I love listening to BBC Radio 3, and have done so for more than 40 years now. When I can listen at the right time, these days I attempt to solve the brainteaser that is set each weekday morning. Today (October 23rd) the challenge was to identify the composers of four pieces of music, and rearrange the initial letters of their surnames to answer the question “how long does the silence last?”.
The composers were Elgar, Corelli, Gershwin, and Allegri, leading to CAGE and the reference was to the composer John Cage’s (in)famous piece 4′ 33″. I was unhappy with this, partly because I got the wrong answer (I failed to identify Corelli and guessed at AGES), but mainly because 4′ 33″ isn’t really about silence as we think of it, i.e. an absence of sound.
Cage was interested in what we mean by “music”, and why some sounds are classed as music and others aren’t. This isn’t about the incomprehension that some people have about different types of music (e.g. the Dowager Lady Grantham’s comment about jazz in the early trailer to the new series of Downton Abbey – as I write, the actual episode has not yet been broadcast) but a much wider issue. In a Radio 3 website article about this piece, the author Robert Worby quotes Cage’s own words: “Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, there are always sounds to hear”.
So when we listen to a piece of music, it is not just that piece which we hear, but all sorts of other sounds as well: people coughing in the concert hall, traffic moving in the street outside, and so on. During my early days of Radio 3 listening, most works were accompanied by an obbligato solo budgerigar …
The question is, do those ambient sounds also count as music? Do they distract from or possibly even enhance the piece that is being played? 4′ 33″ takes this to its extreme. Originally written for solo piano, it can be ‘performed’ by any number of players with any combination of instruments, and although it is true that these players do not make any musical notes with their instruments, this doesn’t mean that the listeners hear nothing. Instead, the piece helps us to become aware of all the sounds around us, that we often hear without noticing.
The “music” of 4′ 33″ is, therefore, these ambient sounds, rather than absolute silence. John Cage’s challenge to us in writing it is whether we are prepared to consider these as music. My own answer can only be silence – or not. (Note: according to WordPress, this blog post contains 433 words, although it took more than 4′ 33″ to write.)