My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.