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John Cage turns 100: Unearthed reviews of 4'33" shed light on controversial composition

John Cage turns 100: Unearthed reviews of 4'33" shed light on controversial composition

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Could it be, or not, Shelby Hodge?

Composer, painter, writer, self-described anarchist and mushroom connoisseur John Cage turns 100 in 2012 and all sorts of events are underway to mark the occasion. (Editor's note: He's dead. Ask Chris to clarify this in the copy.) To help celebrate his centennial, CultureMap's team of research assistants, unpaid interns, and one over caffeinated columnist have unearthed three unpublished reviews of past performances of one of Cage's most important works 4'33".

Consisting of three movements, 4'33" instructs the performer, usually but not necessarily a pianist, to make no sounds whatsoever. There is no written music, only the direction that the performing musician remain completely silent.

 The following reviews are dated circa 1980 and have not appeared previously in any scholarly research on Cage and 4'33". 

The resulting music is the ambient sounds heard for the duration of 4'33", including coughs, whispers, traffice in the distance, etc. This brilliant and simple concept of what music could be had a polarizing yet galvanizing effect on all of the contemporary arts. And the piece still retains its the power to provoke, even now in the 21st century.

The following reviews are dated circa 1980 and have not appeared previously in any scholarly research on Cage and 4'33". The reviewers are, in order of appearance, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, poet and writer Amiri Baraka, and a woman who reminds us of but is definitely not CultureMap's soceity columnist Shelby Hodge. Enjoy!

The Punk Meets The Godfather
by Lester Bangs

You want punk rock? I’ll give you punk rock, punk rock INCARNATE. Attention you Sid and Nancy boyz, you Lou Reed before-Bowie-ruined-his-ass anarchy-loving, gob-spitting, safety pin eating, Johnny cum Rotten lately wanna beez: School is in session! Behold, the Godfather of punk! His name? John Cage! Author of the incomprehensible tome Silence and composer of 4’33”, a piece of “music” that is 4 minutes and 33 excruciating seconds of n*o*t*h*i*n*g. Absif---inglutely NOTHING. Zero. Zip. Nada. No beer, no Santa Claus, and no future, kiddies. Just siiiiiiiiilence.

I saw Nietzche at CBGB’s and he’s a pussycat. In fact, I think he was popping Pez tablets and giving Debbie Harry “the eye.”

I can already sense dear reader that you are skeptical of the title I have chosen to bestow upon Mr. Cage. John Cage? JOHN friggin’ Cage? That long-haired, lisping, cactus stroking, mushroom pickin’ hippie? And I say, yup.

 The problem is, nodding out on cough syrup severely impairs one’s ability to determe when a performance of 4’33” begins or ends.  

This is a man who was washing DISHES while you Lydia Lunch lovin’ lapdogs were peeling off your ripped, unwashed since you were eleven blue jeans in favor of pink tube tops and handfuls of Dippity Doo, mouths open, tongues extended for this week’s wafer of the “new wave.” Dopes. Fools. Take a walk and don’t forget your slippers. Y’all belong in an Ultravox video. While John Cage belongs in a CAGE!!!

So last night, I drank half a bottle of cough syrup and made my way uptown via the red line to Avery Fisher Hall to hear an evening of “new music” featuring the umpteenth anniversary performance of Cage’s 4’33”. Yes Virginia, there is a cult of true believers who perform this piece with the cold blooded regularity and efficiency of an Aztec sacrificial ceremony.

After an argument with one of the ushers who I mistakenly thought was refusing me entrance into the hallowed hall (she was, in fact, trying to prevent me from staggering into the ladies restroom), I took my center orchestra seat, finished off the rest of my cough syrup, and in a state of Zen, awaited for 4’33” to begin.

The problem is, nodding out on cough syrup severely impairs one’s ability to determe when a performance of 4’33” begins or ends. In spite of my semi-catatonic state, I can recall a smattering of applause and then what seemed like an eternity of no sounds whatsoever save for that farting noise concert hall seats make when one adjusts from one butt cheek to another. Oh, and some coughing of course, and occasionally what sounded like a sigh of exasperation (or was it ecstasy?) from someone several rows behind me.

Another smattering of applause yanked me out of my reverie. I opened my eyes to see Mr. Cage onstage taking a bow, grinning from ear to ear. You gotta have a pair of cannon balls between your legs, kids to get onstage at Lincoln Center and not do jack for nearly 5 minutes and then take a BOW for your effort.

Punk is dead. Long live John Cage.

Three for JC
by Amiri Baraka

1

Silence
Shh!!!
Say what?
Sheeeeeee…

Set it off!
Beethoven was wrong???
There go the neighborhood!

John says, “Get yourself out of whatever cage you’re in!”

2

Mao Zedong says
arts criticism = class struggle.
Madame Mao decrees:
NO MORE TUBA!!!
Cage says: EVERYTHING is MUSIC

…four…

            …minutes…

                                    …thirty…

                                                            …three…

                                                                                    …seconds…

In the hallowed halls of Eurocentric deities
where the ladies rattle their jewelry -

SHUSH!!!

3

Silence is music.
                                                 White folks get stranger every day...
I have nothing to say…
                                                  …and I’m saying it!

Like a feather on the needles of a cactus…

What would Coltrane say?
Didn’t Miles say it before?

“I start to play and I just don’t know how to stop!”

(…in a low and sinister rasp…)

“Try taking the horn out of your mouth!

John Cage wows with silence! Balloon animals and barbecue too!
by a writer that isn't Shelby Hodge

Anyone worth his or her social cachet knows that a performance of composer John Cage’s 4’33” is not to be missed. And my dance card was certainly more than full when a little bird told me Mr. Cage would be performing this work in celebration of his (Note: Insert number here) birthday at (Note: Insert uptown classical music venue here - where was I again?) for a very select audience of movers and shakers.

Did I even hesitate for a moment to RSVP? Let's just say I was dressed to the nines and headed uptown in a Yellow Cab before you could say HPSCHD.

 Out in the lobby, a clown in a rainbow wig made large and bizarrely shaped balloon animals while early comers enjoyed authentic Texas barbecue and champagne in Styrofoam cups.

 I arrived at the performance hall just in time to grab a free seat and oogle the beautiful people who were there for one of the most notorious musical works in the 20th century. Out in the lobby, a clown in a rainbow wig made large and bizarrely shaped balloon animals while early comers enjoyed authentic Texas barbecue and champagne in Styrofoam cups.

Inside the hall, at least 2,000 people were already seated and ready for Mr. Cage. My head was spinning like Linda Blair on a merry-go-round as I took note of those in attendance!

In the mix there was rock critic Lester Bangs nodding out on cough syrup, poet, playwright, and writer Amiri Baraka furiously scribbling something on the back of a program. Down in front (natch!) seated uncomfortably together that a merry band of cranky composers: Milton Babbit, Elliot Carter, and - Ooo la la! – Monsieur Pierre Boulez. All three of these grumpy old men were frowning and kept on frowning until the lights went down. Cheer up boys! Have another cup of bubbly and some barbecue!  

Up in the box seats, I spied composerette Pauline Oliveros shamelessly vogue-ing for her fans as they shouted lustily from the floor below. Way, way up in the nosebleed seats was the impossible to miss Morton Feldman, or “Morty” as his friends call him, snogging a thoroughly disheveled yet volumtuous redhead whose name remains a mystery to me!

Meanwhile, back on the orchestra level, I spotted Dee Dee “Hey, Ho! Let’s GO!” Ramone, a bewildered looking Karlheinz Stockhausen, several extras from the casts of Godspell and Starlight Express, Bianca Jagger, Cicely Tyson (who was laughing and hitting Dee Dee with her purse), and the one and only Kermit the Frog.

Needless to say it was hard to concentrate on Mr. Cage’s performance when it began, or, frankly, to know WHEN the piece began as it is completely silent. I mean, when does one even clap? Not exactly Noel Coward or Cole Porter!

But no matter; the after concert party was still going strong at 3am when I finally climbed into a cab with my balloon animal companion and enjoyed some barbecue I’d wrapped in a napkin and stashed in my little black purse. Bravo, Mr. Cage! But next time, how about writing us a melody to go along with all that silence?