Though the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4′33" primarily draws upon works from MoMA’s collection, with a few key outside loans, the voice of John Cage himself was instrumental in guiding the selection of artists, and, in some cases, the specific works on view.
From 1961 onward, starting with the publication of his first book of collected texts, Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), Cage was as prolific an author as he was a composer. Silence was soon followed by A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1967), Notations (Wesleyan University Press, 1968), M: Writings ’67–’72 (Wesleyan University Press, 1973), the book-like insert from the vinyl LP set The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Museum of John Cage (George Avakian, released 1959; reissued 2011), and A Composer’s Confessions (Éditions Allia, 2013), which was published 11 years after Cage’s death. Cage’s writings formed a core group of source materials that we used when developing the exhibition.
Additional titles such as Robert Dunn’s catalogue John Cage (Henmar Press/C.F. Peters/Edition Peters, 1962), Richard Kostelanetz’s John Cage (Praeger Publishers, 1970) and Conversing with Cage (Limelight Editions, 1988), David Revill’s The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life (Arcade Publishing, 1992), Joan Retallack’s Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), and Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press, 2012) all provided rich background on Cage’s thinking.
Finally, a more recent spate of publications on, or surrounding, 4′33" were indispensable resources. These included Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33" (Yale University Press, 2010), Dieter Daniels and Inke Arns’s Sounds Like Silence, John Cage 4′33": Silence Today (Spector Books, 2012), Toby Kamps’s exhibition catalogue Silence (The Menil Collection, 2012), and 4′33": John Cage Centennial Edition (Henmar Press/Edition Peters, 2012) all rounded out our consideration—and reconsideration—of the possibilities of understanding 4′33" today.
For a work that has become so well known, there were virtually no published contemporary accounts of the initial public reception to 4′33" beyond “LOOK NO HANDS! AND IT’S ‘MUSIC’: ‘Work’ by Cage, 4 Minutes, 33 Seconds of Silence, Is ‘Played’ by Tudor, Pianist,” published in The New York Times on April 15, 1954. The review reads:
The pianist, David Tudor, played a program of contemporary works at Carl Fischer Concert Hall last evening.
The opening selection was a new piece by John Cage, entitled 4′33". It was in thre emovements [sic], entitled 30", 2′23" and 1′40". At the appropriate time, Mr. Tudor seated himself at the piano, placed a hand on the music rack—and waited. Gradually it became apparent that the “new work” was a silence four minutes and thirty-three seconds in duration.
The opening number was lucidity itself compared to what followed. Another Cage work, “Music of Changes,” proved to be forty extraordinarily long minutes of fragmentary motifs mercilessly repeated. The next piece heard was Earle Brown’s “25 Pages,” which can be played in any order the performer chooses, or, for that matter, upside down. When the piece was performed, the reason for this became apparent. It was a random, designless thumping of notes, and could not be less coherent even when played upside down.
When, in 1962, 4′33" was first published by Henmar Press (along with all of Cage’s compositions to that year), Cage stated in response to Robert Ashley in an interview within the catalogue of works:
You see there are always sounds.… Let me put it this way. We might have a piece from which one participant would come, and, upon being questioned, would say that the occasion was marked by certain sounds. Another person might say that he didn’t remember any sound. There was something else. But they would both agree that a performance of music had taken place.
Beginning Thursday, November 21, the area adjacent to the exhibition gallery and next to the Bauhaus Staircase will feature a Learning Lounge, where visitors are invited to peruse Cage’s texts and other formative resources that inspired the curators and so many of the artists in There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4′33".