4'33" and Beyond

4'33" and Beyond

"There is no such thing as silence." John Cage

Los Angeles premieres

John Cage broke through a previously impassable threshold in 1952 when he first presented 4'33", the “silent” piece that now stands as his most famous, controversial and -- by his own estimate -- important work. For Cage, this landmark set a standard for aleatoric music and his idea that any sound may constitute music. This unique concert from CalArts' Experimental Music Workshop traces the enduring impact of 4'33" through an artistic lineage that runs from Cage, George Brecht and James Tenney to composers Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, and Michael Pisaro, and filmmaker Madison Brookshire.

4’33” and Beyond
(Experimental Music Workshop, March 21, 2008, REDCAT, 8:30 p.m.)

John Cage (1912–1992): Five (1988)
George Brecht (b. 1926): Event (1961) 
James Tenney (1934–2006): (night) for percussion perhaps, or ... (1971) 
Michael Pisaro (b. 1961): The Collection (2000) 


Madison Brookshire: Five Times (2007), b/w 16mm sound film
Jürg Frey (b. 1953): More or less normal (2008), world premiere
Antoine Beuger (b. 1955): ihwe tunings for twenty (2008), world premiere
John Cage: 4'33" (1952)

Fifty-six years after its composition and first performance, John Cage’s 4'33" is anything but a stunt. Beyond the discovery that ambient sounds had always been a part of the concert hall, and that the frame (i.e., performer, instrument, time structure) alone was sufficient for the creation of a musical event, is the realization that there are many kinds of musical silence. This idea has since been extensively explored by composers, beginning with Cage, continuing on into the heroic generation of American Experimental Music (Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, George Brecht, James Tenney, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, etc.), and their European friends (starting from Cornelius Cardew (England), Dieter Schnebel (Germany), Eliane Radigue (France), Urs Peter Schneider (Switzerland), among others) and beyond, with successive generations in Europe and the United States. At the 1991 composition seminar in the town of Boswil, Switzerland called “Stille Musik” (silent music), Christian Wolff, Urs Peter Schneider, Dieter Schnebel, Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, and a group of younger composers, including Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, gathered together to explore the work that they had already done with this concept. Beuger and Frey went on to found the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble—a collective whose name has become synonymous with this kind of music in Europe (and increasingly in North America, Japan and elsewhere). This tradition or tendency has influenced a large group of younger musicians, artists and filmmakers, including Madison Brookshire and several of those performing as part of the ensemble for this evening’s concert.

At the root of this music lies a belief that the concept and the experience of silence is one of the fundamental features of the musical experience. Curiously, silence itself, as a word, a metaphor, a description, a duration or a material has never received anything like a uniform definition. At the heart of the idea for this tendency (and of the work on this concert), is the belief that it is the task of the composer to determine the relationship between sound and silence; and that this relationship, far from being clear and stable, is always changing and developing.

The correspondence with the blank (or white) canvas, while very close, has one crucial difference. Cage has said that it was the experience of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings that motivated him to complete his silent piece. In addition, it is well-known that the creative and conceptual thought about the role, the function and the expression of the blank or monochrome canvas, of the raw material of art-making and the empty site has been crucially important to the evolution of art. (If one were even to start listing artists here, one would probably never stop. I mention only two personal favorites: the late German artist, Mauser, and the American monochrome painter, Marcia Hafif.) However, one can experience an “empty” space in an instant, whereas silence necessitates an engagement with its duration (however long). We all know that waiting runs entirely counter to the stated goals of our contemporary commercial world.

The idea of this program is to present a series of eight silences: landscapes with few obvious features, where quietness and stillness take precedence over “activity,”—where event is understood not as a succession of notes, but rather the establishment of an atmosphere. I feel that this music is nonetheless alive in many small ways. It is filled with a wealth of complex features, details which transcend notation and defy exact description. One might think of the diffuse, but still intense feeling of sunlight that emerges on the other side of a grey cloud, or the gentle roar of a river, two miles away, in a quiet forest.

Five (1988)
John Cage’s series of about fifty number pieces, written in the last part of his life (from 1988 to 1992) represents a large reservoir of silent music. The pieces all feature simple tones or actions, for which a certain window of time is given (so-called “time brackets”). Thus the first sound (or group of sounds) for each player inFive may begin at any time from 0’00” and 0’45” and may end at any time between 0’30” and 1’15”. Not only do the performers never know exactly how their sounds will fit in with others, it is also always possible for silence to break through the sound.

Event (1961)
This piece has, as its entire score, the following instruction:

EVENTpulse start 

pulse stop

The piece appeared as part of Fluxus composer/chemist/artist/handyman George Brecht’s box of notecard compositions (pieces which all fit on one side of a single small card) given the general title WATER–YAM. Although for many it is sufficient just to read the pieces (like poems, found events, or imaginary scores), the laconic brevity of the score also seems to beg for the occasional “realization.” To do this, one must occasionally go all the way back to the beginning.

For Percussion Perhaps, Or .... 


for Harold Budd 

very soft

very long

nearly white

James Tenney

How nice it is to be able to print complete scores in a program! This score is one of James Tenney’s Postal Pieces (a series of pieces that originally appeared as postcards). If Brecht’s music should occasionally be performed, as one aspect of its existence, I believe that Tenney’s music, no matter how abstract it sometimes seems, must always be performed. However nice this score is to read, it presents sonic challenges to everyone who attempts it (and there have been many beautiful realizations). The creation of shades of meaning, using a kind of “fuzzy” language (like fuzzy logic) places exacting demands upon the performers. How soft is very soft? How long is very long? And, especially, what could sound “nearly white”? (White noise with tones? The nearly white keys of the piano? Or something that is almost, but not entirely blank?)

The Collection (Pisaro, 2000) really is a collection of little pieces: singular, clear ideas made from primary musical materials. For a performance a group selects from the twenty-five pieces in The Collection, and then they are placed (freely or by chance) within a time framework (in this case about seventeen minutes), played one time or repeated. Many of the pieces thus overlap, creating a series of delicate chamber musics.

Madison Brookshire’s film FIVE TIMES (2007/8) is five film leaders, played back to back. From the filmmaker’s description: “Five rolls of film, unedited, spliced one after the other. The only images and sounds come from the light that reaches the film when it is loaded into and taken out of the camera.” The experience of watching such a film is much more complex (visually and psychologically) than a description of its content. This work has some obvious connections to the work of Cage, not least of which is that, that which is normally ignored or not seen at all becomes the foreground. The aspects of light and sound that emerge through the “cracks” of the process are all the more powerful in contrast to their surroundings.

More or less normal (2008) was written by Jürg Frey for the Experimental Music Workshop. The score is a single melody (in nineteen sections) that could be played as a solo, but which also has instructions for how to stagger the individual phrases of the melody amongst a group of up to nineteen performers (it works something like a musical canon, like those found in Bach’s Musical Offering). The greater the number of players, the shorter the duration of the piece will be: from twenty-three minutes as a solo to about four minutes as a piece for nineteen [because each of the nineteen musicians plays in this case only one phrase]. We will be performing a version for twelve musicians (lasting about eleven minutes). In essence what begins a melody turns itself into a kind of melodic-harmony (with rhythm).

Beuger’s ihwe tunings for twenty (2008) is another kind of “number piece.” This is the final piece in a series of twenty (for from one to twenty musicians, respectively). Each piece takes the number of players as the basis for a numerical/phenomenological structure designed to count each player as one. [The way in which this is done is fascinating, but far too complex to be summarized in a program note.] Each piece in the series is dedicated to someone who has been important to Beuger. In this case it is, as Beuger writes, “Jens Ihwe: professor for the study of literature at the University of Amsterdam (from the late ’70s until late ’80s). His work on the foundation of literary theory as a series of professional conversations on literature rather than as a would-be empirical science moved him to the periphery of the academic world, which he than left to become a poet and a farmer.” —Michael Pisaro, 2008 

Associated Images: 

FRI 3/21
8:30 pm

G - General Audience

M - REDCAT Members

ST - Students

CA - CalArts Students/Faculty/Staff