For the longest time I thought John Cage was an asshole. The first thing I knew about Cage was his infamous composition 4â€™33â€â€”four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. To my young mind, this seemed ridiculous, a joke, a lark, or worse, a way to make fun of the listener. But I was a lazy music student, and never bothered to interrogate the assumption Iâ€™d formed at my local community collegeâ€™s summer music camp. 4â€™33â€ continued as my sole association with Cage until I became interested in Abstract Expressionism and later Minimalism. Even then, I simply placed this work within that mid-century framework. It seemed to me like in the 50s if you were an artist, writer, or composer, and of course, male, there was nothing forbidden. I chalked this work up to nothing more than Cage seizing male privilege.
When I read an ad for Kyle Gannâ€™s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cageâ€™s 4â€™33â€, I immediately ordered it up. Part of Yale University Pressâ€™s excellent Icons of America series, No Such Thing as Silence undertakes a lovingly enthusiastic investigation into Cageâ€™s signature work. This is not serious music history, nor serious art history for that matter. What No Such Thing as Silence does is take an accessible look at a not-so-accessible composition. Gann places 4â€™33â€ into the larger art world discourse of the time, while also exploring the work through the lens of Cageâ€™s Buddhist beliefs.
Itâ€™s still easy for me to view 4â€™33â€ as prickish, or more generously, arrogant. At least now I can appreciate the composition and its place not just within music history, but also within the history of Minimalism. Despite the highbrow subject matter, No Such Thing as Silence is a fun and illuminating read.