Friday, January 16, 2004


The performance of John Cage's legendary 4' 33" at the Barbican Centre tonight is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will then be shown on the digital TV station, BBC 4. These will be the first network airings of the work in the UK and they are already causing something of a stir. BBC Radio 3's Roger Wright gave a sterling performance on the 'Today' programme this morning, sweeping aside criticisms that (in the words of the London Metro free paper) Cage's piece "consists of nothing'. He pointed out that those who dismiss it as a mere gimmick have usually never sat through a 'performance'.

NFE readers will be relieved to hear that the London Symphony Orchestra have rehearsed the 'silent' work thoroughly, including its three intervals. Wright wasn't able to confirm how they were going to approach it, however, so he couldn't answer interviewer James Naughtie's anxious question about whether it might end up being 4' 46"! Meanwhile another cultural critic wittily dubbed the furore "much fury about sound signifying little." (Well OK, that was me.)

Of course you'd have to be pretty po-faced not to be amused by all this. But 4' 33" has a serious point to it. Not only is there no such thing as silence, as it demonstrates, but there is an extent to which the listener's apprehension shapes the experience of what is heard -- and that is one way in which sound is translated into music. Thus the instruction to the players to "approach the piece in a musical way." Not all silence is the same. Indeed Cage's work can truly be described as the grandfather of ambient music. Eno eat your heart out.

There is one further twist to this tale. In readiness for the performance, BBC Radio 3 will have to switch off its emergency back-up system, which is designed to cut in when there is an unexpected silence on air. A couple of years ago they failed to do this for the crucial silence that forms part of the annual Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. Embarassingly, happy musak broke into the broadcast at its most poignant moment, causing more outrage than even the late Cage is likely to. But less than Birtwistle's 'Panic' at the Last Night of The Proms, apparently.

The concert is part of the Cage composer weekend. Oh yes, and here's a hypertext version of 4' 33", too...

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