John Cage’s Place at the Center of
We could start at the beginning.
Chronologically speaking, the first piece on
our list of 101
Essential 20th Century Pieces is the Piano Concerto No. 2 in
c minor of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1901). The piece begins with the
piano alone, simply stating a series of chords built on f, which
in the key of c can be heard as leading away from c or towards
it. At the end of this progression the piano lands solidly on c
and the orchestra begins the highly expressive main theme. Rachmaninoff’s
musical style is typical of Late- and Post-Romanticism — resolutely
tonal, with expanded harmonic, structural and expressive resources.
The Second Concerto is also typical, with its dramatic, impassioned
melodies, lush harmonies and pianistic heroism from the soloist.
At the same time, this Concerto looks forward
to the century it was born with in some telling ways.never plays the main theme that
is introduced immediately after the chordal introduction — a
great early example of 20th century alienation.
begins the piece as a still, small voice, and though the orchestra
is often “supportive” over the course of the piece,
the soloist remains apart, an individual amongst a crowd. Most
significantly, the soloist
We could start at the end.
Chronologically speaking, the last piece on
our list is Elliott Carter’s Symphonia: Sum Flexae Pretium
Spei, a large orchestral triptych that sums up musical modernism
as well as the composer’s career (he was 87 when he completed
it). The three panels of the triptych are roughly analogous to
the first three movements of a traditional symphony — dramatic
and fast, slow and expressive, fast and light. The open-ended,
finale-less structure is just one touch of the irony with which
Carter infuses his music.
The music of the third panel, “Allegro
scorevole” (“fast, scurrying”), as the title
implies, flies up and down through musical space with incredible
speed. The predominant mood of the piece is that of serious lightness,
with music that flows and tends to be soft rather than loud.
The trajectory of the scurrying music is upwards,
with contrasting lyrical passages that are rather more earthbound.
After a climax of the lyrical material, a coda briefly combines
the lyrical and the scurrying until a lone piccolo quietly ends
the piece in its highest register. The century ends, then, the
way it began: with a still, small voice.
We could start in the middle, or to be more
exact, in the center.
For certain engineering purposes, it is
desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room
is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material,
a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several
years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described
them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one
was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.
Until I die there will be sounds.
Silence had played an important role in John
Cage’s music even before his experience in the anechoic chamber.
His pieces of the 1940s (including the Sonatas and Interludes for
prepared piano) were conceived in terms of rhythmic structures
that Cage filled with sounds (notes) and silences (rests). He was
not first composer to make expressive use of silence, but he certainly
was one of the first to make extensive structural use of the empty
musical space of silence.
walked into the anechoic chamber looking for nothing. Though he
didn’t find it, he didn’t come away empty-handed either: “Until
I die there will be sounds.” He knew then that when he filled
the empty spaces in his rhythmic structures with rests, he wasn’t
really filling them with silence. In order to give an audience
an experience in some way analogous to his own in the chamber,
Cage wrote a piece with nothing but empty musical space.
The score of 4'33" (1952) consists of
one page, with indications of three movements, each marked “TACET.” Tacet
is a standard musical term that is usually used in individual instrumental
parts to indicate that that instrument does not play in the movement
in question. The word itself is Latin for “be silent.” The
title of the piece is the total amount of time pianist David Tudor
devoted to the three movements in the first performance. These
timings are included in Cage’s note with the score, but are
not part of the score itself. 4'33" can be performed
by any combination of instrumentalists and/or singers.
Given my intention to discuss these pieces in
terms of what they sound like, how does one discuss the sound of
a piece of music that contains no notes, no intentional sounds
whatever? Well, like almost any other piece of music, it depends
on the performance.
The role of the performer(s) in 4'33" is
to let the audience know when the movements have begun and when
they are over. That is, a performance of 4'33" is concerned
with establishing a frame around the piece.
In traditional concert music (including the
vast majority of “avant-garde” music) that part of
the frame that separates the piece from that which is not — the
piece is straightforward: Everyone gets quiet and then the music
starts. But even in traditional music there’s more to the
frame than that.
In the long-running critical discussion about
the decline-demise-death of concert music much is made about the
supposed “stuffiness” of concerts and how that may
be keeping people away from the concert hall. This stuffiness includes
the formal dress of the performers (and a significant portion of
the audience) and the expectation that the audience will not make
sounds during the performance.
For me, though, the formal dress of the performers
is an important part of the concert as an event. It communicates
that what you are about to experience is a kind of heightened reality,
something beyond the everyday that reflects back and deepens that
And the requirement for the audience to be quiet
during a performance leads back to 4'33". The emptiness
of Cage’s structure is filled with the unintentional sounds
of the audience, the heating/air conditioning machinery, outside
noises, etc. These sounds occur during performances of other pieces,
too, but we work (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to
keep them from our consciousness. Cage asks us do the opposite
in 4'33", and a good performance makes that easier to do.
If a performer camps up the beginning and ending of the movements,
the effect is lessened, much as the effect is lessened in a performance
of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata if the important
structural points aren’t articulated, for example. I’ve
seen such a performance, and the piece is reduced to an undergraduate
In a good performance, where the frame is given
with serious lightness, the result is magical. Sounds that are
normally irritants are now in the foreground. Cage gives us the
opportunity to hear the unintentional sounds around in a new way,
the same opportunity he gives us to hear the intentional sounds
in his other pieces — as new sounds.
And that is why 4'33" is in the center
of the century’s music. Like Rachmaninoff (with his alienated
soloist/hero) and Carter (with his light “finale”),
Cage wants us to have a new experience in the concert hall, to “breathe
the air of different planets,” as Stefan George put it. These
composers challenge us, they ask a lot of us as an audience, but
in the end it comes down to one thing: