With just over a month to go before this year’s festival fun begins we are delighted to bring you our ‘In focus’ series, which looks at some of the works being performed this year in more detail. To kick off, the Artistic Director,
Tom Williams, considers one of the most controversial compositions of the twentieth century, John Cage’s 4’33.
John Cage was one of the leading figures of the avant-garde school that flourished in the post war era, and, despite many other achievements in the world
of music theory and composition, has become known in popular culture for his work consisting entirely
of silence: 4’33.
The work’s concept is a bold and dramatic gesture: pay a professional musician (or musicians) to go on stage and do nothing, and charge an audience for the pleasure of witnessing it. It is one of the most challenging works in the canon (and not just because audiences might spend most of it wondering if they have been conned out of their money); sitting quietly for that length of time is something that Western culture does not really train us for. Add to that the trappings of the modern concert hall with its conventions and expectations and the situation is made doubly strange. Controversy and notoriety are naturally sure to follow.
I went to hear the work ‘performed’ at the Barbican a couple of years ago and went through a strange mix of emotions. The first apparent was one of smugness; there I was, having done a fair bit of background reading and equipped with my postgraduate degree in musicology, bathing in an eccentric world of musical cleverness. All I had to do was hold the pose for four and a half minutes and then I could impress my friends with quotations from those articles I’d read over the interval gin and tonic. However, it wasn’t long before smugness turned to feelings of uneasiness, trepidation and almost fear.
I was suddenly very aware that I was in a large room with hundreds of people and couldn’t hear anything. It was a silence like I’d never experienced before. But hearing amidst ‘silence’ is much like seeing in the dark. When you first enter the pitch-black room you are faced wondering whether you will ever see the outline of an object again; then, slowly but surely, figures begin to emerge. The first sound of which I became aware was my breathing, shortly followed by that of the people either side of me. Then, a distant and high pitched hum, no doubt a by-product of some piece of electrical equipment in the concert hall. Before long I found myself in a hypersensitive world in which I was detecting (or was I?) every tiny pin drop in that space. If we are to entertain Cage’s concept then surely the music, no matter how random and disorganised, is in the nothingness, and experiencing it live can be as moving and as brilliant as hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for the first time.
Or maybe it can’t. The great joy of art is that it’s up to the individual to decide so come along on 23rd June and we can discuss what it meant to you over that interval gin and tonic…
Pimlico, 15th May 2018