thoughts

1. Silent prayer

[I intend] to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co.  It will be 3 or 4½ minutes long—those being the standard lengths of “canned” music—and its title will be Silent Prayer.  It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower.  The ending will approach imperceptibility.

“A composer’s confessions”, lecture delivered at Vassar College (February 1948)

Question:  What kind of silent piece did Cage have in mind in 1948?

Hypothesis:  I take Cage literally here:  I think that his Silent prayer was meant to have two sounds in it.  It would be in keeping with his style of the 1940s to have a piece that opened with a sound, had an extended silence, and then closed with another sound.  How else would you know that the silence was happening, that it was music?  It would also make sense that Cage would want this “single idea” at the opening to be “seductive”, to make people look up at the loudspeaker in the ceiling of the elevator.  Or perhaps they didn’t quite hear that opening gesture, but the sudden absence of Muzak draws their attention.  Either way, they listen, barely hearing the closing sound:  so gentle, almost imperceptible.  The elevator opens, the Muzak resumes, the passengers move on.

Second thoughts:  Why didn’t Cage actually write this piece?  It would not have been that difficult to put together, although capturing the musical essence of a flower would be a challenge.  Was it fear?  Or was the idea for this piece completely wedded to the idea of selling it to Muzak and hence unattainable?  Perhaps he saw it as a piece that was not to be played in a concert hall, but to be sprung upon a music-saturated society in public spaces, in elevators, stores, dentists’ offices.

2. The String Quartet in Four Parts

You will be happy to know, as I am, that I’ve finished the first movement of the String Quartet. … Without actually using silence, I should like to praise it.  This piece is like the opening of another door; the possibilities implied are unlimited …

Letter to his parents, Paris, August 1949

Question:  What did Cage mean by “praising silence?”

Hypothesis:  He was not referring to physical, acoustic silence, but rather to a spiritual silence. his description of the quartet was quite accurate:  it contains almost no silences at all. At the time, Cage was in the middle of a spiritual journey, one in which he was turning inwards, away from the world.  In the summer of 1949, he had just written the essay “Forerunners of modern music” for the small journal The tiger’s eye.  This was an explicit presentation of his spiritual position, and in it he quoted extensively from the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart.  “We are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do,” Eckhart said, referring to an “ignorance” that is “ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowledge.”  Eckhart praised this ignorance, the “divine unconsciousness”; Cage praised it as “silence.”

Second thoughts:  Or did he mean his new, systematic, disciplined approach to musical materials—the gamut—that he invented in the string quartet?  Wasn’t that a kind of silence, too?

3. The anechoic chamber

For, when, after convincing oneself ignorantly that sound has, as its clearly defined opposite, silence, that since duration is the only characteristic of sound that is measurable in terms of silence, therefore any valid structure involving sounds and silences should be based, not as occidentally traditional, on frequency, but rightly on duration, one enters an anechoic chamber, as silent as technologically possible in 1951, to discover that one hears two sounds of one’s own unintentional making (nerve’s systematic operation, blood’s circulation), the situation one is clearly in is not objective (sound-silence) but rather subjective (sounds only), those intended and those others (so-called silence) not intended.

“Experimental music:  doctrine”, essay in The score (June 1955)

Question:  Did Cage’s experience in the anechoic chamber lead him to use chance in his music?

Answer: No.

Question:  Did Cage’s experience in the anechoic chamber lead him to 4′ 33″?

Hypothesis:  4′ 33″ was not a direct result of Cage’s experience of silence in the anechoic chamber.  The idea of a silent piece had occurred to him as early as 1948.  The idea that silence consists of all unintended sounds gave extra significance to the silent piece, but was not necessarily either the ultimate or proximate cause of it.  The path that leads one to an action may be quite different from the ultimate significance of that action in one’s life.  The ultimate significance of using duration as a basis for structure was, as Cage said repeatedly, its unique ability to embrace both sound and silence.  But this was not why he created duration structures:  his work with modern dance was what took him there.  Similarly, the significance of the silent piece and of chance was ultimately identical with the realization of the anechoic chamber:  silence is simply unintended sound.  But the path that resulted in 4′ 33″ was shaped by other experiences, other conditions.

Second thoughts:  The timing seems right, though, with 4′ 33″ coming so soon afterwards.  But if the anechoic chamber experience was so important to him, why didn’t he mention it in any writings or lectures until 1954?  Did its significance creep up on him slowly?  Or did it wait for some other catalyst to bring it all together?  Possibly the silent piece?  Come to think of it, why didn’t he mention 4′ 33″  back then, either?

4. 4′ 33″

… in the case of 4′ 33″ I actually used the same method of working [as Music of changes], and I built up the silence of each movement, and the three movements add up to 4′ 33″.  I built each movement up by means of short silences put together. It seems idiotic, but that’s what I did. I didn’t have to bother with the pitch tables or the amplitude tables, all I had to do was work with the durations. … It took several days to write and it took me several years to come to the decision to make it.

Answer to a question about 4′ 33″  at the Norton Lectures at Harvard University (1988)

Question:  What was the method used to compose 4′ 33″?

Hypothesis:  It is likely that Cage did use a method similar to that of Music of changes.  This means that 4′ 33″ likely uses a duration structure based on phrase and section lengths measured in terms of bars of 4/4 meter.  Just as in Music of changes, the tempo for each phrase was chosen randomly from a chart of possible metronome markings.  The durations of each phrase could then be calculated based on the number of beats and the opening and closing tempi.  This phrase-by-phrase calculation, in fact, is exactly what David Tudor did when learning Music of changes, and it is what Cage did in his “Ten Thousand Things” pieces of 1953-1956, the titles of which are also expressed as lengths of time (e.g., 26′ 1.1499″ for a string player).  Adding the durations of phrases would give the total duration of the three sections of the piece.

Second thoughts:  Did he even intend that this piece be silent when he started composing it? Cage’s system for Music of changes was also used for the Seven haiku, composed in 1951-1952.  The Haiku were much shorter and very sparse, with long silences.  It is completely possible that one of these Haiku could have turned up with no sounds in it at all.  Was the first movement of 4′ 33″ an accident?  Like the ancient Chinese who originally consulted the I ching, did Cage interpret this pattern derived by chance as a sign that the time was right to finally make his silent piece?

5. 0′ 00″

0′ 00″ (4′ 33″ No. 2):  In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.

Score for 0′ 00″ (October 1962)

Question:  Why did Cage call this piece 4′ 33″ No. 2?

Hypothesis: 0′ 00″ was Cage’s attempt to point to silence more clearly than he had in 4′ 33″, although the silence itself is the same.  4′ 33″, as composed in 1952, had a specific structure, composed with specific, unchanging durations.  By 1958, he had rejected such scores.  In a lecture at Darmstadt, he referred to Music of changes as “a Frankenstein monster” because of the way its fully prescriptive score controls the pianist who performs it.  The unchanging score of 4′ 33″ had the same flaws and made it seem that silence was an object to be contemplated.  In 0′ 00″ Cage makes it clear that the silence is always here in every action that we make: we have only to turn towards it.  The amplification is a skillful means for helping us to make this turning.  The emphasis on action prevents us from turning the piece itself into a kind of aesthetic fetish.  The discipline of the action keeps the performer from lapsing into the self-indulgent.  0′ 00″ is thus an improved version of 4′ 33″: it is 4′ 33″, version 2.

Second thoughts:  Did Cage ever wish that he hadn’t written 4′ 33″?  Why didn’t he perform it or write about it in the 1950s?  How could he have published a book called Silence without including any discussion of the silent piece?  Does it even mention the piece once?  Perhaps he was just tired of everyone else talking about it, pinning that label onto him.  Was 0′ 00″ his attempt to redeem the piece and to liberate himself from it?