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March 22, 2005

John Cage's 4'33" Revisited


BBC 4, 2004 (9:22), January 15, 2004. [via UbuWeb]

Radio 3 plays 'silent symphony'

BBC Radio 3 has aired more than four minutes of complete silence... by design. The BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of composer John Cage's seminal piece 4'33", which does not contain a single note. Radio 3 broadcast the entire composition live, even having to switch off its emergency system that cuts in when there is apparent silence.

The performance took place on Friday night at London's Barbican Centre. It was part of a weekend of Cage's work. The late avant-garde composer "wrote" the piece in 1952. TV viewers were also able to watch the event when BBC Four broadcast the concert, which also featured works that music lovers could hear.

Cage's reasoning for composing 4'33" was to demonstrate that "wherever we are what we hear mostly is noise". Mostly what you could hear was people getting up and walking out. BBC Symphony Orchestra general manager Paul Hughes of the 1952 premiere. His estate won a bizarre copyright battle in 2002, when composer Mike Batt agreed to pay a six-figure sum to a charity because his album featured a tongue-in-cheek silent track which he credited as co-written by Cage.

General manager Paul Hughes told BBC Radio 5 Live the orchestra had rehearsed to "get in the right frame of mind". Despite having no notes to play, the musicians tuned up and then turned pages of the score after each of the three "movements" specified by the composer. The silence was broken at times by coughing and rustling sounds from the audience, who marked the end of the performance with enthusiastic applause.

Mr Hughes denied the performance was a "mindless gimmick" and said Cage believed "music was all around us all the time" and the piece was his attempt to make the audience focus on sounds that were "part of our everyday lives".


But the audience at the premiere in 1952 was "so discomforted that mostly what you could hear was people getting up and walking out", he said. "They were completely outraged and extremely angry," Mr Hughes added. He said Cage, who died in 1992 aged 80, was very proud of the silent composition. In readiness for the performance, Radio 3 bosses switched off their emergency back-up system - designed to cut in when there is an unexpected silence on air.

Posted by jo at March 22, 2005 03:49 PM