Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I see that Alex Ross is putting up a link to a performance of this piece on a Dutch talk show. For some reason Blogger doesn't want to find it, so here is the link. Here is a version I can embed:

This is surely the definitive version, by the pianist who premiered the piece. I have written about this piece before, but it just keeps popping up. Like so much else from Cage it has an aura of mystic profundity at the heart of which is really just emptiness. Is it the profound emptiness of Tao? Or just vacuity? I once got into a three-day argument over the ontological status of the piece with a very learned philosopher. We finally declared an armistice by agreeing that this was not a piece of music as such, but a piece of 'meta-music', a piece, that is about music without actually being music. Perhaps the strongest argument for the piece is that it is absolutely original. Well, except that Erwin Schulhoff composed a piece exactly the same in 1919. Here is the third movement from Fünf Pittoresken:

Which consists entirely of rests. Cage's piece is a 'development' of this as he expands the concept to three movements. What do you think? A viable piece of music? Merely a dead end? An interesting concept?


Anonymous said...

I've never thought of Cage as a musician any more than I've thought of Duchamp as a urinal designer. Duchamp used a urinal to make art and Cage used music (or the lack of it) to make art. But that does not make him a musician. Surrealism was an intoxicating midlife crisis of 20th c art, where art acquired its ultimate Romantic expression as "pure disinterested form" and the medium became accessory.

But music is not a medium and should not be thought as such. I am willing to concede that Cage was a good artist but he was not a musician. For one thing I believed he had none of the innate talent (and I not even talking about Mozart here: John Lennon had innate talent Cage could only dream of.)

But surrealism is dead. The midlife crisis is over. Now it sounds very much like what a friend of mine said of modern classical music: "These artists seem to have run out of ideas."

Bryan Townsend said...

I think the distinction you are wanting to make is between art or music in the traditional sense and 'art' or 'music' in the sense of concept art. 4'33 is concept art in that it is really just a concept. Conceptual art so far seems to be rather a dead end. I did a more detailed discussion of Cage in this post: