In an era when no cell phones or other digital devices existed, silence was a more common facet of everyday life. Perhaps attention spans were longer, distractions fewer, and maybe the pace of world was slower. It’s nice to be romantic about a period before communication was measured in 140 characters, when the simple act of writing a letter was a considered an opportunity to put one’s thoughts into words, often by hand, in ink on paper. Today it seems quaint that an inscribed sheet of paper would be folded, placed into an envelope, addressed, stamped, and sent through the mail to a recipient who would—days after the letter was written—read the letter and, if so inspired, respond in well contemplated kind.
John Cage, beginning in 1948, started to openly discuss the conceptual framework for his now infamous work 4’33″, which others—as well as Cage—came to call his “silent piece.” In the four years prior to the premiere of 4’33″ on August 29, 1952, one can imagine Cage wrestling within himself, perhaps rationalizing the fulfillment of a work where the skill of the performer and the instrument being used would become secondary to the context presentation of the piece. Surely Cage must have recognized that both musicians and individual instruments in any given performance are variable tools subject to some level of chance operation given the conditions and location of the performance, concert halls being variable instruments themselves, as well as the makeup of an audience, which too is a living instrument subject to all forms of audible radiations.
As the summer of 1952 wore on, with Cage then in residence at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, 4’33″ was crystallizing as a completed work. Years later Cage would say (and say repeatedly) he was liberated to complete the work through seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, stating:
“The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.”
“The white paintings were airports for the lights, shadows, and particles.”
Throughout the remainder of his life, Cage added layers of charming mythology and intentional—and often somewhat misleading—meanings to the piece. However, from 1962 forward he maintained that 4’33″ was his most important work and one that he continued to return to intellectually until his death in 1992.
The title of the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence is drawn from the opening sentence of a 1954 letter that Cage sent to his close friend Helen Wolff (see below). Days earlier, upon receiving an advanced copy of the program for the work’s New York City premiere and second public performance, Wolff sent Cage a scolding letter (see below letter and transcription) imploring him to withdraw 4’33″ from his repertoire and damning him for what she believed to be a schoolboy’s prank. There’s no doubt Cage’s typewritten response was heartfelt, deeply considered, and thoughtfully direct in defense of 4’33″. He said:
“The piece is not actually silent (there will never be silence until death comes which never comes); it is full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand, which I hear for the first time the same time others hear. What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent we are empty to do so. If one is full, or in the course of its performance becomes full of an idea, for example, that this piece is a trick for shock and bewilderment then it is just that. However, nothing is single or uni-dimensional. This is an action among ten thousand: it moves in all directions and will be received in unpredictable ways. These will vary from shock and bewilderment to quietness of mind and enlightenment.”
This exhibition, There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”, which is on view at MoMA through June 22, 2014, aims—through looking at works mostly from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art—to chart a path that views how Cage arrived at the moment where he was “liberated” to complete his “silent piece”; how Cage directly and through 4’33” engaged with a generation of artists who came of age in the late 1950s and into the early 1960s; and how artists who were removed from Cage himself not only continued to use actions that he put in motion in the 1950s but also rebelled against Cage in both subtle and direct ways from the mid-1960s forward.