4’ 33’’

The New Ross Piano Festival takes place every year at the end of September. We go to it if we can, and were there this year. This meant of course that we missed the service on Sunday 30th September. We heard later that Elaine had done the reading that day, and that she had chosen to speak about a particular work, entitled 4’33’’, by the American composer, John Cage. What a coincidence! The very same work had been performed the evening before in New Ross and we had been in the audience!
2012 is the centenary of Cage’s birth, and the pianist Hugh Tinney had chosen to mark this by giving a recital featuring Cage’s music for solo piano and including work by composers who had influenced him. The pieces by Cage were more accessible than I had anticipated and I enjoyed them, even the ones that were composed for a ‘prepared’ piano (to quote from the programme notes: ‘strings damped with screws, rubbers, strips of plastic and the like, for percussive effects which meant one performer could produce a variety of sounds similar to a percussion group’). The other pieces were by Erik Satie, Morton Feldman, and Edvard Grieg, and they were splendid too, and of course beautifully played. Hugh Tinney is a very fine pianist.
All this was very well received by the audience. Enthusiastic and prolonged applause suggested that we would like - nay, expected - an encore. Smiling slightly, Hugh Tinney approached the piano again. He bowed, sat down, placed three blank sheets of paper on the music stand above the keyboard, and composed himself to play.
Except that he didn’t touch a note. What we were about to ‘hear’, we realised, was Cage’s work, 4’ 33’’– to quote again from the programme notes on Cage’s avant-garde approach – ‘a three-movement piece entitled 4’33’’ for any instrument or group of instruments, in which each movement is marked ‘tacet’ so that the performer(s) must sit there and play nothing for the required 4’ 33’’ ’.
At the end of the first movement the pianist relaxed, moved the first page quietly to one side, gathered himself together again, and ‘played’ the second movement. Silence ensued once more. Then page two was moved aside and we had the third and final movement. At the end of this Hugh Tinney sat back, stood up, and bowed to the audience. The applause, mingled with some laughter, was perhaps slightly less rapturous than for the main body of the recital, but appreciative nonetheless.
What were we to make of this performance? It was interesting, certainly, but what was the point? Is the piece just a curiosity, or does it really extend the frontiers of musical experience? Are we to believe that the effect of a piece of music depends not just on the notes but on the extent of the silence between them – like the pauses between the words spoken in Beckett’s plays? Is Cage attempting to educate us to listen to silence with the same attention as we listen to music, and if so, could the ultimate listening experience consist of complete silence? Is this what he’s saying? Or does he mean that music exists only because silence exists? Are we now leaving music altogether and moving into the realm of philosophy?
I suppose the answers to these questions must be subjective and vary with the individual listener. Some listeners that evening in New Ross were intrigued, some puzzled, some amused, and some dismissive. One was heard to observe that it was just like being back at his Quaker school again! Someone wondered about performing rights for silence, and what the rates might be. Could one get away with composing a silent symphony?
My own reaction was that the performance was interesting, certainly, but I didn’t come away feeling I had been enriched by it, and nor did I wish it had lasted any longer. Would I like to hear it again? Yes, perhaps, sometime, but for the moment when I go to a recital I’d prefer to hear music rather than silence. But then I’m very lucky. If I want to experience a period of silence in a communal setting I can just come to the Unitarian Church!

Jennifer Flegg
Dublin Unitarian Church