For the longest time I thought John Cage was an asshole. The first thing I knew about Cage was his infamous composition 4’33”—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 I’d formed at my local community college’s summer music camp. 4’33” 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 Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, I immediately ordered it up. Part of Yale University Press’s excellent Icons of America series, No Such Thing as Silence undertakes a lovingly enthusiastic investigation into Cage’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 4’33” into the larger art world discourse of the time, while also exploring the work through the lens of Cage’s Buddhist beliefs.
It’s still easy for me to view 4’33” 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.