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Classical 101

John Cage's 4'33" for Orchestra: The Sound of One Hand Clapping?

American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage wrote his most famous composition, 4'33" (pronounced Four minutes, thirty-three seconds) in 1952, and it's been controversial ever since.  Never have so many words been written about so few notes. In fact, there are no notes.  The entire "composition" consists of rests notated on the printed score.  The piece can be performed on any combination of instruments by any number of players.  It makes me wonder, should the audience applaud after such a (non)performance?  Is he pulling our leg, or is he pushing our ears into a different way of listening? Although he is considered a leading figure of the avant-garde  after the Second World War, I think John Cage is a modern Trickster figure in music somewhat like one of his heroes, French composer Erik Satie at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Both seemed to delight in challenging conventions and "thinking outside the box," as they say.  John Cage, however, took it a turn further.  He turned the box into a circle that radiates out to infinity.  The performer(s), audience, and anything else that happens to be taking place is included as part of the composition.  To me, it seems to be about awareness and attention to the present moment.  By totally confounding our expectations, we are being tricked into "meditating" on the present moment by his particular form of conceptual art. At one time in my life, I might have felt more annoyed at what Cage has done.  However, I recall a concert experience some years ago, seeing guitarist Christopher Parkening in the Ohio Theater.  He performed a solo classical guitar recital, un-amplified, sitting front and center on the stage, playing to a large audience in a hall that holds nearly three thousand people.  There were many notes, all beautifully played, but the overall volume was pretty low in such a large venue.  The really interesting thing was that you literally could hear a pin drop, the audience was so quiet and the concentration was so great.  As much as the actual music, it was that quality of intense attention, shared by such a large group of people that left a strong impression on me afterwords and a feeling of deep peace and joy.  At that point, it wasn't just about music anymore. John Cage was strongly influenced by Eastern Philosophy and Zen Buddhism, in particular.  There is a Zen koan, a kind of paradoxical riddle, used in training students: What is the sound of one hand clapping?   I have a feeling that maybe he's asking us that with 4'33".  The composer has said that music is "a purposeless play,"  adding that it is "an affirmation of life--not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living."  I don't think he's just talking about music anymore either.  Call it conceptual art, performance art, or a musical trickster at work.  But judging by the smile on his face, I think he's trying to tell us to enjoy our life here and now. Here is 4'33" in the version with full orchestra from a BBC concert: http://youtu.be/zY7UK-6aaNA