Posts Tagged ‘David Tudor’

This post originally ran at Big Other, about 28 months ago. After viewing the Nicolas Cage perform 4’33”, I’m feeling nostalgic, so I’m reposting it here, minus the videos that have disappeared from YouTube in the meantime. Enjoy! —Adam

On 29 August 1952, in Woodstock, NY, David Tudor gave the first public performance of John Cage’s “silent piece,” Tacet for any instrument or combination of instruments, more commonly known today as 4’33”. The audience’s reaction was something like this:

…Actually, it went something more like this:

The audience was taken aback. It was accustomed to shock at Cage events, but of a more aggressive kind; many people took the new work as an insult to their expectations. “Good people of Woodstock,” an artist in the audience stood and exclaimed, “let’s drive these people out of town.” (Rich 165)

Here’s David Tudor performing 4’33”. I don’t know what year it’s from, but Tudor passed away in 1996 so it’s obviously from sometime before then:

Cage apparently first conceived of the piece in the late 40s, possibly even as a slight joke. During a lecture at Vassar College at the time he said:

I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them); first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4½ minutes long—these being the standard lengths of “canned” music, and its title will be “Silent Prayer.” It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility. (Pritchett 59)

In 1952, Cage used the I Ching to devise a work in three movements (30”, 2’23”, and 1’40”). Each movement contains a single instruction: “Tacet,” meaning “be silent (directing an instrument or voice not to play or sing).” In other words, the performer shouldn’t make any intentional sounds. Cage later recalled: “I was forced to move […] from structure to process, from music as an object having parts to music without beginning, middle or end, music as weather” (Rich 164). In this approach to music, the composer works to draw the audience’s attention toward unplanned sounds, rather than working to eliminate them.

David Tudor, as we saw above, raised and lowered the keyboard cover to signal the start of each movement. (I believe this was Tudor’s own decision. Some performers have since then made this, or variations on this, part of the piece.) [Update: there exists some debate about this. See Kyle Gann’s most excellent recent book on 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence.]

Any audience reaction is A-OK:


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