The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (173): The moment music changed forever

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (173): The moment music changed forever


norman lebrecht

September 04, 2020

The world premiere recording of John Cage’s 4’33”.

Much imitated, never surpassed.

photo (c) Betty Freeman/Lebrecht



  • caranome says:

    he should be arrested for fraud, and his co-conspirators (critics, academics, promoters et al) for aiding & abetting.

  • Ken says:

    Ah, the Urtext. I prefer Schnabel’s fingerings in the third movement, but Tudor was at the creation so he probably knew. A=442, I think. (And I thought opening and closing the keyboard lid was part of the piece?)

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I really like the performance of 4’33” as performed by Pipo.

  • Herb says:

    Perhaps Cage’s ground-breaking originality was only surpassed by his all-encompassing historical ignorance.

    See the following work penned in 1897, a “pre-imitation” of Cage’s 4’33”, if you will:'un_grand_homme_sourd_-_Alphonse_Allais.jpeg

    Or this work by Schulhoff, entitled In futurum:×1800/1268665937__pictures/hudebnici/schulhoff_in_futurum.jpg

    On the other hand, maybe Cage knew more than he let on, which, come to think of it, also need not surprise us. In this scenario, the joke is on those who fell for his ruse.

  • Couperin says:

    The first documented recording? Or a recording of the world premiere?

  • Nijinsky says:

    Personally, I think it could be longer or shorter. Just because 4′.33″ is actually 243 seconds, and that’s 3 to the fifth power (243 = 3 to the fifth power or 3 times 3 times 3 times 3 times 3), which one could argue is a psychotic waltz, doesn’t mean he’s gone over the deep end, even though 433 is a prime number and gets hijacked by seconds and a few minutes outside of the decimal system.

    There are other combinations. Bartok could have done better. Deeper…

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Nice theory, but it’s actually 273 seconds. Also 3 to the fifth by definition cannot be a prime number, since it is (obviously) divisible by 3. 273 might or might not be significant. Absolute zero is 273°C below zero. I believe Cage was non-commital on this point.

      • Nijinsky says:

        I actually didn’t say that three to the fifth was a prime number, I said 433 was but 243 wasn’t. And you’re right 273 rather than 243 (which also isn’t prime). 273 is absolute zero where Helium has no viscosity and seems to break a few natural laws flowing all over the place non stop? hmm.

        I still think Bartok would have done better with such numbers, whether Cage was committal or not.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Apologies. I misread your 433 point. You’re quite right: 433 is prime.

  • John Salter says:


  • P. Charpin says:

    I wish Lang Lang would play only this piece for every recital.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Frank Zappa tried to perform it in a rock concert. Very appropriate.

  • José Bergher says:

    “Eine Sehr Kleine Nichtmusik,” a.k.a. “Eine Groiser Nachtschmutzig.”
    Adagio schleppen molto ausdrucksvoll ma non troppo lebhaft.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Music did not change that day. It was something else that came out.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    Excellent! Is that a Steinway? I always think it sounds better on a Fazioli.
    My record collection has excerpts of this work between tracks. I hope Cage managed to claim royalties.

    • WeAreAllMusicStudents says:

      Paul Griffiths said of this piece (paraphrased), Cage’s achievement was to claim silence as his own, so that whenever you’re not listening to something else – and maybe even when you are – you’re listening to Cage.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Some corrections:

    It was not about music, but a gag, like Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ that was actually a urinal. Only dumbheads took it seriously.

    Serious art music is not a research project carried-out by a small official elite who define for everybody else what it is. It is a living art, driven by talent, not by jokers. So, music did not change because of a joke by a dumbhead.

    • Realist says:

      I just saw an ant cursing the sky.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      It’s no accident that Cage and Duchamp were friends and colleagues. In both cases, the works were simultaneously jokes and serious commentary. Duchamp’s Fountain makes the point that what we consider art is a function not (or not only) of the object in our gaze, but (or but also) of the attitude with which we look at it. (In this, he follows Kant, who defined the beautiful as that which we appreciate without self-interest.) Cage makes the points that silences are an important component of music and that they are not merely absence of sound: the ambient noise colors our experience of music and — as in the case of Fountain — we can, if we choose, listen to those sounds as music and not just noises off.

      And they were both jokes, too.

      The more important point is that all found-object art following Fountain is mere kitsch, and all meta-musical music after 4’33”, likewise. Such statements only need be made once…

      • John Borstlap says:

        This whole comment is as nonsensical as anything Cage did (or not did). That is why Cage was so popular: all the lazy untalented fellows found their favorite excuse.

        • Peter San Diego says:

          Kant’s definition of the beautiful is not nonsense, yet it was part of the “whole comment.” Thus, at least part of your response is nonsensical. 😉

  • John Borstlap says:


    My own private performance, in a much longer version, is much better.

  • Larry L. Lash / Wien says:

    Great performance! I wish a video existed of Paul Taylor’s 1957 dance work, “Duet,” set to and inspired by Cage’s score, which provoked a legendary review from Louis Horst consisting of four inches of blank space and, at the bottom, the initials “L.H.”

  • Mock Mahler says:

    It’s tricky to get the tempo right.

  • Ed in Texas says:

    Oh, so he didn’t just sit at the piano, motionless, as I always thought. (I’m relatively untutored in the Classics.) He also conducted the music and danced to it at the same time. Now I get it. Brilliant, truly brilliant.

  • Bella Bartock [Ms] says:

    Candor or con? Discuss

  • Scott says:

    I have a copy of this recording. I bought it with monopoly money. Worth every penny.

  • Minnesota says:

    “Forever? You don’t know ‘forever’.” — God

  • Stephen Lawrence says:

    Best heard with headphones

  • Happy birthday, John Cage (1912-1992)! Um, I am transcribing your 4’33 for violin, by the way…

  • Nijinsky says:

    I actually find Cage conservative and restrictive. Like too much “modern” art. When the process has gone beyond mental precepts, no such liberty is allowed. Neither is that really thought then.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Most everyone here is having a good laugh at John Cage’s expense.
    That’s OK; not everyone has an intelligent sense of humor and of the purposely absurd (I’m looking at you, JB).
    Cage, a genius as a composer and theorist, simply wouldn’t give a s**t.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The ‘purposely absurd’ has never been part of any serious art, and is a mere entertainment noise at the margin of functionality, in the way a urinal is related to the intake of fluids.

  • Steven says:

    Mr. Cage is dominating the news cycle! Yesterday his composition, ORGAN/ASLSP [As Slow As Possible], had its first chord change in six years and 11 months.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Darn the covid travel restrictions! I missed it!

      Of course, if they had waited longer, this performance would no longer be As Slow As Possible. Will the next chord change come in another 6 years 11 months, or in an even 7 years, or…?

  • Richard Slack says:

    I would recommend “Stockhausen serves Imperialism” by Cornelius Cardew, available on line

  • Jonathan Riehl says:

    Postmodernism at its worst. Gives the academics something ponder other than actual music.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I actually appreciate Cage’s ideas, how he states that he would rather hear the sound of traffic because it’s not sound trying to say anything, which he says he hears in “music” people compose too much. And I like what it does to the mind to tune out of looking for meaning and having to define stuff, that instead we can experience life as it happens rather than trying to define it, mold it and have controlled it; but…

    Isn’t he doing the same thing in constructing ways to fabricate chance? When a musical idea manifests in the mind, it’s not really anything constructed, it comes out of “nowhere” the same as everything else unless you believe “reality” is made out of a bunch of atoms and subatomic particles that were always there bouncing around reacting to each other, never having come from anywhere but simply magically there the whole time. Introducing chance in such a way with such strictures could actually be inhibiting what actually happens when one isn’t trying to control the effect.

    In a video about the Universe I watched it was stated something akin to thinking that DNA is just matter that somehow interacted with itself following the rules of chance is like saying a hurricane passing though a junk yard is how the modern computer came into being (not that I’m completely opposed to comparing Microsoft to a hurricane). All the time given to the Universe to form isn’t enough for such a “chance” happening to occur. And I think that there are so many things that when you really look at probability theories – rather than using them to determine the gullibility of people and marketing trends for making money on wall street – when you use what started from a discussion between Pascal and Fermat now called probability theory to actually look at what “chance” there would be of two people that belong together ever running into each other, that bees would be able to detect what kind of flower has the nectar they need and how to find it, and a whole list of other things that anyone can see happening around them every day, you’ll find that getting out of the way of what happens in life goes beyond what’s called chance. That there’s something else, another harmony that’s allowed beyond that, much as the human ego wants to be in control and think it needs to be.

    I do like to a certain extent what Cage’s work does to the mind, although I don’t know if I would call it music so much as philosophy or ambiance. I wouldn’t want to become a fanatic about it, but I don’t like how people feel they need to ridicule it, or make it out to be criminal. When people start making out there should be laws against something others have interest in, or indulge in nothing but advocating the harshest most dehumanizing critiques as if that says anything about the superiority of their art, this becomes more of the same or worse. When someone says that a cadenza of Gilles Apap should be illegal, or that they can’t get past how another person naturally relates to a piece of music that is there for anyone to find their nature in, and instead of allowing themselves to listen can’t ward the harsh aggressive responses they have making it impossible for them to hear something that challenges their preconceptions because it’s not what they thought it should be…..

  • Craig in LA says:

    Here is a quotation about 4:33 attributed to Stravinsky, though I’ve never found the source: “Now that Mr. Cage’s most successful opus is undoubtedly the delectable silent piece 4’33, we may expect his example to be followed by more and more silent pieces by younger composers who, in rapid escalation, will produce their silences with more and more varied and beguiling combinations…. I only hope they turn out to be works of major length.”

    Whatever Cage’s intent in 4:33, it has long generated a lot of serious and not-so-serious conversation about the ultimate nature and purpose of music.