No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4'33"

Kyle Gann

John Cage’s 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew.

Kyle Gann prefaces this look at Cage’s most widely recognized piece by addressing his own background with Cage and 4'33", namely that he performed it in a high school recital. The book cleanly pans over Cage, his influences, the process toward composing 4'33", the piece itself, and the various ways it has lived on and influenced new forms of music. Somewhat in the vein of a 33⅓ book, but focused on a composition instead of a recording, it’s a breeze to read — not too intellectual for summer beach reading.