The Curious Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Composition 4′33″


In most of the per­for­mances of John Cage’s famous­ly silent com­po­si­tion 4’33”, the per­former sits in front of what appears to be sheet music (as in the per­for­mance below). The audi­ence, gen­er­al­ly pre­pared for what will fol­low, name­ly noth­ing, may some­times won­der what could be print­ed on those pages. Prob­a­bly also noth­ing? Now we have a chance to see what Cage envi­sioned on the page as he com­posed this piece. Start­ing on Octo­ber of this month, New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art will exhib­it Cage’s 1952 score “4’33” (In Pro­por­tion­al Nota­tion).” You can see the first page above.

As you might imag­ine, sub­se­quent pages (view­able here) look noth­ing like a typ­i­cal score, but they are not blank, nor do they con­tain blank staves; instead they are tra­versed by care­ful­ly hand-drawn ver­ti­cal lines that seem to denote the units of time as units of space. In fact, this is exact­ly what Cage did (hence pro­por­tion­al nota­tion). On the fourth page of the score, Cage writes the fol­low­ing for­mu­la: “1 page=7 inches=56 sec­onds.” Artist Irwin Kre­men, to whom Cage ded­i­cat­ed the piece, has this to say about the unusu­al score:

In this score, John made exact, rather than rel­a­tive, dura­tion, the only musi­cal char­ac­ter­is­tic. In effect, real time is here the fun­da­men­tal dimen­sion of music, its very ground. And where time is pri­ma­ry, change, process itself, defines the nature of things. That apt­ly describes the silent piece — an unfixed flux of sound through time, a flux from per­for­mance to per­for­mance.

Inter­preters of Cage have fre­quent­ly tak­en his “silent” piece as a play­ful bit of con­cep­tu­al per­for­mance art. For exam­ple, philoso­pher Julian Dodd emphat­i­cal­ly declares that 4’33” is not music, a dis­tinc­tion he takes to mean that it is instead ana­lyt­i­cal, “a work about music…,” that it is “a wit­ty, pro­found work… of con­cep­tu­al art.” Think­ing of Cage’s piece as a kind of meta-analy­sis of music seems to miss the point, how­ev­er. Kre­men and many oth­ers, includ­ing Cage him­self, call this notion into ques­tion. In the inter­view below, for exam­ple, Cage does make an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “music” and “sound.” He favors the lat­ter for its chance, imper­son­al qual­i­ties, but also, impor­tant­ly, because it is nei­ther ana­lyt­i­cal nor emo­tion­al. Sound, says Cage, does not cri­tique, inter­pret, or elaborate—it does not “talk.” It sim­ply is. But the dis­tinc­tion between music and not-music soon col­laps­es, and Cage cites Emmanuel Kant in say­ing that music “doesn’t have to mean any­thing,” any more than the chance occur­rences of sound.

Cage’s rejec­tion of mean­ing in music may have played out in a rejec­tion of tra­di­tion­al forms, but it seems mis­tak­en to think of 4’33” as a high con­cept joke or intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise. Per­haps it makes more sense to think of the piece as a Zen exer­cise, care­ful­ly designed to awak­en what Suzu­ki Roshi called “the true drag­on.” In a 1968 lec­ture, the Zen mas­ter tells the fol­low­ing sto­ry:

In Chi­na there was a man named Seko, who loved drag­ons. All his scrolls were drag­ons, he designed his house like a drag­on-house, and he had many pic­tures of drag­ons. So the real drag­on thought, “If I appear in his house, he will be very pleased.” So one day the real drag­on appeared in his room and Seko was very scared of it. He almost drew his sword and killed the real drag­on. The drag­on cried, “Oh my!” and hur­ried­ly escaped from Seko’s room. Dogen Zen­ji says, “Don’t be like that.”

The sub­ject of Suzuki’s lec­ture is zazen, or Zen med­i­ta­tion, a prac­tice that very much influ­enced Cage through his study of anoth­er Zen inter­preter, D.T. Suzu­ki. Instead of prac­tic­ing zazen, how­ev­er, Cage prac­ticed what he called his “prop­er dis­ci­pline.” He describes this him­self in a quo­ta­tion from a biog­ra­phy by Kay Larsen:

[R]ather than tak­ing the path that is pre­scribed in the for­mal prac­tice of Zen Bud­dhism itself, name­ly, sit­ting cross-legged and breath­ing and such things, I decid­ed that my prop­er dis­ci­pline was the one to which I was already com­mit­ted, name­ly, the mak­ing of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sit­ting cross-legged, name­ly, the use of chance oper­a­tions, and the shift­ing of my respon­si­bil­i­ty from the mak­ing of choic­es to that of ask­ing ques­tions.

Cage, who loved Zen para­bles and was him­self a sto­ry­teller, would appre­ci­ate Suzu­ki Roshi’s telling of Zen­ji’s true drag­on sto­ry. While much of his com­po­si­tion­al work seems to skirt the edges of music, focus­ing on the neg­a­tive space around it, for Cage, this space is no less impor­tant that what we think of as music. As Suzu­ki inter­prets the sto­ry: “For peo­ple who can­not be sat­is­fied with some form or col­or, the true drag­on is an imag­i­nary ani­mal which does not exist. For them some­thing which does not take some par­tic­u­lar form or col­or is not a true being. But for Bud­dhists, real­i­ty can be under­stood in two ways: with form and col­or, and with­out form and col­or.” Read against this back­drop, Cage’s “silent” piece is as much a way of under­stand­ing reality—as much a true being—as a musi­cal com­po­si­tion express­ly designed pro­duce spe­cif­ic for­mal effects. And while his pub­lished col­lec­tion of lec­tures and writ­ings is titled Silence, as Cage him­self said of 4’33”, in a remark that pro­vides the title for the MoMA’s exhib­it, “there will nev­er be silence.” In the absence of for­mal­ized music, 4′33″ asks us to hear the true drag­on of sound.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Joey Ramone Sing a Piece by John Cage Adapt­ed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Watch a Sur­pris­ing­ly Mov­ing Per­for­mance of John Cage’s 1948 “Suite for Toy Piano”

Woody Guthrie’s Fan Let­ter To John Cage and Alan Hov­haness (1947)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • cheesefunnel says:

    …are you sure it’s not just noth­ing?

  • Brian Denton says:

    I make my kids play this piece every time we’re in a long dri­ve togeth­er.

  • Melissa B. says:

    It’s great to have more info about this piece. I was first intro­duced to it in a music class in col­lege and it has been quite fas­ci­nat­ing.

  • Kip W says:

    Erwin Schul­hof­f’s set of Pit­toresques from 1919 has one, “In Futu­rum,” that con­sists of intri­cate sets of rests with fan­ci­ful (and very visu­al) indi­ca­tions and notes, includ­ing a clear ances­tor of the ca 1970 smi­ley face. There’s also a frowny face, and one time, they both come togeth­er. A chal­lenge.

    The score is avail­able at IMSLP. I doubt Schul­hof (a Dadaist at least some of his too-short life) had the exact same aims as Cage, but maybe they had a Muse in com­mon.

  • Derrick Amin says:

    I’ve nev­er real­ly been impressed with Kant. And the John Cage piece (“4’33”) reminds me of why. Music is above all HUMAN. Humans are not soli­tary. We are at our best in com­mu­ni­ty. Of course, we are at our worst in com­mu­ni­ty as well. That is the point of Art, and Speech, and Music. They force us to rec­og­nize each oth­er. the baby’s cry. The moth­er call­ing her chil­dren for their evening meal. ALL are music, all are speech, all have mean­ing. Silence is pure. It antic­i­pates sound. and SOUND antic­i­pates MUSIC. Live in your silence. I Dare you!


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