Detailed Discussion: John Cage: 4’33”

This is a detailed discussion of Cage 4’33”
The discussion was developed with the aid of an OMS Profile,  see the following .
OMS Composite Score is:  300

[1] 4_33 is an outstanding example of what I would call “Conceptual Art” in the field of music. In the field of music, I would define “Conceptual Art” as a work which

[a]  lacks some of the most paradigmatic characteristics of music

[b] has a large number of ancillary characteristics associated with music

Relating this to the  OMS Profile, note 4_33 provides almost no Sonic stimulation (##3 in the Profile); but it provides many kinds of stimulation in other categories, often to a high degree.

[2] 4_33 is a work of “silence”. From the OMS point of view, there are two kinds of silence:

[a] (“silence1”) Silence perceived as the absence of sound production by the performer, and where background noise is excluded. In this sense, background noise is not part of the experience – the listener ignores it.

[b] (“silence2”) Silence perceived as the absence of sound production by the performer, and where background noise is included. In this sense, background noise (air conditioner, coughs, street traffic, viral tune playing in my head) is part of the experience.

In most music, only silence1 is operable – e.g., if a cough is heard between movements of a Beethoven symphony, this is not considered part of the musical experience. However in 4_33, I think silence2 is also operable. I.e., if a cough occurs during a performance of 4_33, or someone whispers, or something is heard “in my head”, this is part of the experience of 4_33. In Cage’s score for 4_33, there are no comments to exclude either silence2 or silence1 as parts of the experience.

The interplay of silence1 and silence2 enriches the work considerably – see comments which follow.

[3] In the sense of silence2, 4_33 involves organized sonic stimulation: The sound is organized into three sections of fixed length. Of course this is a very loose organization. (Perhaps there is organized sound not only in the sense of silence2, but also in the sense of silence1.)

[4] One of the ways that 4_33 stimulates certain receptors is by violating expectation. E.g.: I attend a performance of contemporary music, expecting that my mathematical receptors will be stimulated by some of the music. If the first work presented is 4_33, my mathematical receptors will in fact be stimulated, but not in the way that I probably expected. The output of my receptors might be verbalized as follows: “Nothing much is happening. This is unusual. I don’t know what to do. I’m confused”. This is real stimulation, but it is unusual stimulation.

In music, stimulation via violated expectation is common; however the violations in 4_33 are very much out of the ordinary. (Think of 4_33 as a very radical variant of the 2nd movement of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony!)

[5] Is 4_33 a put-on ? I don’t think so. From examining the OMS Profile for 4_33, I think it is clear that 4_33 provides considerable stimulation to the “listener”, and it does so in a coordinated and artful manner. This is surprising, considering the minimal material that makes up the work. Accordingly, accolades are due Mr. Cage for achieving considerable stimulation with great economy of means!

However, it is hard for me to characterize this stimulation provided by 4_33. Is it rich or trivial; satisfying or disappointing; deep or shallow; … ? 4_33 is an unconventional work, so the usual methods of evaluation are not always useful. Most of my own evaluation has already been expressed in the OMS Profile for this work.

[6] I think the political stimulation of 4_33 is superlative, almost in a class by itself. 4_33 powerfully stimulates awareness of the possible roles/tasks/relationships of the composer, the performer, the members of the audience.

[7] An extraordinary feature of 4_33 is that it discloses an aspect of music as a kind of group meditation. I’ll try to verbalize this experience as follows: “I hear small sounds coming from other members of the audience – and even from inside my own head! I am aware that I and the other members of the audience are part of ‘the experience’. However, I also realize that our group-participation of the experience actually seems to be independent of any sounds that we produce. I.e., even if there were absolute silence2, 4_33 is still a group event. I also realize that the ambient sounds I experience are in a sense ‘extraneous’ – that in the ideal the perfect realization of 4_33 would be in absolute silence. So 4_33 is somewhat like a group meditation.”

What I have alluded to is not confined to 4_33: I have experienced performances of mainstream music where following the conclusion there is (sometimes a long) period of silence and there is the intense awareness of a wonderful group experience. 4_33 does a good job of bringing this aspect out in the open and making it “clear”.

Of course, there is also a novelty/oddity about 4_33 and even a sense of “phoniness” about the work. In many works, this would be a distraction. In 4_33, I think these aspects can be understood as part of the “background” that is typically part of a meditative experience

[8] In summary: I think that 4_33 can be understood as a very fine instance of conceptual art in music. It does what one would hope conceptual art could do: It provides a compelling, memorable experience – of a kind that would probably not be possible with “paradigmatic” (i.e. non-conceptual) music.