Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical / Southwest Chamber Music

The most notorious 4 minutes & 33 seconds of — er, well, “music” — ever: Cage stories from the pros

Cage_4_33_scoreI am going to go out a relatively short limb and say that John Cage’s 4’33” is the most famous — even infamous — work in 20th-Century classical music despite the fact that only a few musicians have actually played — or “played” (said while making air quotes with fingers) — it.

The three-movement work comes with this set of instructions by the composer:

“NOTE:  The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance.  At Woodstock, N.Y., August 29, 1952, the title was 4’33” and the three parts were 33″, 2’40”, and 1’20”.  It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, who indicated the beginnings of the parts by closing, the endings by opening, the key-board lid.  However, the work may be performed any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.”

To summarize:  Do whatever the hell you want, just don’t do anything.

It has developed a notoriety among musicians and the less-than-casual classical music fans precisely because of its unlikely architecture of “silence+noise+environment+chance = music” [NOTE:  this is my own dada-esque equation to summarize Cage’s underlying philosophy of this piece, not the composer’s].  In practice, however, the actual experience with even “in the know” audiences is probably more like this expanded equation:

silence + noise + environment + fidgeting + giggling – annoyance – impatience + could-I-have-come-up-with-this-myself * what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here * how-much-longer-is-this-going-to-take ^ look-at-my-watch = music?!!

Full disclosure:  I’ve never actually been at a concert where this particular Cage masterpiece had been performed.  I’ve watched some YouTube footage of it, but that’s not the same thing, is it?  Lucky me, I get my 4’33” indoctrination tonight, and in the most unlikely of circumstances. . . .

If you weren’t already aware, there is a conscious lack of 4’33” on concert programs — even as part of so-called “new music concerts.”  Putting it on the bill for opening night of a top-tier orchestra’s winter season is unheard of.  These gala nights are usually reserved for warhorses, “pops” concert bon-bons, or simplistic ditties that require minimal time for musicians to prepare.  This ensures the everlasting goodwill of philanthropists with conservative tastes — you know the stereotype:  blue-haired ladies-who-lunch on the gala organizing committee and their captain-of-industry husbands, both of whom get scared off by music written after the 19th century by anyone not named Rachmaninoff.

And yet, here is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, not only programming it, but doing so for their opening night gala. Really, who else has the proverbial “cojones” to do that — and to put it AS THE VERY FIRST WORK ON THE PROGRAM, no less, when people are usually still trying to settle in.

You’ve gotta love it — the gesture just screams “We’re the L. A. F***-in Philharmonic, be-atches!!  Put that in your dainty-a$$ Brahms pipe and smoke it!!!  And pour one out for my homeez.”  (OK, maybe that was going too far — Dudamel would never pour one out for his homeez . . . Deborah Borda and Chad Smith might, but that’s obvioiusly not how they roll in Venezuela). . . .

OK, seriously, besides the chutzpah of doing something unexpected like that, this concert is meant to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, and as wacky as it is, 4’33” does provide a poetic, dare I say “musical,” homage to the clarity and intimacy of the acoustics of the hall.  It’s always been said that every noise in the hall, intended or accidental, is heard throughout the room, and this will crystallize that fact as no other piece of music can.

Anyway . . . I’m not here to discuss the philosophical elements of Cage’s approach to music (i.e. there is no such thing as silence and any sound can be considered music) or the merits or pitfalls of this particular work.  What I really wanted to know, never having actually attended a performance before,  was:  “What is a performance of 4’33” actually like?”

My guess is that it’s like this:  you know that moment of audience silence right after the concertmaster finishes tuning up the orchestra and right before the conductor walks onto the stage?  And do you know those infrequent times when the conductor is delayed for some reason or another, and that post-tuning silence goes on for a few tens of seconds longer than it’s supposed to go, and everyone (including orchestra members) start to squirm and grumble and wonder what’s going on?  Take that second scenario, extend it out for four-and-a-half-minutes, and that’s what I think it’s like.  But that’s just a wild ass guess.

To find out what it’s really like, I reached out to some of the professional musicians I’ve come to know, both inside the LA Phil and in other organizations.  It turns out many of them, despite their impressive conservatory education and professional resume, have never experienced 4’33” beyond the same YouTube experience I’ve had or stories from friends and colleagues.  Others have been “inside 4’33”, ” but in capacities other than a performer.

I found it all quite interesting and amusing, and I thought I’d share some of their email responses and phone chats with the All is Yar readership (with their permission, of course).  Enjoy!

Nathan Cole:  First Associate Concertmaster, Los Angeles Philharmonic
I’ve actually never done the Cage before.  The hall is so rarely silent – maybe at the end of a Mahler symphony, maybe for a few seconds, which is really meaningful.  But even we [the musicians] don’t get to hear it quiet, especially for as much as four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  I think this is the first time that many people will be in the hall for that long for that amount of quiet.

I do imagine it will be like the end of a big symphony:  Everyone is wondering, “Is someone going to clap right away and spoil the mood, or will they sit very silently?”  You’ll start to get a sense of the sound of a really packed concert hall.  Quiet, then tension, then back.

I think there may be some laughter, at least for some part of it. Gustavo [Dudamel] is going to conduct in three movement, at least for the starts and finishes of the three movements, so that should provide some giggles.

Charles Noble:  Assistant Principal Viola, Oregon Symphony
I have never had the pleasure of doing that piece thus far – and it’s pretty amazing that [the LA Phil is] doing a full orchestra version! I’ll be interested to see how it is received!

Robert deMaine:  Principal Cello, Los Angeles Philharmonic
You know, I’ve never actually “played” this piece before. I have been in the audience, however, and it’s always quite a spectacle. Once (in an “arrangement” for cello and piano), the audience got a case of the giggles, and it was downright hilarious.  [That was] when I was an undergrad student at Eastman way back before the Earth cooled. . . . Quite a provocative piece with quite infinite possibilities, I think.

Tom Peters:  Bass, Southwest Chamber Music, and composer
Wow–I can’t believe the Phil is opening with Cage! Times sure have changed.

I’ve done quite a bit of Cage over the past 15 years, including a version of 4′ 33″ with Southwest Chamber Music.

Time does truly weird things when you perform the music of John Cage. We can easily wait 4′ 33” at a stop light or listen to a 70s rock tune in what seems a blink of an eye, but sitting for that duration in absolute stillness makes the seconds pass like they were being dragged through molasses.

I’ve also noticed the opposite effect when performing Cage’s longer works. I’ve played his 26′ 1.1499″ for a String Player many times over the past 10 years. At about the 10-minute mark the audience develops what I call the Cage Squirm as people become impatient and restless. Beyond the first 10-minutes, everything becomes preternaturally still.

The most common comment I’ve received in performing 26′ 1.1499″ is, “I think your stopwatch is fast. There’s no way that was 26 minutes!”

. . . By the way, I was lucky enough to be part of MicroFest Records’ new release of Cage’s “The Ten Thousand Things.” It was release just this week!

This one is the CD version:  http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/johncage12

This one is a USB version with iChing chance operations:  http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/johncage13

[Publisher’s note:  I won’t go into the details of the iChing chance operations used by Cage, but the fact that there is an opportunity to actually allow for all of his potential permutations in a recorded form for this particular work is rather remarkable.  The wonders of modern technology. . . .]

Jim Wilt:  Associate Principal Trumpet, Los Angeles Philharmonic
This is actually my first experience with the piece, so I am very interested in audience reaction (which may in itself be interesting due to the Gala aspect of the program). I think the audience is as much a part of the performance of this piece than most anything else that comes to mind.

Anne LeBaron:  Composer, harpist, and professor at The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts
I’ve never ‘performed’ 4’33” although I’ve taught it, argued about it, and imagined performing it. Perhaps I should concoct a version for harp! . . . [I hope people arrive on time].  Woe to anyone showing up DURING 4’33”

Alison Bjorkedal:  Harpist, Southwest Chamber Music
Yes, I actually have performed 4’33” (sort of). I teach a Music Appreciation class at a community college and when we get to the 20th Century, I always ask for a few student volunteers and we perform a version of 4’33” with the room’s keyboard and whatever random instruments I have at hand.

It is always fascinating to observe the reaction of the class contrasted with the intensity and seriousness of the student performers. Nearly always, there is about 30-50 seconds of nervous laughter and sometimes heckling from the class and then they settle into silence. I’ve had some students leave the room who were too uncomfortable with the silence.

Afterwards, we discuss Cage’s assertion that ‘everything we do is music’ and the overall question of what is art (I include a picture of Rauschenberg’s Portrait of Iris Clert to tie in visual art). I ask the audience members to share how it felt to listen to ‘silence’ and the performers share how it felt onstage. It is one of my favorite topics for the term as the students have very thoughtful opinions.

[CKDH:  Since it’s a class, I assume you give them a lesson about the work before the performance?]

AB:  Actually, I don’t give them any intro to it, other than to tell the class the title and composer of the piece. The student volunteers meet with me before class to get an explanation of how to perform the piece. I like the students to be surprised by the concept.

12 thoughts on “The most notorious 4 minutes & 33 seconds of — er, well, “music” — ever: Cage stories from the pros

  1. Just to elaborate a little on the point made by Jim Wilt: it occurred to me that in this piece the audience and the performers are having a much closer and more similar experience than in any other musical composition. Also, this is a piece that levels the field completely, i.e. professional quality of performers becomes irrelevant, as does the expertise of the audience.


    • True, very true. One additional thought: not to give too much away before my upcoming review gets published, but I think the relatively high expertise of last night’s audience (compared, for example, to the students in Robert and Alison’s stories) led to how 4’33” was received and how everyone behaved last night. That may or may not have made for a “better” performance, depending on how one evaluates these things.


      • The reason i have not mentioned anything about that yet is precisely because i am sure that your review will include your thoughts about it, and so i don’t want to “steal your thunder”, so to speak, especially since i really like the way you describe things.


  2. 4’33” is a pretty long time for an audience to sit perfectly still. The level of discomfort and awkwardness was palpable, which was fascinating.


    • Absolutely. I’m guessing you were able to pick it up more than usual since you didn’t have to concentrate on your playing (or at least I’m assuming you didn’t). Still, I’d say the pucker factor was pretty high even compared to other uncomfortable Green Umbrella music.


  3. Fascinating post. I think if I had been reading this during a performance of 4’33”, I would have ruined the piece by laughing.The phrase “dainty-a$$ Brahms pipe” is totally becoming part of my everyday vocabulary.


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