Sometimes it seems like there are two competing strains of experimentalism in new music. One strain is very invested in intellectually justifying itself and placing itself within a historical tradition, while the other strain is more concerned with trying different things and is less invested in anything in particular. To extend the scientific metaphor, one strain conducts experiments to confirm or deny a suspected hypothesis, while the other doesn’t know what to expect. In my mind they should be allied, since they both hang out around the same fringes, but more often than not they studiously ignore each other.
This occurred to me while reading Ian Power’s “Thinking of Sound” essay over at Hearing Modernity. It’s an excellent read, and Power does a fantastic job of tying together composers from disparate aesthetics—Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Gérard Grisey—into a coherent narrative about the relationship between music and sound. But his interpretation of Cage’s 4’33” gave me pause, goading me into making what might be considered a somewhat pedantic distinction.
According to Power, 4’33” has “no measures, no duration, and no proper title: four minutes and thirty-three seconds is simply the duration of David Tudor’s first performance.” Power then quotes fellow composer Martin Iddon, who contends that this allows the piece to transcend representation of silence and actually become silence.
This lends a rarified purpose to Cage’s composition that I’m not sure I can totally endorse. While it’s true that the published version of 4’33” lacks any kind of traditional notation, the version that Tudor premiered did in fact have notated measures filled with rests. To regard this as a mere imperfection, to be excised from history, seems like a mistake to me. As Power points out, even the published version contains three movements, of all things, each marked “tacet.” This is a particularly Cageian koan. Why have movements in the first place when their boundaries are inaudible by design? This points to something more than silence, or something else.
(Hanging over this is the prospect that maybe Cage didn’t have one particular idea of what the piece was. But this doesn’t erase the present need to believe that Cage knew exactly what he was doing. Certainly, as probably the most unfairly maligned composer of all time, we may feel protective of him. And as instrumental as his music has been for so many, there may be a whiff of self-preservation there, too. I wonder, though, if this protectiveness does us any favors, as it leaves little wiggle room for productive failures or happy accidents in our own work.)
As a final disclaimer, I really don’t mean to fundamentally impugn Power’s compellingly constructed interpretation of 4’33”, but to suggest that a multitude of concurrent interpretations might be more fruitful in the long run. (After all, doesn’t this multiplicity account for the piece’s remarkable endurance in the face of near-constant assault from critics, jokers, and haters?)