Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2595
4'33"

by John H. Lienhard

Today, four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just finished Kyle Gann's new book, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33", and I'm trying to figure out what just hit me. Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds, or 4'33", is a 1952 piece by then-avant-garde composer John Cage. A pianist sits down, starts a stopwatch, and sits quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. When he's done, he stands to receive applause.

And we're all left asking, "Is the emperor wearing clothes?" You'd think Cage's piece would've been performed once, laughed off the stage and forgotten. But it was not. In fact, Gann lists an astonishing three-page discography. The piece has been recorded some twenty-two times.

How in the name of all that is sanity can such a thing happen? Well, let's see what Gann has to say about it. He himself performed it as part of his high school piano recital in 1973 when he was only 17. Thirteen years before that, I'd seen it performed at UC Berkeley. The thing does have staying power.

Gann traces its origins back to Muzak, the original elevator music. Musak arose in the late 1930s and was fed by an array of designedly-bland four-and-a-half-minute disks. Of course, by the 1950s, it was beginning to look like an invasive plague. Cage was aware of a prevailing suggestion: Why not include one four-and-a-half-minute disk that had nothing on it -- in Muzak or maybe as one of the ten-cent choices in the ever-present racket of juke boxes.

That suited Cage's conviction that Western music itself grows invasive because it's so highly structured. So he created a situation that forced people to sit still in a concert setting with nothing to hear but ambient sound for four-and-a-half minutes. He meant to create a heightened awareness of things around us.

Silent Steinways
Silent Steinways in the noisy Steinway factory

And since 4'33" came into being, we haven't quit talking about it. It's a pure Zen Buddhist koan. That's a mental object that won't yield to analysis, but might open our intuition -- the sound of one hand clapping, or of music without sound.

My own response to Cage's 4'33" works that way. I want run from it. But then it works on my subconscious as I walk our quiet bayous, camera in hand, hearing (as well as seeing) all that I normally miss -- distant traffic, my feet brushing grass, my own breath. A helicopter, a jet plane flying over, a light plane -- all different. Bird calls, a barking dog, bells tolling the time. The palette of silence grows incredibly rich in sound.

Cage's piece is nonsense and it's the subject of endless commentary. You've just spent three minutes and 27 seconds listening to me when you could've been sifting the cars around you by their different sounds -- or tuning your awareness to the hum of your waking household. I suspect we hear a lot more in music once we actually learn to hear all the sounds that make up silence.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


K. Gann, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33". (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

See also, Episode 2053; J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003): pg. 254; the Wikipedia articles about John Cage, and about 4'33".

Muzak was actually commercially available as early as the 1920s, but became ubiquitous later on. Photos by J. Lienhard

The Sound of Silence
The Sound of Silence: 0.03 seconds of ambient noise from in the same "soundproof" studio where this program was recorded. This is greatly exaggerated and inaudible to the ear -- until one listens closely. Then it's apparent.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.