No Such Thing As Silence, By Kyle Gann

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The Independent Culture

Who would have thought that a book about nothing could be so rich, fascinating and enjoyable? Not that audiences for John Cage's notorious work 4 minutes 33 seconds hear nothing. Quite the reverse. As Gann points out, "By the time Cage died most critics fully understood that the listener was supposed to appreciate the sounds of the environment in which the piece was performed."

The odd thing about 4'33" is that it works. While driving up the A1 in 2004, I heard the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform the piece on Radio 3. Not perhaps ideal conditions for such a subtle experience but I can't remember listening to any musical work more closely.

Exploring how Cage came to produce a completely empty notational score (reproduced on page 182), Gann cites precedents ranging from Thoreau, who noted in 1857 "the commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears that the rarest music does", to Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings produced at Black Mountain College where Cage lectured.

The composer admitted these pallid canvases prompted his sound analogue: "When I saw those I said, 'Oh yes I must; otherwise I'm lagging, otherwise music is lagging.'"

Cage's fascination with Zen was also significant. One Zen exercise requires practitioners "to register only the sensory impressions that are immediately present... primarily whatever sounds may occur in the environment." Muzak was a more surprising catalyst. In a 1948 lecture, Cage declared his intention "to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 minutes long – these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music."

Despite the exhortation of one contributor to the "tumultuous" debate following the first performance of 4'33" in 1952 – "Good people of Woodstock, let's run these people out of town" – Cage's most extreme work has become the best known of all avant-garde compositions.

Sadly, a Dutch disc containing nine versions of 4' 33" (it is entitled 45' 18") is "almost unobtainably obscure" though a conceptual artist called Jonathon Keats has made Cage's work available as "a silent ringtone".

Exploring the cultural wellsprings of Cage's celebration of ambient sound, Gann has produced a triumphant vindication.