4'33" is a musical work by avant-garde composer John Cage, often described (somewhat erroneously) as "four and a half minutes of silence."


Background and influences

In the late 1940s, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he "heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet there was some. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most notorious piece, 4'33".

Another cited influence for this piece came from the field of the visual arts. Cage's friend and sometime colleague Robert Rauschenberg had produced a series of 'white' paintings, apparently 'blank' canvases that in fact change according to varying light conditions in the rooms in which they were hung, the shadows of people in the room and so on. This inspired Cage to use a similar idea, using the 'silence' of the piece as an 'aural blank canvas' to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance.


The premiere of the three-movement 4'33" was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano, and lift the lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And after a period of time, he closed the lid once and rose from the piano. The piece had passed without a note being played, in fact without Tudor or anyone else on stage having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. Richard Kostelanetz suggests that the very fact that Tudor, a man known for championing experimental music, was the performer, and that Cage, a man known for introducing unexpected non-musical noise into his work, was the composer, would have led the audience to expect unexpected sounds. Anybody listening intently would have heard them: while nobody produces sound deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as challenging the very definition of music.

The length of 4'33" is in fact not designated by its score. The instructions for the work indicate that it consists of three movements, for each of which the only instruction is "tacet", indicating silence on the part of the performer or performers. The title of the piece in each performance is determined by the length of silence chosen. Cage chose the length of the famous first premiere performance by chance methods, and later joked that it just as easily could have been any other length, though it has been claimed that the choice was in fact deliberate, since four minutes and thirty-three seconds is 273 seconds. Absolute zero is at the temperature of -273 °C.


4'33" has been recorded on several occasions, one version being "performed" by Frank Zappa (part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute, on the Koch label, 1993). An 'orchestral' version of 4'33" given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in January 2004. A perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek version was recorded by the staff of the UK Guardian newspaper on 16 January 2004 [1] (http://stream.guardian.co.uk:7080/ramgen/sys-audio/Guardian/audio/2004/01/16/silence.ra). A (probably apocryphal) story tells that a 7" vinyl version of 4'33" was at one time popular on the juke boxes of a number of bars, as it gave customers a relief from an otherwise relentless soundtrack of rock and roll.

Other cultural references

The anarchist punk band Crass alluded to 4'33" with their song "They've Got A Bomb", which includes a silent gap in the music. The band has acknowledged the influence of Cage, and said that the idea of the space in the song, when performed live, was to suddenly stop the energy, dancing and noise and allow the audience to momentarily "confront themselves" and consider the reality of nuclear war (a film projected onto a screen behind the band continued to show images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). A studio recording of the song appears on their 1978 The Feeding of the 5000 LP (incidentally, early pressings of the same album also feature another silent 2 minute track, entitled "The Sound of Free Speech", the gap left by a track that workers at the record plant refused to press).

British techno duo Orbital released a version of their track "Are We Here?" entitled "Are We Here? (Criminal Justice Bill?)" which, in protest against the impending anti-rave Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (known informally as the Criminal Justice Bill before its enactment), consisted of four minutes of silence.

On their 1994 album Prick, rock band the Melvins recorded the track "Pure Digital Silence", which consists of about 90 seconds of silence. On the B side of their "Shit Sandwich" 7" is a cover of 4'33".

In July 2002 composer Mike Batt (best known for being behind the 1970s novelty/children's act The Wombles) had charges of plagiarism filed against him by the estate of John Cage after crediting his track "A Minute's Silence" as being written by "Batt/Cage". Batt settled out of court for an undisclosed six figure sum in September 2002. [2] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/2276621.stm).

External links

nl:Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds ja:4分33秒 pt:4'33"


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