1948 __ A Silent Prayer
‣ Comment : As early as 1948, Cage had conceived of the idea of a “silent” piece (Lecture, InterCollegiate Arts Conference at Vassar College): "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 3 or 4 [and] 1/2 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 or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility." (John Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions”). The second desire was to write a piece for radios, which resulted in Imaginary Landscape No. 4. — The first reference to 4'33" came about in a talk that Cage gave at Vassar College in 1947 or 1948. It was part of an interdisciplinary conference, coming at the time when he was beginning his study of oriental philosophy. He said that there ought to be a piece that had no sounds in it. Although the germ of an idea was there, it would be five years before he would actually write it. The next year Cage wrote that he wanted to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four and a half minutes in length -- those being the standard lengths of 'canned music' -- and its title will be Silent Prayer." This statement is particularly interesting in light of what Cage later said about the composition of 4'33" (in 1952). (Larry J Solomon, The Sounds of Silence - John Cage and 4'33", 1998) — The second call for silence [after the first quotation related to his new apartment] in "A Composer's Confessions" narrowed down the scope of the fantasy from silencing all the mass media to silencing just one aspect : Muzak. He planned "to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. [etc.]". In the late 1940s Muzak was piped over telephone lines into restaurants, workplaces, and other institutions, and was thus primarily a transmissional service like radio. The company was just beginning to make a trnasition to recorded systems situated in-house. Although it would be difficult to say whether the Muzak Co. would have been due to a lack of courage on Cage's part to approach the company. The unbridled confidence for which he was known had been boosted by the nationwide reception, in both senses of the word, of "The City Wears a Slough Hat", and his "Book of Music" was broadcast throughout the South Pacific on military radio. He had always been very entriprising, unafraid to approach anyone who might be able to advance his projects, including a number of companies when he sought support for his Center of Experimental Music. There is no reason to believe that his proposal was a ruse. There are several possible art connections. It is obvious that 4'33" is just three seconds over the upper limit for canned music and, although much happened in the four years between the two pieces, if it was indeed chance that finally arrived at this duration, then it was at least a moment of objective chance, unwittingly, in the surrealist sense. The fact that it was canned recalls the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, with whose work Cage was quite familiar. Although Duchamp transposed a mass-produced object into an art venue, whereas Cage wanted to place an art object of canned silence alongside the other cans on the narrow-casted Muzak shelf, "Silent Prayer" could be thought of as a musical version of "Air de Paris", Duchamp's bottled air. Then there was Ferruccio Busoni's well-known "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music" (available in English translation from c. 1911), in which he stated that consummate players and improvisers "most nearly approach the essential nature of the art" during their employment of holds and rests. If properly isolated, the product of such playing could very well describe one of the bases for Cagean silence: "The tense silence between two movements. — in itself music, in this environment. — leaves wider scope for divination than the more determinate, but therefore less elastic, sound." (Busoni, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, included in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), 89. Emphasis in the original. ) I am not saying that Cage was thinking of Duchamp or Busoni at the time, and he certainly was not aware of F. T. Marinetti's radio "sintesi" written in the early 1930s, entitled I Silent "Parlano fra di Loro" [Silences Speak Among Themselves], the most notable precedent of an artwork in which silence took on its own presence. (Translated by Victoria Kirby in Michael Kirby, Futurist Performance (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), 293.) [...] Satie's performance [of "Musique d'Ameublement"] was a dis- placement of one of his cafe haunts (people talking, ignoring the music) into an artistic space, whereas Silent prayer returns to the cafes and other non-art settings to replace Muzak with silence, that is, an unobtrusive music with something even more unobtrusive. Cage was not, like the protagonist in Heinrich Boll's story "Murke's Collected Silences," inside the institution trying to patch together some reprieve, but was instead trying to seek a bit of reprieve, an "entr'acte", from a daily life where Muzak had become unobtrusively and insultingly pervasive. And there may have been a special consideration for choosing to silence Muzak among other forms of media: if one was to be involved in silencing, there was little danger of being accused of censorship, for in its unobtrusiveness Muzak had already assumed a certain self-censorship, and a hiatus of 4'/2 minutes would do nothing to disturb the pervasiveness. Silencing would only impose a brief intermission. [...] By the time of 4'33", silence became only the absence of an intentional sound, whereas musical sound had become ever-present and omnipresent, filled with intentional or unintentional sound. Thus, "Silent Prayer" was not underscored by the same sense of silence as 4'33", it was not a way to begin hearing and musicalizing the surrounding sound. If anything was meant to be heard it was conventional silence, in this case, the absence of the sound of Muzak, along the measured lengths of canned music. [...] But why the "prayer" in "Silent Prayer"? I believe the reason can be found in Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy", specifically, at the juncture of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters entitled "Silence" and "Prayer", respectively. Huxley's book consists of his commentary on perennial philosophy, with substantial quotes from mystics, saints, monks, philosophers, psychologists, etc. Among the people quoted. — many passages are nothing but a sequence of quotes. — one can find all the individuals and approaches favored by Cage; moreover, one could find them within a relatively secular context. [...] (Douglas Kahn)
‣ French comment : En 1948, quelques quatre ans avant 4’33’’, Cage entreprend de réaliser “Silent Prayer”, pièce insonore de 3 à 4 minutes 1/2 – la durée moyenne d’un morceau de « musique en boîte » – à insérer dans les programmes de la firme Muzak (qui, rappelons-le, diffusait en boucle, dans les salles de restaurant, les bureaux, les cages d’ascenseur, des standards musicaux réinterprétés à la même sauce inodore). Alors que la muzak avait pour but de faire taire l’auditeur en le berçant (son omniprésent, mais manipulation inaudible), “Silent Prayer” se propose de faire taire, de rendre au silence (to silence, « faire taire » en anglais) le flux musical. Et ce qui est frappant, c’est qu’il ne s’agit pas ici d’éliminer le bruit, il s’agit au contraire de provoquer une perturbation sonore à l’aide du silence même : libérer les sons environnants, et saboter le principe sur lequel repose la diffusion radiophonique, l’absence d’interruption. Ce en quoi “Silent Prayer” et 4’33’’ se répondent et différent : dans les lieux – ou non-lieux – que les deux pièces investissent (4’33’’, dans la salle de concert, en 1952, s’en prend de fait à un acquiescement passif volontaire et conscient), mais aussi par l’endroit et le support d’où elles sont diffusées, la visibilité maximum de 4’33’’ (qui était éxécuté) étant à l’opposé de l’invisibilité de la source et de l’absence recherchée de limites (spatiales et temporelles) de la muzak. (Fabien Vandamme, “L’inaudible et l’invisible”)
‣ Original excerpt : « . . . in my new apartment on the East River in Lower Manhattan which turns its back to the city and looks to the water and the sky. The quietness of this retreat brought me finally to face the question: to what end does one write music? [...] I am frankly embarrassed that most of my musical life has been spent in the search for new materials. The significance of new materials is that they represent, I believe, the incessant desire in our culture to explore the unknown. Before we know the unknown, it inflames our hearts. When we know it, the flame dies down, only to burst forth again at the thought of a new unknown. This desire has found expression in our culture in new materials, because our culture has its faith not in the peaceful center of the spirit but in an ever-hopeful projection onto things of our own desire for completion. [...] I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurb, but I ama 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 or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility. » (John Cage, “A composer's confessions.”, lecture, Vassar College, 1948)
‣ Source : Kahn, Douglas (1999), “Noise Water Meat : an history of sound in the arts”, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1999, pp. 161-199.
‣ Source : Vandamme, Fabien (2002), “L’inaudible et l’invisible”, In Brise-Glace, N° 0, Juin 2002.
‣ Source : Cage, John (1948), "A Composer's Confessions (1948), “A composer's confessions”, MusikTexte, Nos. 40/41 (August 1991), p. 65; and also, In Kostelanetz, 1993, p.43.
‣ Source : Kahn, Douglas (1997), "John Cage: Silence and Silencing," Musical Quarterly 81. (1997), pp. 556-98; and also, in “Noise Water Meat; A History of Sound in the Arts”, MIT Press 1999.
‣ Source : Pritchett, James (1996), “The music of John Cage”, Cambridge University Press.
‣ Source : Pritchett, James (2009), “What silence taught John Cage: The story of 4′ 33″”, In "John Cage and Experimental Art: The Anarchy of Silence", catalog, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
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