In 1948, Cage joined the faculty of Black Mountain College, where he regularly worked on collaborations with Merce Cunningham. Around this time, he visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. (An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed.) Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he "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." Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, yet sound was nevertheless discernible. He stated "until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the "composition" of his most notorious piece, 4′33″.
Cage repeatedly claimed that he composed 4′33″ in small units of silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equalled the duration of the title. Cage suggested that he might have made a mistake in addition. Some have speculated that the title of the work refers to absolute zero, as 4’33″expressed in seconds is 273 seconds, and minus 273 degrees is absolute zero in the Celsius scale; there is, however, no evidence that this relationship is anything more than a coincidence.
The premiere of the three-movement 4′33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952 in Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano and, to mark the beginning of the piece, close the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements. The piece had passed without a note being played—in fact without Tudor (or anyone else) having made any deliberate sound as part of the piece. Only then could the audience recognize what Cage insisted upon, that “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound."
Current Mood: curious