Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Repeat: John Cage - 4' 33"

In the classical music community, John Cage was by all accounts a rock star, and 4' 33" is his Freebird. He dabbled in philosophy, printmaking, mycology and poetry before dying in 1992, but he would never achieve more recognition than he did in the aftermath of his 1952 maiden performance of this composition. Cage has rightly called it the "most important work" of his career, and its shockwaves can still be felt today.

While accessible enough for even the most unrefined ear, 4' 33" finds its strength in this simplicity, wholly offering itself to its listeners; at the mercy of their interpretation and preconceptions. Personally, it's my go-to music when I've exhausted my Zune catalogue. I often listen to it before bed, and sometimes on the way to work. I listen to it when I try to study, and when I ride the bus to class. It works everywhere because it is everything. Regarding classical music, it's been said that no two performances of a piece are ever the same, which to many fans is part of the allure. Not necessarily that a note will be sharp in one and flat in another, but that every variable experiences some sort of shift, whether it be acoustics, or pacing, or the length of the coda. 4' 33" is the epitome of this phenomenon, and in many ways, even larger than it, possessing the uncanny ability to be transformed by the mood of its listener and the audience at-large.

In an era where pop music is a thinly-veiled game of one-upmanship, it's refreshing to hear from someone who is utterly unconcerned with what is popular and challenges us consider the very foundations of music.

A performance of 4' 33"

Cage speaking about the piece

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, what a clever post Mike. Although this composition and its implications are extremely interesting, have you ever thought about simply turning off your Zune and tuning into the world around you? I think you would be interested in that sound.