John Cage 4’33”- The idea of writing a silent piece of music

I have been reading a book by Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At, Language in 1960s Art, (2007) The MIT Press. Kotz addresses in this book how language became more evident and used in visual art from the 1960s onwards.

Kotz begins with discussing the groundbreaking silent composition, 4’33” made by the American composer John Cage in 1952. 4’33”, although composed as a piece of music, 4’33” was also notated entirely in words and numbers to make it accessible for people to read without musical training. This particular version of the score became widely circulated in the 1960s. What was ground breaking about this is how words could exist in a musical score, how they would occupy the space on a piece of paper. In his compositions that led to 4’33” in the 1930s and 1940s, Cage had gradually eliminated from his work many of the properties considered as musical conventions such as – melody, harmony and notes. Instead viewing music as the ‘organisation of sound and the musical composition as something like a time structure – a series of time lengths or “time brackets” that could be filled with any material or non.’ (Kotz L 2007)

In 1939 works such as First Construction (in Metal) and Imaginary Landscape No.1 dropped clusters of percussion sounds into pre determined grids of music. Cage came to conceive these as ‘musical structures based on lengths of time’ (Kotz L 2007). Imaginary Landscape No.1 involved records on different turntables being played at different frequencies. The use of recording instruments for music and tapes fitted with Cage’s idea of a pre determined time structure, available to be filled by any content with whatever happens at any time. For example just pressing the record button and recording the sounds in the surrounding space for a structure of time would also work.

Imaginary Landscape no. 1, 1939, Cubierta, cubierta interior y página 1, Credit line: Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing, Arts, Astor, Lenos and Tilden Foundations.

The score for Fontana Mix (1958) freely invented a complex, graphic notation. Cage returned to the idea of the music score but this time invented his own music notational systems, which correlated to similar systems found in conceptual art. It was a return to the idea that the artist puts forward a set of codes which are animated by the performer. For Cage, the relationship to the written score, time structure or invented graphic notation had a direct relationship to the performance. For example 4’33” may have appeared in some way an improvisation but it had to relate exactly to what was written down.

John Cage, graphic notation for Fontana Mix (1958) Hermmar Press Inc, New York

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