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The Sounds of Silence


You will almost certainly have heard of the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) piece by John Cage entitled 4'33", or Four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The title refers to the length of time it takes to "play" the piece. The word "piece" is used in the loosest possible sense, because there are actually no notes to play.

Cage, wanting to promote the idea that the sounds all around us constitute music, instructed performers not to play their instruments during the three-movement piece. If you are already confused, you are not alone. The work has been described as Cage's most important, yet most controversial work.

On the piano, when the piece is "played", the start and end of each movement is signified by the closing and opening of the piano lid. Thus, if you were watching the piece performed in a concert, you would see the pianist sitting in front of the piano in stony silence, shutting and lifting the lid to show the close of movements. It is not an easy piece to watch performed. Despite what Cage wanted to show, it is not easy to sit through over four minutes of silence in a concert hall, and think you've paid all that money to watch nothing! It is one thing to hold the idea that the sounds around us - the various pitches and rhythms emanating from surrounding objects or people - all form part of a musical landscape, but it is another to think the shuffling and nervous coughing of people within a concert hall can be considered music.

However, Cage was not the pioneer in the use of silence. In 1897 the composer Alphonse Allais wrote "Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man", music to accompany the funeral rites of the deaf man. This piece consisted of twenty-four bars of rests.

Three decades before Cage, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff wrote Funf Pittoresken for piano, a slightly absurd piece in which one of the movements, In futurum, consists entirely of rests. Not just semibreve rests, but rests very carefully notated, as you can tell:

In 1949 the composer Yves Klein wrote his Monotone-Silence Symphony. It was an orchestral piece consisting of two movements. The second movement was a twenty-minute movement of silence. The first was a twenty-minute movement drone - not the radio-controlled flying sort, but an unchanging D-major chord sustained for that period.

Twenty minutes of one chord, followed by twenty minutes of silence would certainly drive most people nuts!

Cage often spoke of how audiences missed the point he was trying to make. "They expected music ... not realising it was all around them."

But the reception to Cage's work could arguably not match the reception to Schulhoff's. A review of a performance stated that "the patience of the town of Bochum was sorely tried ... when the most extreme modern Erwin Schulhoff presented his work ... featuring a theme which - according to the program - was played twice ..."

The composer made a speedy escape.

When Ludwig van Beethoven stated centuries that silence is an integral part of music, he could not possibly have foreseen the extremes it would be taken to.

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