BBC telecast of John Cage’s groundbreaking work, 4’33”

This is the first time I’ve ever seen a performance of 4’33”. It’s a polarizing work, to be sure. You love it or you hate it. Or maybe you get it or you don’t. Or you get it, but you still don’t really get it. Or you do really get it that, really, there’s nothing to get.

Personally, I think it has merit on multiple levels: it forces you to stop and observe your surroundings in a way few of us do these days; artistically, it’s one logical extreme of the various avant-garde movements of the 20th century; it cultivates proper concert hall decorum; and, if you choose to see it this way, it’s a brilliant piece of comic absurdism. The fact that it’s performed in three movements, with the requisite pauses (and opportunities for the audience to cough, adjust themselves in their seats, rustle programs, etc.), is the key to this last perspective. If it were just the performers sitting up there staring blankly for four-and-a-half minutes, who cares? But it’s three distinct movements of nothing, separated by more nothing (of a much different kind).

There’s something deeper to it though. As any serious student of music will tell you, the silence is just as important as the notes. To put it more simply, silence is music, just as much as sound is. So as I said earlier, this is the logical conclusion of a particular strain of 20th century music — the mirror image of the kind of free-form cacophony that was also being practiced at the time. Whether Cage intended this piece as a critique of that movement, a part of it, or otherwise, is a topic best left to the scholars who’ve studied Cage more than I have. Ultimately, I just think it’s a cool idea. Somebody had to do it eventually.