4’33’’ of Silence

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4’33’’ of Silence

Quotations from :

Richard Kostelanetz Conversing with Cage

James Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage

Larry J Solomon’s essay on 4’33’’, The Sounds of Silence

The Premiere of 4’33’’


Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town!”  [Revill, 1992: 166] 

The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.  This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.  [Cage, (1954), 1968: 155]
Art can be practised in one way or another, so that it reinforces the ego in its likes and dislikes, or so that it opens that mind to the world outside.  [Cage in conversation with Womack M (1979), in Kostelanetz 1988: 42]

Dis-harmony: Cage Rebels against Schoenberg


"what I was interested in was noise.  The reason I couldn’t be interested in harmony was that harmony didn’t have anything to say about noise.  Nothing."  [Cage in conversation with Gagne + Caras, (1975) in Kostelanetz 1988: 6]


"Several times I explained to Schoenberg that I had no feeling for harmony.  He told me that without a feeling for harmony I would always encounter an obstacle, a wall through which I wouldn’t be able to pass.  My reply was that in that case I would devote myself to beating my head against that wall – and maybe that is what I’ve been doing ever since."  [Cage in conversation with Tomkins (1965) in Kostelanetz 1988: 5]

Percussion and the Prepared Piano:  Cage Redefines his Musical World


The Future of Music: Credo”

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. […]

Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds. 

[Cage, 1937, in Silence 1968: 3]
"(Avant-garde filmmaker) Oskar Fischinger told me that everything in the world has a spirit that can be released through its sound.  I was not inclined towards spiritualism, but I began to tap everything I saw.  I explored everything through its sound.  This led to my first percussion orchestra. "

[Cage in conversation with Kauffmann, (1966) in Kostelanetz 1988: 41]


Variations in gongs, tomtoms, etc. and particularly variation in the effects on pianos of the use of preparations, prepared me for the renunciation of intention and the use of chance operations.

[Cage in conversation with Smith 1983, in Kostelanetz 1988: 240]


"It [his aesthetic attitude] had nothing to do with the desire for self-expression, but simply had to do with the organization of materials.  I recognized that expression of two kinds, that arising from the personality of the composer and that arising from the nature and context of the materials, was inevitable, but I felt its emanation was stronger and more sensible when not consciously striven for, but simply allowed to arise naturally."  [Cage, 1948: 6] 

The ‘Tower of Babel’:  A Personal and Artistic Crisis


I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece (Perilous Night), and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all.  Or else, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves.  The whole musical situation struck me more and more as a Tower of Babel.  [Cage in Tomkins, 1965: 97]


I deduced that we were in a Tower of Babel situation because no one was understanding anyone else; for instance, I wrote a sad piece and people hearing it laughed.  It was clearly pointless to continue in that way, so I determined to stop writing until I found a better reason than “self-expression” for doing it.

[Cage in conversation with Furman, (1979) in Kostelanetz 1988: 215]

A Paradigm Shift: Cage Discovers Eastern Philosophy


Gita Sarabhai, an Indian musician who had approached Cage wanting to learn about Western music. When she returned to India, she gave him a copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, a book that also “took the place of psychoanalysis”, as he said in 1961.  [Cage, 1961, in Kostelanetz 1974: 138] 
The Transformation of Nature in Art and the Dance of Shiva, by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy: Art should “imitate Nature in the manner of her operation.” 


Before she [Gita Sarabhai] returned to India, I learned from her the traditional reason for making a piece of music in India:  “to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” 

Now the question arises:  What is a quiet mind?  Then the second question arises:  What are divine influences?  […]
We learned from Oriental thought that those divine influences are, in fact, the environment in which we are.  A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come into our senses and up through our dreams.  [Cage in conversation with Kauffmann, (1966) in Kostelanetz 1988: 41]


I was almost forty years old before I discovered what I needed – in Oriental thought.  It occupied all of my free time (aside from musical work) in the form of reading and attending classes of Suzuki for several years [during the late forties].  I was starved – I was thirsty.  These things had all been there in the Protestant Church, but they had been there in a form in which I couldn’t use them.  Jesus saying, “Leave the Father and Mother,” meant “Leave whatever is closest to you.”  [In conversation with Waddington (1972), in Kostelanetz 1988: 13]


in the 1948 lecture, A Composer’s Confessions:


I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co.  It will be 41⁄2 minutes long – these being the standard lengths of “canned” music, and its title will be “Silent Prayer”.  It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower.  The ending will approach imperceptibility.  [Cage in Pritchett, 1993: 59] 


Silence as Structure


"Duration is the only correct structural element for the composition of music, as it is common to both sounds and silence.   As he put it:  “There can be no right making of music that does not structure itself from the very roots of sound and silence – lengths of time.”  [Cage, In Defence of Satie (1948), in Kostelanetz 1974:  77-84]

As Pritchett describes it, [Pritchett, 1993: 39]  Cage associated the traditional, nineteenth-century, intensely progressive use of a structure based on harmony with ego-attachment in art, and he saw his new theory as the saviour of contemporary music.  He felt that music based on a harmonic structure was lacking this basic, physical principle, and had “practically shipwrecked the art on an island of decadence.” 


a new tactic in his quest to remove personal musical ideas and preferences from his work.  Inspired by his study of Eastern philosophies, and the work of his close circle of contemporaries, including Marcel Duchamp, Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman, he began to use chance techniques in his composition.


Sounds should be honoured rather than enslaved.  I’ve come to think that because of my study of Buddhism, which teaches that every creature, whether sentient (such as animals) or non-sentient (such as stones and air), is the Buddha.  Each being is at the centre of the universe, and creation is a multiplicity of centres. 

[Cage in conversation with Mazo, (1983), in Kostelanetz 1988: 232]


Cage’s study of Zen was also an important factor in his move towards chance.  Of particular importance here was the Zen concept of “No-Mindedness”, as expressed in the Zen master Huang Po’s book Doctrine of Universal Mind.  The central theme of Huang Po’s teaching was the need to rid oneself of conceptual thought in order to apprehend ultimate ‘Reality’.  [Pritchett 1993: 77] 

The ego is seen as the one barrier to experience.  Our experience, whether it comes from the outside or the inside, must be able to “flow through.”  Irrationality, or “no-mindedness,” is seen as a positive goal, which is “in accord with” the environment.  [In conversation with Waddington (1972), in Kostelanetz 1988: 13]


No-Mindedness,” as Po describes it in the first quote above, is a state of consciousness in which one can access the “One Mind.” This was a concept that Daisetz Suzuki also talked about, as the “Big Mind” – a state of consciousness in which the ego does not impose any limitations with it’s likes and dislikes, and one can have a direct experience of the world – the “Big Mind” contains the entire universe. 

He [Suzuki] said, “This is the state of the mind, and this is the ego.  The ego can cut itself off from this Big Mind, which passes through it, or it can open itselfup.”  He said, “Zen would like the ego to open up to the Mind which is outside it. (...) That’s why I decided to use the chance operations.  I used them to free myself of the ego.

[Cage in conversation with Furman (1979), in Kostelanetz 1988: 229]


Cage felt that by introducing chance he could remove more of his likes and dislikes, thus getting closer to Coomaraswamy’s “Nature” or Zen’s “Big Mind”.


Expression vs. Renunciation


Cage was given a copy of the Chinese I-Ching, or Book of Changes, by his friend Christian Wolff, and was immediately struck by the similarity of its chart of hexagrams to his own sound charts.  [Pritchett 1993: 70]   

The Anechoic Chamber


I made a decision in the early fifties to accept the sounds that are in the world.  Before that I had actually been naïve enough to think there was such a thing as silence.  But I went into an anechoic chamber

[… this is a room constructed for engineering purposes that was “as silent as technologically possible in 1951.”[Cage, 1955 in 1968: 13] …]

in Cambridge, at Harvard University, and in this room I heard two sounds.  I thought there was something wrong with the room, and I told the engineer there were two sounds.  He said describe them, and I did.  “Well,” he said, “the high one was your nervous system and the low one was your blood circulating.”  So that means that there is music, or there is a sound, whether I intend it or not. 

[Cage in conversation with Furman (1979), in Kostelanetz 1988: 229]


After his time in the chamber, silence was no longer ever ‘silent’ for Cage – he was aware that there are always sounds, that silence is not an acoustic phenomena but a mental one, purely subjective, a product of non-attention, shutting-off – “a change of mind, a turning around”. [Cage in Revill 1992: 52]  It was a revelation – there was no such thing as ‘silence’, there were only sounds: what he had previously referred to as silence was in fact filled with unintentional sounds.  Cage spoke about the new perspective the experience gave him in 1961 –


Until I die there will be sounds.  And they will continue following my death.  One need not fear about the future of music. 

[Cage (1961) in 1968: 8]


the opposition of sound and silence became the opposition of intention and non-intention, which was a duality he found it easy to transcend.” [Pritchett 1993:75] 


I then realized that I was, so to speak, a walking concert and that I didn’t really intend to be that.  I saw myself at a crossroads of either going, as most people do, in the direction of their intentions, or in the direction of freeing the music from my intentions.  [Cage in conversation with Snyder (1985), in Kostelanetz 1988: 229]


Airports for Shadows


For by keeping thyself empty and bare, merely tracking and following and giving up thyself to this darkness and ignorance without turning back, thou mayest well win that which is all things. 

[Evans trans. from Meister Eckhart 1924-1931: vol.1:127]


Robert Rauschenberg was experimenting with abstraction in his work, and he had arrived at an avant-garde extreme – the canvases that Cage saw were completely blank.  They were, as Cage would later put it, “airports for particles of dust and shadows that are in the environment.” [Cage (1968), in Kostelanetz 1988: 188] 

On seeing the paintings, Cage knew that he could no longer hold back on creating 4’33’’ – they gave him “the courage to take the path, come what may”.  [Cage in Campana 1985:103] 


You see I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it would appear as if I were making a joke.  In fact, I probably worked longer on my “silent” piece than I worked on any other.  I worked four years …

just to get up the guts

Actually what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg.  His white paintings that I referred to earlier:  When I saw those, I said, “Oh yes, I must; otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging. 

[Cage in conversation with Gillmor + Shattuck (1973), in Kostelanetz 1988: 67]



In the summer of 1952 Cage sat down to write 4’33’’, using chance methods to determine the length of its three movements.  Exactly why Cage chose the length of four minutes and thirty three seconds remains a mystery – it may have been purely coincidental, but the length may have some symbolic meaning.  4’33’’ equals 273 seconds, which may be a reference to absolute freezing point, -273º Kelvin, where there is no molecular activity. 
Silent Prayer” to Muzak, he may have given a clue to another symbolic meaning to the length of 4’33’’:  It may be a reference to the maximum attention span of a pop single.
Now it no longer has three parts, as it did originally.  You remember it has three movements, which are determined by chance operations.  Now I don’t have to use those chance operations, for we don’t have to think in terms of movements any more.  [Cage in conversation with Kostelanetz (1966), in Kostelanetz 1988: 66]

A Noisy Reception – The Critical Confusion over 4’33’’


There’s no such thing as silence.  What they thought was silence [in 4’33’’], because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.  You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement [in the premiere].  During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.  [1982, in Kostelanetz 1988: 66]


I have never gratuitously done anything for shock, though what I have found necessary to do I have carried out, occasionally only after struggles of conscience, even if it involved actions apparently outside the “boundaries of art.” [Cage, (1956) in Kostelanetz 1974: 117]


Reasons for Silence 


I wanted to show that doing something that is not music is music  [Cage (1972), in Kostelanetz 1988: 100]


Cage had moved from an exploration of his tastes to an exploration of chance systems.  This was not an ‘opting out’, an abandonment of composition but a consciously driven change, an attempt to get closer to a simulation of his idea of ‘natural systems’, and to bring people closer to the sounds of their environment:


I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel 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.  [Cage in conversation with Goldberg (1974), in Kostelanetz 1988: 65]

Reverberations:  4’33’’’s Lasting Influence on Cage’s Composition


I always think of it before I write the next piece.”  [Cage (1982), in Kostelanetz 1988: 66]

that’s why I so much enjoy the sounds of my environment, whatever they happen to be, because the rhythm and everything about them has a beautiful freedom.  When I am composing I keep that idea of everyday ambient noise as a kind of model.  [Cage in conversation with Marcus (1970), in Kostelanetz 1988: 234]


In retrospect, then, the primary significance of 4’33’’ lies precisely in its inferences, which gave Cage and others “reason” or “permission” to create eventually a musical theater that is indeterminate not only in its composition but its performance too – aleatory kinetic presentational structures that are chaotic in both structure and detail.  [Kostelanetz 1974: 197]




I frequently say that I don’t have any purposes and that I’m dealing with sounds, but that’s obviously not the case.  On the other hand it is.  That is to say, I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases.  Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

It’s very simple to show, and we’ve already talked about it.  If I have a particular purpose, and then a series of actions comes about, and all I get is an approximation of my purpose, then nothing but a sort of compromise or disappointment can take place.  And perhaps that still takes place when my purpose is to remove purpose, namely, I see that I haven’t really done it.  But at least I’m going along in that general direction.  [Cage in conversation with Reynolds (1961), in Kostelanetz 1974: 217]
Cage: "Satori is difficult" (conversation with Kosugi, 2008)


We can set up ideals as I do – and I really do believe in them – about getting rid of likes and dislikes; and after every moment I say it, I have to confess that I still have them.  I do try to get rid of them, but they pop up all the time.  [Cage in conversation with Kostelanetz (1967), in Kostelanetz 1974: 32]


If absolute or total indeterminacy is not possible, is it then futile to attempt merely to approach it?

It’s not futile to do what we do.  We wake up with energy and we do something.  And we make, of course, failures and we make mistakes, but we sometimes get glimpses of what we might do next.  [Cage in conversation with Gillmor (1976), in Kostelanetz 1974: 74]


Silent Teaching:  4’33’’’s Wider Reaching Philosophical Implications


What really pleases me in that silent piece is that it can be played any time, but only comes alive when you play it.  And each time you do, it is an experience of being very, very much alive.  [Cage 1981: 153]


when I say, for instance, ‘Make a disciplined action’, I’m not saying, ‘Do whatever you like’, and yet that’s precisely what some people now think I’m saying.” [Cage (1975) in Kostelanetz 1988: 234] 

I’ve said in so many of my writings – from zero (by zero I mean the absence of likes and dislikes) who are not, in other words, changed individuals, but who remain people with particular likes and dislikes, then, of course, the giving of freedom is of no interest whatsoever.  [Cage (1975) in Kostelanetz 1988: 105] 


I think that modern art has turned life into art, and now I think it’s time for life (by life now I mean such things as government, the social rules and all those things) to turn the environment and everything into art.  In other words, to take care of it, and to change it from being just a mess into being something which facilitates our living, instead of making us all miserable.  [Cage in conversation with White (1975) in Kostelanetz 1988: 212] 


4’33’’ as an Open Letter


4’33’’ provides a window on the world, a meditation, an opportunity for reflection – and also, something of a teaching – according to Cage’s thinking, 4’33’’ does not provide a space in which everything is permitted, but instead offers an opportunity for discipline, a space in which to learn about ourselves and our feelings, not just to express anything that comes to mind, but to quietly observe – a space in which all sounds, and by extension, all things are treated equally. 

Pritchett: comparison between 4’33’’ and the traditional “ox-herding pictures” of Zen [Pritchett 1993:  60] 
These pictures compare the path to enlightenment to the taming of an ox – the ox becomes more and more disciplined and docile, and eventually disappears completely.  In one version of the pictures, the last picture is only a blank circle.  Its accompanying text perhaps sums up Cage’s environmental, philosophical and compositional concerns nearly as well as a performance of 4’33’’ could:


Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left,

The bright moonlight is empty and shadowless with all the ten thousand objects in it;

If anyone should ask the meaning of this,

Behold the lilies of the field and its fresh sweet-scented verdure

[Suzuki, 1935: 171]

Notes + Acknowledgements


Richard Kostelanetz: Conversing with Cage

James Pritchett: The Music of John Cage,

Larry J Solomon: 4’33’’, The Sounds of Silence


Cage / Modern Music


Cage, John (1946) The East in the West, Modern Music 23, pp. 111-15

Cage, John (1948) A Composer’s Confessions, Musicworks No. 52, (Spring 1992), pp. 6-15

Cage, John (1968) Silence, London:  Calder and Boyars.

Cage, John (1981) For the Birds, in Conversation with Daniel Charles, Boston: Marion Boyars.

Gann, Kyle (1992) “Philosopher No More,” The Village Voice, 25 August.

Griffiths, Paul (1981) Cage, Oxford Studies of Composers no. 18, London: Oxford University Press.

Henehan, Donal, (1981) “The Riddle of John Cage”, The New York Times, 23 August.

Kostelanetz, Richard (1974) John Cage, New York: Praeger Publishers.

Kostelanetz, Richard (1988) ed., Conversing with Cage, New York: Limelight.

Pritchett James, (1993) The Music of John Cage, Cambridge, UK: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Revill, David, 1992. The Roaring Silence, New York: Arcade.

Salzman, Eric (1988) Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction, 3rd edn.: Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Schwarz, K. Robert (1996) Minimalists, London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Solomon, Larry J (1998) The Sounds of Silence,  http://www.azstarnet.com/~solo/4min33se.htm

Tomkins, Calvin, 1965. The Bride & the Bachelors New York: Penguin/Viking, 1965.

Zen / Philosophy


Blakney, Bernard trans. (1941) Meister Eckhart:  A Modern Translation, New York:  Harper and Brothers.

Blofeld, John, trans. (1947) The Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind, London: Buddhist Society.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. (1934), The Transformation of Nature in Art and the Dance of Shiva, Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press.

Evans, C. de B trans. (1924-1931) Meister Eckhart by Franz Pfeiffer, London:  John M. Watkins

Suzuki, D.T. (1935) Manual of Zen Buddhism, Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society.

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