The following article was published in N-SPHERE August 2010 issue.


Within his contribution for a collective volume: Qu’est–ce qu’un chef–d’oeuvre?, chapter “Le chef d’oeuvre – un fait culturel”, Matthias Washek remarks, after examining the differences between the pre–modern and contemporary masterpiece, that the latter, with it’s capacity to escape any firm definition, may yet be regarded as the aftermath of a stance taken beyond any limit or rule, imposed by reason or common sense.

Perhaps, 4’33’’, Cage’s most representative work, could easily be considered a masterpiece. In time, it certainly acquired that canonical status, which also managed to forecast the neo–avantgarde movements. Its fait character would call for a rather anthropological approach, questioning the history of its progressive gain of authority, its impact on the public, the context and even the audience’s private sensibility. Though interesting, I am going to leave all these aspects aside and concentrate on the piece’s initial, intrinsic, value which revolutionised the art world. Or, in the terms mentioned above, inquire into the method used by Cage to surpass old paradigms.

The entirely silent piece, passing as a radical approach in the eyes of the general public, gained almost an emblematic status within John Cage’s much diversified opus thanks to the way it concentrated the artist’s ideas on art and music, and ultimately his Weltanschauung. Thus, his main proposal for the piece was a non–discriminatory approach to pure sounds (let sounds be themselves), ergo a new consideration on the way art and life interact.

In an interview with Jeff Goldberg, Cage states: It [4’33’’] has 3 movements and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went to a concert hall. I chose this particular paragraph for its clear statement–value and its insights through which one could easily guess what implications this kind of proposal may have.

Before proceeding, let me remind you that 4’33’’ was composed – as if composed was still the right word – in 1952. Much later, John Cage mentioned that he had started thinking about the concept (I only have to tip off his influence on the development of conceptual art) in 1948, after a conference about Oriental philosophy at Vassar College, but out of fear of misapprehension, didn’t bear to develop further on the idea. Luckily, the White Paintings, first exhibited in 1951, of his friend from Black Mountain college, Robert Rauschenberg, encouraged him to recall his plan. Cage described the paintings as airports for particles and shadow; a way of making emptiness visible.

Certainly, following the Zen Buddhist system, Cage would never have considered himself an illuminated soul, yet, he made the illumination of other people his own cause: Art is everywhere, it’s only seeing which stops now and then. So, he required his audience to listen to silence, to perceive the sounds of the environment as music, and to focus on reality in a non–selective manner (as previously mentioned, to be free of likes and dislikes). Whoever followed his instructions discovered that absolute silence does not exist naturally in our world and that silence may only operate from a conceptual level. Thus, the Cagean silence stands against the traditional, western European, silence. If the latter was regarded as an interim between two or several sounds, an interruption of the initial sequence of sounds, being able to grant expressiveness or warp the architecture of a musical piece, the silence proposed by Cage acquired independence and became a musical sign of it’s own. The new sign received, in the mathematical sense, a negative value.

This whole redefinition of silence not only introduced a new way of perception and comprehension of sounds and noise, but requires a reconsideration of the classic definition of music. By forcing the perception of life as art, the limit between art and life may end. Furthermore, the choice to follow the oriental philosophy precept of non–action and to stand back and relinquish the responsibility of the artist – who, until that moment, had been exerting his will and power to create – entitled the audience to take part in the creative process. Therefore, through such methods, the old hierarchy between composer and performer, performer and audience becomes invalid.

This is why John Cage’s 4’33’’ is probably the apex of a series of changes which regarded the way a work of art operates and its teleology. From similar efforts, e.g. Rauschenberg’s empty canvases or Nam June Paik’s endeavours, a certain erasure of the traditional duality of form and meaning is implied. I’m tempted to perceive this as a way two process: the medium is of superior importance, thus the traditional external references become unnecessary through the osmosis of the signifier and the signified (the refusal of a referent and the traditional ways of representation were, at that time, also discussed in post–structuralist circles – see for example Derrida’s archi–écriture theory).

Giving up the rather traditional western custom of expressing his own individuality and choosing to no longer actively exercise his role as an artist are two options who may remind of the Buddhist methods of ego dissolution. After all, non–determination (different from indetermination) allows nature to manifest itself through chance, which, according to Zen Buddhist thinking, is a nature–governing law – somewhat similar to the western fortuna.

In a certain way, John Cage’s piece is implying a “re–enchantment of the world”, from both the western and eastern perspectives. The silence in 4’33’’ established a new the connection with another type of silence*, which contains and is able to generate all the possible worlds**.

*void, null, absolute zero. 4’33’’= 4×60’ + 33’’ = 273’’; –273°C = 0°K

**West: the Prologue as aeon which precedes the activation of this world by the Logos. East: Simultaneously there comes the recollection of a strangely grim Buddhist legend. Once the Buddha smiled; and by the wondrous radiance of that smile were countless worlds illuminated. But there came a Voice, saying: ’It is not real! It cannot last!’ And the light passed. (Lafcadio Hearn. 2008. Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan)

Artwork: Vel Thora. Interpretation in ink of 4’33’’

by Roxana Vasile.

Full article here.