Kyle Gann's No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33'' (Yale University Press) provides as thorough an account of the genesis, performance, legacy, and nature of John Cage's infamous 1952 composition as most of us could want. Accessible to a general audience in both style and structure, the book attempts to rescue this work from its reputation as some sort of cynical joke and situate it once and for all as an important and worthwhile contribution to musical history. In doing so, it also provides a very effective introduction to the music and career of John Cage more generally.
Gann necessarily discusses the various influences on Cage and 4'33'', not all of them musical.The journals of Henry David Thoreau and the art of Robert Rauschenberg. for example, provided inspiration, even precursors of a sort--Thoreau in his musings on silence, Rauschenberg in his White Paintings, to some extent visual equivalents of 4'33''. Among the non-musical influences, however, Cage's attraction to Zen Buddhism, especially through the writing and teaching of Daisetz Suzuki, looms as probably the most significant. Gann traces Cage's understanding of the purpose of music to a conversation he had with the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, which led Cage to accept Sarabhai's declaration that the function of music is to "sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences." Eventually, Buddhism became the primary force behind Cage's efforts to "quiet the mind" and 4'33'' perhaps the most explicit expression of a Zen-derived outlook. "[P]erhaps the simplest understanding of 4'33''," Gann writes, is that "it is an invitation to (or, if you weren't aware of what was coming, an imposition of) [the Zen practice] of zazen."
Thus it would seem that the primary ambition of this piece, perhaps of Cage's oeuvre as a whole, is to reinforce religious belief, to provide through the experience of "music" a form of spiritual meditation. Cage's experimental music is a kind of experimentation in which the impulse to create something "new" is inextricably tied to the impulse to advance an underlying "content." For Cage himself at least, one presumes that the content, his invocation of the principles of Zen, could not have been communicated through other than the unconventional methods he has chosen, that his form is experimental only because an unorthodox way of listening is required for audiences to "hear" what conventional musical form hides. In the case of 4'33'', what he wants us to hear is literally silence, or the sounds we usually mistake for silence, especially when attending musical concerts. Gann convincingly demonstrates that Cage's purposes in this piece and all of his work are serious indeed, far from the "game-playing" formalism experimental artists are so often accused of perpetrating.
Some might say that Cage's balancing of form and content is the only way the "new" can emerge, that formal innovation is authentic only when it allows the subject to be articulated appropriately. But of course what is new in 4'33'' is not at all the subject (even when listeners are led finally to recognize the subject), since it can hardly be argued that music (art more generally) as spiritual meditation, or as bearer of religious "message," are novel thematic concepts.The "content" in this case is thoroughly conventional and familiar, even an anachronism. What is new is the formal audacity of Cage's radical use of silence. This is surely the most immediate effect of the work on most audiences, and for those of us who are indifferent to the spiritual/religious "meaning"--who are indifferent if not hostile to all efforts to substitute religion for art--this is the only meaningful effect. The purely musical implications of Cage's experiment in making silence produce sound are fascinating and worth pursuing. The attempt to advocate for the benefits of Zen Buddhism is, for me at least, of no interest at all.
And surely it is the musical implications of 4'33'' that will be of continued interest to composers, musicians, and music critics as well. What was "new" about Cage's piece was precisely its concerted effort to exploit the sound of silence, and the further possibilities of this approach--quite apart from its putative role in rendering the mind "susceptible to divine influences"--will be its lasting legacy, as well as that of his other experimental strategies. Cage's work will survive as music, not as spiritual meditations. We should be grateful that Cage's commitment to Zen Buddhism provoked him into creating a work like 4'33'', but ultimately that commitment is just the biographical means to an aesthetic end.