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