silent space : 2


John Cage, America’s foremost experimental composer of the twentieth century, debuted a work in Woodstock the summer of 1952 which caused a metaphorical riot.  The audience was so incensed that word spread—and comments came—from around the world.    One anonymous person who attended the performance, identifying himself as “an internationally known musician, composer and conductor” wrote a scathing review of the work.  Here is an excerpt:

“This form of phony musical Dadaism built up by sensational publicity, frightens audiences away from the real music of our times.  The arrogance of its nihilistic sophistries might be just amusing to most people.  But there is a war of nerves against common sense today particularly in all fields of art.  And if we don’t check these insipid fungus growths that eat into the common sense of our people their destructive influence will grow and gradually undermine the health and vitality of our civilization.” *1

What was the performance that caused this uproar?  It was a work for solo piano, and it went like this:  The pianist—David Tudor, Cage’s favored—alighted onto the stage, walked to the piano, sat silently for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then walked off stage.

People are still trying to come to terms with this work, almost seventy years later, and I’m fascinated by this story.  How could 4’33” (the work’s official name) of silence cause such a reaction?  We probably can see in this story a phenomenon that is often spoken of as unique to our time:  an addiction to distraction, passive entertainment, connectedness at all costs, the desire to fill any emptiness that we encounter in time or space.  This story of this performance suggests to me this is not a new problem that arose out of nowhere in our generation.  The audience at the debut performance of 4’33” was feeling that desire, too—back in 1952.  They were extremely uncomfortable with this emptiness.  This is something primal that we all experience, whether consciously or subconsciously.  But for those who can push on through—in art, music, architecture and life—there are rewards.

The next part of the story of that debut was that it took place in a rustic barn that had been converted into a performance space, and that there was a summer rain just beginning outside, and the rain drops resonated loudly on the roof.  Which is exactly the kind of “chance” intervention that Cage wanted, proving there is no such thing as silence, and reinforcing his love of everyday sounds as worthy compositional elements. 

Digging further into this story, we also find that the composition of this piece came at a very important moment in Cage’s life, where his artistic work was synthesizing with his serious study of Zen Buddhism, particularly in its embrace of nothingness.  

That critic was correct in seeing that this work was going to be very influential, but he was wrong in thinking that after it was out there in the world, the next logical step in the narrative of music history was nihilism.  Artistic activity is a complex endeavor, and there will always be multiple investigations at both ends of the complex and minimal ends of the spectrum.   

My source for this story is Where the Heart Beats by Kay Larson.  It’s a wonderfully complex weaving of John Cage’s biography, the history of Zen Buddhism in the US, and the story of how John Cage seemed to have known every great and soon-to-be-great American artist of any genre of his generation.

While I read it, I couldn’t help but thinking of the work of Louis Kahn, one of the most brilliant composers of silent space.  He was comfortable with emptiness, and the success of some of his spaces is dependent on it.  None more, perhaps than the great courtyard at the Salk Institute in La Jolla California.  There is a backstory here, too:  Kahn originally thought this space would require green landscape elements, and he consulted with the great Mexican architect Luis Barragan to devise a concept.  Barragan’s response:  “Leave it empty."

*1  Ulster County News and Kingston Daily Leader, October 9, 1952, unsigned, page 26, Maverick Archives, Woodstock NY.

Bruce Norelius