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Silence! Why John Cage's 4'33" Is No Laughing Matter
David Stubbs , December 13th, 2010 06:44

The Quietus is always happy to see the excellent charities CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), the British Tinnitus Foundation and the Nordoff Robbins Trust given publicity. But, says David Stubbs, stop treating John Cage's 4'33" like a joke...

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Today (Monday December 12) sees the release of Cage Against The Machine's version of the John Cage piece 4'33", composed in 1952. Among the "supergroup" who assembled in the studio for the recording were Orbital, The Kooks, Billy Bragg, UNKLE, Suggs, Enter Shikari and Imogen Heap. Not exactly an A-list there but then, all they were required to do was turn up. XFM DJ Eddy Temple-Morris, who co-ordinated the thing, told the BBC, "We're going to plug everybody in. We're going to have a drum kit with a few drummers, some bass players, some guitarists. I don't know what the noise will be. I imagine there will be the tweak of a leather jacket, a cough, a snigger, a muffled laugh. You'll hear whatever happens in that room at the time. That's the performance."

Oh, yes. There will be muffled laughs all right – the same ones that resounded around the Barbican Hall in 2004 when 4'33" was performed by the BBC Symphony orchestra, who couldn't resist turning the thing into a comedy piece, with lots of barely contained grinning and antics from the conductor. It was a failure, a deliberately lost battle to keep a straight face – they were overcome by a very English self-consciousness and impulse to lay low all subject matter, especially the supposedly pretentious, the artsy and the fartsy, with an all-purpose, half-arsed, coloured rimmed glasses, chortling levity.

The CATM release, which comes on the back of a Facebook campaign currently boasting over 70,000 supporters, is inspired by last year's campaign to get Rage Against The Machine to the Xmas Number One spot, and to the same end – to displace the X Factor entry, thwart the villainous Simon Cowell and send him and his selected karaoke, stooge and his stupid centre parting packing to number two. It was preceded by a simultaneous audiovisual performance by a global orchestra, conducted live by Bob Dickinson via video link, in support of the campaign. All proceeds will go to charity, including the British Tinnitus Association. All well and good. But will this be the latest in a line of wilful misunderstandings of what John Cage rightly considered his most important work?

Versions of, and tributes to 4'33" are not new. They have been perpetrated by everyone from Zappa to Ciccone Youth, to The Fast Show and Mike Batt, the Wombles man. Staff of The Guardian performed an amusing version of the piece back in 2004. Don't you wish you had been there? Me neither. Batt's version of the piece, included on a 2002 album was called "A Minute's Silence" and credited to Batt/Cage. At the time, a story went up that he had been sued by John Cage's estate for this supposed infringement before they made a very public out of court settlement. However, Batt recently revealed that the whole thing had been a scam. He had merely donated £1000 to the John Cage Foundation. Cheap publicity indeed.

4'33" as joke is now commonplace – the sound system only has to fail at a pub quiz nowadays for some wag to shout out "John Cage". Mea culpa, that wag was probably me, several times in the past, but be sure that, especially after this Christmas, that joke will be made many, many times in the future and will slowly die the death of a thousand cunts, as the Chinese would say.

However, one thing John Cage was very clear about was that the piece wasn't intended as a laughing matter. "I didn't wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do or as a joke. I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it," he said.

Cage had incorporated protracted sequences of non-performance into his work before, in pieces like Sonata and Interludes and The Concerto For Prepared Piano And Orchestra, which both made use of extended pauses. He had conceived of a piece in 1947 entitled "A Silent Prayer", which he envisaged comprising nothing but "uninterrupted silence" and which he planned to sell to a Muzak corporation. He'd been impressed too by Robert Rauschenberg's series of blank canvasses, in which the subject matter was the moving shadows of those who stood in front of them. However, the epiphany which gave rise to 4'33" occurred in 1951, when Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a room fully soundproofed externally and with all echoes suppressed internally. Cage anticipated that in such a room he would experience absolute silence. However, he was conscious of two audible drones, high and low. These, the engineer in charge told him, were the sounds of his own body. The high one was his nervous system in operation, the low one his blood in circulation. "Until I die there will be sounds," concluded Cage. "And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

Here, then, is the significance of 4'33" - that it is impossible for humans to experience true silence – that there is, to all intents and purposes, no such thing as silence, except as an abstract notion. That's why it's called 4'33" – a duration of time – and not "Silence". In fairness, it's clear from Cage Against The Machine's co-ordinator Eddy Temple-Morris's description of their performance that he has grasped this point. Others have not. On the BBC website and in The Observer recently, as well as in some text books, the mistake has been repeated, as it so often is, that the piece comprises 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. It does not. In the absence of musical performance, it consists of whatever noises occur in its stead – a cough, the heating system of a concert hall, the distant sound of traffic or aircraft, the creak of the architecture. Ambient in extremis.

This isn't whimsy. This isn't a conceptual prank. This is serious, but not in the grave sense the piece is also associated with – the equivalent of the minute's silence on Remembrance Day, for example (John Lennon made this mistake in his own, Cage tribute on his experimental album Life With The Lions). It's serious because it gets right to the heart of the avant garde project of the last century as a whole, as expressed in Dada, in Picasso's pasting bits of Le Figaro onto his canvasses, Marcel Duchamp's urinal "readymade", in the sirens that wail through the orchestral works of the composer Edgard Varese like Ameriques, in Futurist Luigi Russolo's Art Of Noises manifesto – to collapse the walls between art and life, in this case to extend the notion of what is admissible as music and what is not to . . . everything. This was an idea that would have confounded the great musical masters of the 19th century and previously, whose overarching assumptions would come crashing down in the early part of the 20th. In this respect, 4'33", ironically, is closer to "noise" music than anything else.

Sadly, for reasons I attempted to explore in my book Fear Of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen, the radical music, if not the radical art of 60, 70 even 100 years ago is still greeted with stupefied and amused misapprehension on the rare occasions when it finds a mass audience.

Perhaps this is one of those rare occasions. It's probably too much to expect that any success for this single will function as a portal for a wider audience into experimental music as a whole, too much to expect that it won't be a cue for every jowl-quivering halfwit across the media to don their funny hats and make like whirling bow ties with their jibes at the single's expense. Ooh, Chris Evans, will you able to resist?

But I'll be one of those rooting for CATM, as I did RATM last year, more or less entirely out of antipathy to Simon Cowell. Like 4'33" and unlike Eurovision or Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor is no joke. It sits at precisely the opposite extreme on the cultural spectrum from Cage's work. It is the ultimate in 21st century unvolution, in brutal apres garde tyranny. If 4'33" says everything is admissible as music, X Factor says virtually nothing is, except via the originality-exterminating sifting process established on the show, in which all that is allowed through are the cliched emotional stylings of those carefully selected yet easily dispensable members of the public who murder ballads with the appropriate display of "star quality" that best meets Cowell's liking. In an age in which pop has become the equivalent of the closing chant of "Hey Jude" fading out forever, in which X Factor has successfully altered the very gravity and oxygen levels of the genre to ruinous effect, any sort of opposition to its joyless, stifling, onward march is welcome. So go, Cage Against The Machine. But please. No. Fucking. Giggling.

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Dec 13, 2010 12:22pm

Spot on.

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Tom Bradshaw
Dec 13, 2010 12:27pm

In terms of the concept behind the piece I completely agree with what you've said. However, I think when you get to an actual performance of 4'33" there is something fundamentally absurd and almost silly about it. As I understand it Cage understood and embraced this side of it, and I believe he encouraged audiences to laugh if they felt it was appropriate. After all, laughing only adds the ambient soundscape that is 4'33".

I think your attitude, although in many ways correct, could put off a lot of people who believe that avant garde art is pretentious and stuck up. I'd like to think that if the wider public begins to enjoy the ridiculousness of the piece and not see it as something that is too highbrow for them to enjoy on any level, then that is the first step to at least some people understanding the meaning behind it and more generally Cage's incredible input to the world of modern music.

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John / CATM
Dec 13, 2010 12:55pm

We three at the CATM campaign deeply admire and love John Cage's ideas. The response we've had from the (still growing) Facebook group, from people around the world who are engaging with 4'33" as a serious composition and a jumping off point into a world of philosophy, far outstrips the giggling of those who miss the point. Good piece.

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Dec 13, 2010 12:55pm

In reply to Tom Bradshaw:

great article but i have to agree completely with Tom here

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Dec 13, 2010 1:07pm

In reply to Tom Bradshaw:

I sympathise with David, but concur with Tom.

It's possible to be entirely respectful of Cage, the piece and its intentions and yet giggle too - not in sneering mockery, but as a natural response to one's own discomfort caused by the still-powerful but simple absurdity of a pre-defined period without specific external stimuli. Surely that's as valid a response/contribution to this piece as any?

Some of my favourite music makes me laugh, even though it may not be intentionally or inherently comedic, or even in any way 'funny'. This is a good thing. It's a reaction born of joy and exhilaration, an acknowledgement of audacity and bold invention. Taking music seriously doesn't in any way mean you can't laugh when you engage with it.

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James Holloway
Dec 13, 2010 1:15pm

Display and aesthetics. I can see perfectly how 4'33" works in the space it was composed for. A non playing orchestra, and indeed for the bands gathered in the studio resolutely not 'playing' (this is by far the best thing Suggs has made in years).

It's as much about the aesthetics as it is the actual perceived lack of playing. This is what won't translate in the actual recording. That is, if you're stupid and wasteful enough to buy a physical copy.

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Andrew Korell
Dec 13, 2010 1:27pm

I agree with Tim in sense that this is a piece you can really enjoy, and have a lot of fun with. I enjoyed seeing this performed. I managed to sit quietly but it did take some effort not to chuckle at how thunderous some of the ambient noises appeared in a quiet concert hall. Normally the dramatic pause between the clapping and the orchestra striking the first note is seconds. In this instance the orchestra merely positioned themselves, paused, and set there instruments back down.

Sadly, I find many people do misinterpret this piece as some kind of put-on, inside joke, or simply too esoteric.

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Tom Bradshaw
Dec 13, 2010 1:32pm

In reply to James Holloway:

If the 'space' that listeners would encounter music in when the piece was written was a concert hall with an orchestra on stage, then the modern equivalent for most people is pressing play on an mp3. The effect might not be quite the same, I admit, but both settings are there to create a situation in which the listener actually listens to what sound there is, rather than background noise just washing over them. Perhaps people listening to it on an mp3 player with noise-cancelling headphones might be missing the point though...

Buying a recording is more about the campaign for christmas number 1, the fact that the money is going to charity, and I think it's just an act of buying into the whole philosophy of the piece, rather than buying something you'll actually listen to.

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James Holloway
Dec 13, 2010 1:39pm

In reply to Tom Bradshaw:

Tom, I agree. But please, if you're going to buy, get the mp3. Surely going to effort of producing cd copies is just hugely wasteful?

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Joe Sax
Dec 13, 2010 1:41pm

I like the passage that goes " ".

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Andrew Korell
Dec 13, 2010 1:47pm

In reply to Tom Bradshaw:

The concert hall adds certain expectations that you won't have at home with an MP3. CATM is taking a good approach to this, where the interruptions in silence will be within the actual studio environment. So, perhaps listening with noise-cancelling headphones would be the recommendation.

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Dec 13, 2010 2:03pm

In reply to Andrew Korell:

Rebecca off X Factor is quite good though

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uncle d
Dec 13, 2010 2:19pm

sooner listen to Cage's 4.33 than xfm, which to me sounds like torture..

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Dec 13, 2010 2:33pm

I've seen the video of the BBC Symphony Orchestra version and I thought it was very respectful. There are no 'barely contained grinning' or 'antics' from the conductor. If people occasionally half-smile now and then it's in response to the almost unbearable tension, and if the conductor mopped his brow after the first movement, I would have done too. The dramatic stillness in the video has to be seen to be believed. Assuming, of course, that we're talking about the same performance.

But even if we aren't, David Stubbs's apparent preference for po-faced reverence in performances of serious (i.e. non-popular) music is precisely what spoils almost all performances of 'classical' music, robbing them of energy, spontaneity and engagement. Yes, 4'33" isn't a joke and shouldn't be treated as one, but likewise, the concert hall is not a church and shouldn't be treated as one.

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Terry Edwards
Dec 13, 2010 2:33pm

I was fortunate enough to meet John Cage a few times when I was a music student. He laughed readily & the humour of his work wasn't lost on him. There was a recording of 4'33" which I heard on my music course - amusingly there was a scratch on it, which Cage would have loved (he wasn't keen on recordings anyway). Where you 'hear' this piece is important. I was at the Barbican when the BBC S.O. performed it in 2004. As it was televised there were more lights than usual in the Barbican giving off quite a loud hum...

No one's yet noted the Absolute Zero reference yet. 4'33" = 273 seconds, absolute zero is minus 273 degrees. No such thing as silence, no such thing as absolute zero. Maybe. Cage's piece is the single most important piece of Western Art Music written in the 20th Century because it went beyond tonality/atonality/noise and made people think about sound. And I'll leg-wrestle anyone who says different... Thank you for listening.

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Johnny Nothing
Dec 13, 2010 2:35pm

Mr Stubbs, a terrific piece. I think Cage's composition is beautiful as a concept, and any performance (or recording of a performance) is beautiful because, well, sound IS beautiful. Sadly, no one shouts out "John Cage!" in the pubs I go to, nor "Freebird!" or "Judas!" either.

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Tom Bradshaw
Dec 13, 2010 2:37pm

In reply to James Holloway:

Oh right, I didn't actually realise there was a cd release as well. No, definitely the mp3.

@Andrew I wasn't trying to say they're the same, just that they can be compared if looked at in a certain way. I agree, it's good they didn't just produce a track with no sound, but if you listen to it on noise cancelling headphones essentially what you're hearing is what was heard in the recording studio, whereas I thought part of the point of the piece was that every time you listen to it it'll be different.

@Alex Yes, I liked Rebecca too!

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Dec 13, 2010 2:39pm

I believe Tom Bradshaw is right - the article understands the piece perfectly, but not Cage's sentiment. Cage not only embraced the absurd side to 4'33, he encouraged it. The fact that the piece is of such an arbitrary length and divided so whimsically into three movements is the epitome of absurdism - it invites music journalists to take the piece too seriously and look for meaning that's not there.

It's as if he saw The Quietus coming.

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Dec 13, 2010 2:40pm

In reply to James Holloway:

Hi James - it depends how you define 'wasteful'. A physical copy will give us, in years to come, a pyhsical reminder of the campaign and what it set out to achieve and perhaps inspire us to re-evaluate the piece once again and the various contexts in which it has been used. Perhaps if you don't enjoy listening to the CD, you could always reuse it as coaster.

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Dec 13, 2010 2:49pm

You might want to correct that unfortunate typo at the end of the fifth paragraph. I presume it is a typo and not deliberate ;)

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Ms Codex
Dec 13, 2010 2:56pm

Like a lot of art which is lasting, it comments seriously as well as having a sense of humour. A remarkable, visionary piece which has something to say about modern living, and true to the punk ideal of democratisation of music, where technical musical ability does not take over - we can all perform our own rendition of 4'33".

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Dec 13, 2010 5:32pm

the author seems to suspect that everyone is laughing at john cage whilst offering little evidence.

maybe i need to get out more and meet these hoards of philistines laughing down any attempt at high brow art form, or maybe they're just not so bothered and anyone who reads into it past the anti-cowell/factor vibes has done so to discover what inspired cage in the first place.

or what he attributed as inspiration at least.

giggle, but no why you're giggling please.

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Billy Maserati
Dec 13, 2010 6:34pm

In reply to jdh:

Funnily enough, I received the music industry newsletter from CMU today which included the line "What could be funnier that four minutes of silence appearing in the Christmas chart?" So I think Mr Stubbs is right: there are plenty of people who see this as little more than a practical joke. Personally, though, I'll welcome 4 minutes and 33 seconds of (close-to) silence and contemplation on any day, not just during the Xmas chart rundown...

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Frederick Harrison
Dec 13, 2010 11:29pm

Ear opening article on Cage's 4'33". The problem with performing the piece is that the temptation to make (or worse, NOT make) any sound during the performance focuses the attention on what has just happened,is about to happen or might happen instead of becoming aware of the ambient sounds of the performance space.

Glenn Gould cited audience noise as one of the reasons he retreated to the recording studio where he could edit many near-perfect performances into one flawless performance - marred, ironically, by his own verbal accompaniment picked up on the microphone during the recording process.

Lennon's cited "Two Minutes Silence", at least on LP, left one listening to the sound of the stylus navigating a supposedly silent groove. Mike Batt (via the Planets) provided a digital silence which left one listing to the low level ambient hiss of one's sound system.

Prior knowledge of the piece subsequently ruins the appreciation of the performance and - worse - deprives others of experiencing it in an environment of total innocence/naiveté/surprise.

The intrusion of the use of hand held devices (especially cell phones) into the performance space has complicated any subsequent performance of the work.

The details about Cage's experiences in an anechoic chamber were very enlightening. I have sometimes heard a high pitched drone in times of silence and attributed it to the lighting and/or electrical apparatus in the area - to find out that it is my own nervous system is quite a revelation.

I wonder of part of the "message" of the piece is that the listener can never regard himself as being totally objective as any reference to the performance must, by necessity, include his own internal sounds and the subjectivity of his own listening experience.

For the record, I was first introduced to Cage as a composer of something other than silence by the recordings of his works for piano on one of Brian Eno's Obscure Music recordings. I later heard "Indeterminacy" and realized that there's more to Cage than 4'33".

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Dec 14, 2010 1:33am

In reply to Frederick Harrison:

I think one should always be in a state of 4'33". Always with ears open for what is going on around them, but not always feeling they have to contribute to to the sound. Listen, I think is the important message here.
Good piece sir!

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Dec 14, 2010 2:20am

I don't its impossible to view John Cage as a serious piece of art and also an extremely absurd idea. In the same way, someone like Dali can be viewed as rather 'funny' or absurd whilst still being taken seriously. The whole point of art (to me) is be reflexive of society or the self. Both of which are at times absurd and need to be laughed at.

As long as people are laughing for the 'right' reasons there is no problem.

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Frederick Harrison
Dec 14, 2010 4:05am

In reply to Terry Edwards:

@Terry Edwards. Thank you very much for pointing out the absolute zero reference. I had wondered if part of the reason for the piece being composed was as commentary on the concept of absolutes.

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Bob Dickinson
Dec 14, 2010 12:58pm

It is quite easy to suggest that performances and recordings such as those associated with the CATM campaign are a 'misunderstanding' of Cage's original concept as has been stated in this article. The live global performance of 4' 33" last sunday night however marked a radical change in direction for this piece, moving it outside the concert-hall, the art gallery, etc., and into an altogether wider performance context, 'democratising' the piece and enabling it to be embraced by all (nearly 500 performers in as many locations). This is very much in keeping with Cage's philosophy, whose roots can be traced back to the writings of individuals such as Thoreau in the nineteenth century. I agree, Cage's 4' 33" is definitely "no laughing matter", but to assume that once it moves away from the preserve of "those who understand" it will become that, is I feel very much an "elitist" position and which in itself reflects a misunderstanding of the piece. The CATM campaign and the global performance have been embraced by many and, quite significantly, The John Cage Trust. For the first time perhaps, we have arrived at a true understanding of what this piece is about.

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Dec 14, 2010 2:50pm

In reply to Tom Bradshaw:

I hope you're joking in the suggestion that noise-cancelling headphones would affect the piece at all!

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Dec 14, 2010 10:45pm

Yesterday the best watched program on Dutch national TV ("De Wereld Draait Door" / "The World Keeps Turning"; normally a very fast program) showed a live-performance of 4'33" bij composer and pianist Reinbert De Leeuw (best known for his Satie-work); funny to see the reactions on the faces of the host and other guests. A TV-moment to remember. It starts at app. 25 minutes in. (Hope this works:)[tt_news]=19296&cHash=b17ca5d98fdcc5456a34234109c251fc

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Susan Scheid
Dec 15, 2010 12:00am

You've made the case for Cage's 4'33" eloquently. I started from the "he's a charlatan" position with regard to Cage, but as I delved into it, I began to understand more what he was about. I wrote about this at The post garnered some interesting comments/discussion, in particular, if of interest, see the comment by composer John Metcalf.

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End To End Benton
Dec 15, 2010 5:48am

I do think, if somebody's gone and bought this record just to laugh about it, I think they should throw it away. And then they should go and buy another copy because they like the song.

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Dec 15, 2010 3:43pm

Sorry to come late to the discussion, but aside from the phrase "it is the ultimate in 21st century unvolution, in brutal apres garde tyranny", this kind of article is exactly why I read The Quietus. Well done.

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Dec 16, 2010 3:18am

In reply to stick:

Why would he be joking?

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Mark Shulgasser
Dec 17, 2010 6:52pm

Isn't it a bit silly to be instructing people on what attitudes they should or should not have to 4.33?
Take it "seriously" if you wish, but really, all these ideas about the "beauty" of ambient sound, the definition of silence, the role of the performer vs. the composer, situationalism, the zen koan, have been well run into the ground by now. 4.33's force is in its continuing ability to uncover the elitist and authoritarian urge of music criticism.

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Dec 17, 2010 7:04pm

Let me clarify. Anything an happen during a performance of 4.33. The audience can sit in rigid or wrapt stillness and listen to the subway or the birds. Someone can whisper, as often happens at a concert, others can shush them, people can make deliberate and noises -- experimentally or dirisively, a shouting fight can break out . . . the laughter one sometimes hears is produced by the discomfort of the uncertainties of the situation. To instruct people to regard it as an obligatory meditation robs it of its essence. The moment it becomes a ceremony of Cage worship it becomes a bore.

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F Robert
Jan 6, 2011 3:16pm

The need to laugh also is telling how culturally silence is threatening.

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Jan 7, 2011 1:01pm

The CATM version should, as John Cage clearly indicated in his piece, not contain any sounds at all. No tweaks of leather jackets, coughs, no nothing. To present a recording with pre-recorded ambiental sounds would be to completely destroy the idea of 4'33. See the score depicted in the article? It's blank. No sound.

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julien sillard
Jan 10, 2011 12:05pm


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Liza-Ann McAllister
Jan 12, 2011 9:12pm


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Samuel Surtees
Jan 13, 2011 4:20am

Three words, noise cancellation headphones. That removes the whole point and purpose of the piece, it doesn't conform to any existing musical conventions, it's not music, rest in peace John.

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Vanny Lawrence
Dec 19, 2012 3:37am

About eighteen years ago I wrote a piece called 5'05" It was the best music I have ever written, and I was only seven years old. It is in three movements: tacet, tacet, and tacet. It took me three and a half years to write it.

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Mar 17, 2016 11:21am

Interesting. I am on a week of Cage's music at work. This is part of my discipline of listening to music I might never in my life get to hear unless I really make an effort to find it and hear it and I have heard some amazing music as a result, my productivity and enthusiasm for my work has gone up hugely too, my brain has been stimulated and that what music does for me. I will give 4'33" a full and proper listen at some point this week. I also have it on standby if at any time my boss should come into the office..

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