Search This Blog

28 January 2012

On the Score of 4'33" (Original Version in Proportional Notation)

This is a talk* given by Irwin Kremen on the program 4'33" and Other Sounds Not Intended: A Tribute to John Cage at Central Park Summerstage, July 15, 1994, New York.

Good evening, everybody. My task is to tell you something about this score (Edition Peters, No. 6777a) of 4'33", the one John prepared in proportional notation that isn't discernible from any performance of the piece itself.

You can imagine how amazed I was 41 years ago when John Cage handed me the original manuscript of this score and wished me "Happy Birthday." I didn't have the presence of mind to ask David Tudor, who also was at that party and who had performed the "silent" piece at a concert the summer before, to do it again that night for us. Nor can I claim to have grasped the full import and the special innovativeness of this particular score in proportional notation. At that time, I understood that the silence of this "silent" piece was more of an idea than a possibility, because one can't ever get a noiseless situation, a soundless silence, and not certainly in the presence of an audience. Even in a soundproof chamber a person may still hear something -- the heart beating or the ears ringing or the gut rumbling -- so that silence is, if anything, soundful. A performance of 4'33" is far from empty acoustically. It must yield a flow of sound if one but listens. And this, by dint of chance, will differ widely from performance to performance.

That seemed to me to be Cageian music at its ideal, neither intentionally composed nor rushing climactically to ends and goals, but sounds just happening in and of themselves, each having its own value, free of hierarchy -- in short, a democracy of sound.

This much was apparent to me back in the '50s. But what I failed to grasp then and realized only later, was the radicalness of the score that John had presented me and what I now consider to be its larger significance. I have in mind Cage's simple and elegant treatment of time in this score. It departs significantly from traditional practice. So far as I know, nothing like it had been done before.

Everyone here has some idea as to what a page of conventional music looks like. In it, timing will be given by the different kinds of notes, the time signature, the designated measures, and the words that roughly cue tempi. Taken together, these devices can represent relative duration, not exact duration. This score of 4'33" does away with all of that by setting time equal to space -- not the broken space of notes on staves -- to a given amount of time. John did this with a calibrating instruction on the otherwise blank first page of the score proper; and this space-by-time instruction, as shown below, reads:

"1 page = 7 inches = 56 seconds."

Musical time is thereby rendered specific and exact. The First Movement, as shown below,

illustrates how this is applied. The First Movement consists of the space between those two vertical lines. On the actual score, that space is 3 3/4 inches wide and thus equals exactly 30 seconds, the number cited at the bottom of the second vertical line. It's simplicity itself.

What I've shown you amounts, then, to a major change. In this score, John made exact, rather than relative, duration, the only musical characteristic. In effect, real time is here the fundamental dimension of music, its very ground. And where time is primary, change, process itself, defines the nature of things. That aptly describes the silent piece -- an unfixed flux of sound through time, a flux from performance to performance.

Another aspect of this First Movement worth noting is its almost total blankness, which characterizes the two remaining movements as well. This blankness, while it appears to be nothing, is yet something: it blots out previous practice. Gone are the staves and all that was borne upon them -- keys, quarter and half notes, even measures -- as John situates music anew in the flux of sound that is time itself. New musical notations are free to follow wherever imagination leads.

The last time I spoke with John about this score -- it was in Zurich in 1991 -- his face lit up with his inimitable smile, and he said, "Krem, all the notes are there." I took that to mean in a virtual sense, for how otherwise could they be there when patently they weren't! Thus, at any performance of 4'33", as virtual notes they would underscore in effect whatever chance yields up by way of sound. Conceived as such, it's not unlike the virtual image of physical optics: in the microscope and telescope, virtual images and foci are held to occur at ideal points where no tangible part of the instrument is located.

You now have my view of the score that John gave me.

*This text (©1994 Irwin Kremen) has been altered slightly for presentation in written form. Furthermore, for greater clarity, the penultimate paragraph has been somewhat revised.

Photos: ©1979 Jon Kral

Laura Kuhn