Review Summary: A rejection of criticism and class. An unreproducible work.
No slice of 20th century avant-grade is more infamous than John Cage's 4'33. A widely reviled work, hailed as pretentious and egotistical, and decried as “pointless” or “not music”. This short composition is still as enticing as ever, inciting thousands of discussions and seeing many a recreation, from wild-man Frank Zappa, to modern emo cry-athletes The World Is A Beautiful Place... nearly 70 years after its creation. Theses have been written, speeches have been made, and so-on and so-on.
This is largely misconceived but, despite the performer having to shut their piehole, 4'33” is not actually 4 minutes of silence. If it was, it would be totally bonkers. Imagine pressing play on your computer and your speakers absorbed all the noise in the room; that would be crazy. You couldn't hear your cat meowing because you haven't fed it for two weeks. You couldn't hear your cell phone vibrating as your pimp calls you to tend to paraplegic Larry down at the docks. Pure silence would be sweet, because Larry makes you do weird things with ketchup. But in reality, even in a strictly-controlled, soundproofed laboratory environment, complete silence is not observably possible
. John Cage realized this. What he wanted was to remove himself from the performance, and let the audience to just sit and think while observing a chance array of ambient noises.
With this tacit simplicity in mind the actual performance is likely not terrible, despite the bounds of negative opinions. “Oh my goodness, this water fountain and all these trees is unbearable, i need Opeth” is not something yelled aloud during a performance. Very few people really hate the world so much that a regular old minute of silence on Remembrance Day causes them to chop off their ears with a pizza cutter and say “Please dear God, no more.”
Even if people do that though, these sparse moments in time actually serve to be a pretty callous rejection of conventional criticism. Think of it like this, any given period of four minutes is variable, fluid, and impossible to duplicate. It is impossible to replicate the same performance more than once. You could be listening to fireworks through the thin plaster walls of your house, you could be listening to raindrops through the open fire exit at an upscale venue. You could be smoking dank nugs in an dark alleyway, slinging bags o' rocks to your homies for wholesale distribution. On any given day, you could hear about 310 completely different renditions of this 4'33”. If we approach this thought using standard musical critiquing, it is impossible to pigeonhole. Of these 310 performances, if all are bad but a single diamond-in-the-rough is aurally pleasing, then what? You would be lying to call “it” either good or bad, as it would be both. It may be musical, it might not; but when people discuss it in critical terms of good or bad, unless they for some odd reason talking about individual occurrences (which is the ultimate subjective experience of sound and probably pretty burping hard to talk about), they are discussing the concept of 4'33”. By developing a solid opinion on 4'33”, across all possible performances, you have taken a stance on a concept.
So the subject of criticism definitely is not the wubbin' beats. The issue is all conceptual. The concept of silence. The concept of what music is, and what music isn't. The egotistical pretentiousness of an artist who thinks they can not do anything, and pat themselves on the back and say, “Yeah, I'm totally a genius for thinking of this, hur dur silence is so edgy”. That is what is criticized.
Why is this important? Well, more to the point, you have taken a stance regarding a goshdarn infinite number of concepts
. My man J-Cage once said “. . . Of the four characteristics of the material of music, duration, that is time length, is the most fundamental. Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length.”
Silence is essentially the elephant in the room when it comes to music (or “auditory occurrences” if you will). Everyone has heard those 5 seconds periods of nothing used to build anticipation in song. To build some kind of emotion, we will stop the song, and then start again. Silence in the context of those songs (let's say something by Emmure) holds a key role. It suspends emotion, yet lets nothing else in. A break before a brutal junzing breakdown to get people stoked for the windmilling can make your mosh pit the best ever. But nobody sits around and talks about rests or breaks, despite the fact they are everywhere and utilized constantly. Silence in music is suspension, and it has always existed in its own kind of suspension by never being discussed.
Now just bear with me, in 4'33” occurs a suspension of something that has yet to be established. This sounds kooky, but keep in mind that the only thing holding it together is that at some point it begins, and that at some point it ends. The only reaction one can have is a result of their expectations of the performance, and what they consider during those brief moments. The expectations of the listener predetermine the outcome of what they perceive, because nothing else steps in to draw their attention. The listener themselves becomes the junzing breakdown, the guitar-solo wankery, the late croon of despair. 4'33” has no base to which one can really derive any opinion or concept. Essentially, a performance of it is completely open to the listener's interpretation in the freest, most available way imaginable as it has no firm prerequisites.
This sounds stupid, but from a critical standpoint it is admirable because before this came out, nothing like 4'33” existed. Even today, any re-branding by a different composer or artist would only result in a different time duration of background noise. One would probably be pretty justified in saying John Cage himself couldn't be credited for it, as trademarking time and silence is not feasible. Yes, it is vague unattributable nonsense. But I could sit here and spend days typing the different thoughts of thousands of people who sat in different parts of the world and tried to explain this constantly evolving fluid concept of nothing
. Hell, this review is already 1200 words and I have barely made a concrete statement. Write a review of silence that's 500 words without looking like a Neanderthal, it's literally impossible. 4'33” is an expose of something that people never ever pay due attention to, despite the fact that you are constantly hearing the pseudo-silence of it at any given moment.
Now that we are at the brunt of it, the reason this vague work of art is a work of art, is because there are no clear guidances on how to interpret it. You are reading a review about an evolving ever changing piece of sound that relies on not utilizing any form any instrumentation. Maybe after you finish the next paragraph, you will realize you will never hear true and utter silence in your entire life. Maybe you'll think about penguins or what you are going to have for dinner when your family comes over this weekend. Maybe you'll simply think about what we expect from music, and why we expect it. You might even have the slight feeling that all music is just a moment in time, and that it cannot result in the same experience over and over again; you might even think that maybe all musical critique is entirely a worthless exercise. But I guarantee that no matter what you think, you will think of something that is entirely based on your own entirely subjective conjecture and has almost nothing to do with John Cage.
So in all, despite what the detractors may say, music or not, pretentious or not, 4'33” is one of the most thought provoking and well known compositions of the 20th century and it is impossible to deny it's influence or staying power. J.C. brought attention to a brutally obvious idea, and noone will ever be able to give any objective analysis and critique of it. So, for making me sit down at a computer today and fruitlessly try to explain nothing in a world filled with somethings, John Cage, I thank you.