Cover of the score for 4′33″ (1952) by John Cage, Edition Peters EP 6777
© C.F. Peters Musikverlag Frankfurt Leipzig London New York

At the premiere of 4’33” in Woodstock, New York, David Tudor came on stage, sat at the piano, and made as if to play, but instead simply raised and lowered the keyboard cover at the beginning of each of the three movements, using a different piano pedal in each movement and timing himself with a stopwatch. For the rest of the piece, Tudor remained relatively motionless and silent. This performance was his interpretation of the John Cage’s score, the first unpublished version of which consisted of blank paired staves with the timing added (30”, 2’23”, 1’40”). The first published form of the work, in 1960, is a text; it consists of three movements, each indicated simply by a Roman numeral and the word tacet. This is the best-known version and the one most used by subsequent performers; it has recomposed timings (33’, 2’40”, 1’20”).

In his notes to this published score, after describing Tudor’s first performance, Cage writes, "However, the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time." Interestingly, the published score consists of a written, textual instruction, an instruction employing a conventional Italian musical expression, thus attaching it firmly to music custom and making its avant-garde impact even greater. It is worth noting that in the published version the word tacet, a signifier of silence, will internally sound as it is read. The musical text is there solely for its visual impact, as a point of focus for the performer and the audience, demonstrating the visual as a constituent of all performance ritual.

Given this centralization of the visual elements of the performance of 4’33”, it is significant that the origins of the work are in part derived from the visual field: the all-white paintings that Cage’s friend Robert Rauschenberg produced in 1949. These paintings are no more empty or blank than Cage’s piece was silent, for they act as environmental surfaces, on which motes of ambient dust or shadows may settle. They are a field of focus for the spaces they occupy. The frame acts for the painting as the concert occasion acts for the music: as a point of elision between art and non-art, text and context.

The silence also questions the nature of aesthetic engagement. The view that art requires a detached, aesthetically emotive response, one divorced from other senses, purely visual or aural, self-sufficient, is parodied in Cage’s silence, which is anything but pure. If modernist criticism requires silent contemplation in the presence of the artwork, suppressing any elements outside the medium, 4’33” shows that no such pure state is possible, that no such absolute silence exists.

Two main issues arise as a consequences of the performance of 4’33”. First, the piece allowed the audience to recognize its role in producing sound and the potential for hearing such sounds as music: the audience members were the composers as well as the listeners, the literal embodiment of the music. Second, because the piece gave the audience members nothing to listen to from the performer, they were made even more aware of the spectacle, the visual nature of musical performance. In short, as the audience shifted to listen to something that was not there (the conventional sound of music), they watched something that was: the ritual of performance, which involved the performer and his limited actions, the concert hall itself, the object of the piano, and so on. Then – though a sequence should not necessarily be implied – the audience members recognized themselves as the producers of the “cultural” sound. Sight (and site), sound, performance, and audience are thus shown to be inextricably linked and interdependent.

Yet Cage’s work is not just about absence; it is also about presence. The piece 4’33” is a Gesamtkunstwerk, but one that is antithetical to Richard Wagner’s. Here the concern is with silence over amplification, and thus coexistence over synthesis. Music does not sublimate the other arts; volume does not drown out the other arts’ voices. Rather, through Cage’s silence, the other arts can be seen to be a part of the discourse of music. The textual (score), visual, and theatrical elements are already part of the fabric of music, here exposed as parts in the chorus of voices that make up the concept music. Some might have difficulty in seeing this work by Cage as music, but that is because they equate music solely with sound; while there is sound even in silence, what Cage shows is that music is a discourse.