No Such Thing as Silence by Kyle Gann

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Innovative composers have always broken rules, but John Cage effectively broke composition. His most famous piece, titled 4'33”, presented a blank score. An absence of musical notes, for Cage, was an appeal to find musical value beyond the strictures of conventional listening. “There is no such thing as silence,” Cage once wrote. “Something is always happening that makes a sound.”

No Such Thing as Silence

By Kyle Gann
Yale University Press
The critic Kyle Gann has plucked this quote to title his new study of 4'33”. Gann, a composer, professor, and longtime columnist for the Village Voice, offers a concise account of Cage's artistic development and an expert lens to frame the reception of this work. “If you can turn toward the whir of the wind in the oak trees or the pulse of the ceiling fan the same attention you were about to turn to the melodies of the pianist,” Gann writes, “you may have a few moments of realizing that the division you habitually maintain between art and life, between beautiful things and commonplace ones, is artificial, and that making it separates you off from life and deadens you to the magic around you.”

The purpose of 4'33” is to spread this realization through an audience that may or may not have expected to hear a work of conceptual art. Widen your senses, Cage suggests, and mundane tones can be fascinating, even liberating. This idea gestated in Cage for many years, and lay at the confluence of the composer's diverse readings. He was deeply affected by Zen Buddhism, and 4'33” is often interpreted as a kind of koan in which nonsense and unreason give way to a complex realization. Cage also felt the impact of transformative Modernists like Marcel Duchamp, whose readymade sculptures repositioned commonplace objects as artworks, and Luigi Russolo, whose Art of Noise manifesto called for the reevaluation of sounds that are often dismissed as noise. For a time, Cage was even a student of the radical composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose twelve-tone scales broke with centuries of Western classical tradition.

But Cage was not an Eastern monk, nor a European firebrand like Duchamp or Schoenberg. Gann finds a distinctly American quality to Cage's pioneering work. In some ways, Henry David Thoreau was a direct predecessor because he shared the same insight into the nature of listening. In Cage's personal notes he recorded Thoreau's assertion that sound is constant, but listening is intermittent. They both reached the conviction that any soundscape at any moment can be tantamount to a symphony if one is properly attentive.

Ideally, for Cage, this should dissolve the barriers that delimit art from the routine world. Cage once argued this subject with the painter Willem de Kooning, who, exasperated, framed a pile of bread crumbs with his hands and said, “That's not art!” Cage insisted the contrary: Given a certain attentiveness, nearly anything can produce the feelings we associate with art, and perhaps we are cheating ourselves to voluntarily narrow its possibilities.

This rings of a left-field manifesto, but really it's not such an inaccessible idea. Even though 4'33” is regularly referred to as Cage's “least understood” work, Gann suggests that this might be the most widely grasped piece in all of avant-garde music. The initial jeers and bafflement have largely subsided as 4'33"  is all but canonized today. In fact, Gann devotes a large portion of his book to addressing common objections and misconceptions about 4'33”. Early on, he systematically derails four definitions of the word “hoax” as it might be applied to 4'33”.

Beyond these ardent defenses, there is palpable sense that Gann's life has been touched by Cage's work. He recalls performing 4'33” at his high school piano recital and later presenting the piece to illuminate a college class. And that's the unique beauty of 4'33” among all classical pieces: once heard, it can be performed by anyone, at any time, on a moment's whim. You simply stop and focus. Like Cage, Gann often 'performs' the piece alone in his home.

No Such Thing as Silence arrives amid a flourish in Cage studies, and Gann not only acknowledges this, but concedes that his work is less an original contribution than a distillation of recent scholarship. Yet the work is so broadly pitched that it often feels unstructured. It meanders from point to point, compiles stories and arguments, then ends abruptly. In the meantime, Gann presents so many subjects with such precision and agility that the complete lack of essayistic denouement is all the more surprising. Those unfamiliar with Cage will find a broad, accessible, and enthusiastic survey, but No Such Thing As Silence is less a work of criticism than an introductory course in Cage's most iconic, radical, and enduring accomplishment.