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No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Icons of America) Hardcover – March 23, 2010
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*Starred Review* To many music-lovers’ chagrin, the most famous twentieth-century American classical music composition is, very probably, John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952), consisting of three movements whose timings amount to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of . . . music? The question mark arises because not a note is sounded by its performer. It is completely silent. Or is it? For no matter where or how it is played, even in a recording (23 of which Gann lists in an appendix), there are always sounds to be heard. Said by many to be a work of philosophy rather than music, it is, Gann demonstrates, clearly the latter, though Cage was becoming intrigued with Zen when he composed it. And if one of its points is that all sounds are musical, it is fraught with further music-cultural meaning as the culmination of a musical avant-garde extending from Erik Satie in late-nineteenth-century Paris through 1920s Dada to the association of advanced music with abstract expressionist painting after World War II; as the progenitor of at least two styles of subsequent art music, minimalism and environmental sound; and as an astonishing inspiration to a panoply of rock bands. Deftly profiling Cage and his influences in the process, Gann entrancingly communicates his love and fascination with Cage’s musical milestone in a spellbinding chapter of high-cultural history. --Ray Olson
“Deftly profiling Cage and his influences in the process, Gann entrancingly communicates his love and fascination with Cage’s musical milestone in a spellbinding chapter of high-cultural history.”--Booklist, starred review
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And I was not disappointed. Gann's analysis of this seminal work of the avant garde addresses the social context of the piece as well as the various criticisms of it. And in so doing he makes it clear that this is, as he says, the best known work of the avant garde as well as a very important work from which we can understand much of what came later including minimalism, art "happenings" and indeterminate methods. He correctly positions it as a sort of "urtext" piece much like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring".
Gann does this in an eminently readable style with a very complete set of references and a discography (yes, the "silent piece" has been recorded many times). He even gives strategies by which a performer can approach the interpretation of the score.
This can be read with equal benefit by academics, musicians and general readers.
I have to give this a 3-star rating however because the Kindle edition does not have any of the images in the book. The rights apparently were not obtained for the electronic medium. This is a great disservice to the readers. In addition, there is no warning on the Kindle page that this book is in anyway incomplete, which it is. Yes, the Kindle version is much cheaper, and we pay for it dearly.
I highly recommend the book, but if you get it, get the print version.
And that's that. Gann warns us that his book will not add to Cage scholarship, that he will only endeavour to gather current Cage research in one place.
In my view he achieves both less than this, and more.
Less, because after reading No Such Thing As Silence I'm still no closer to understanding Cage the person or Cage the composer. Gann mentions a lot of antecendents and possible influences, but as he says himself, Cage probably misunderstood most of what he read ("Cage collects authors to buttress his views on music and life but often projects his own meanings into them, taking what views he needs and transforming them to fit into his own context"), and the constant name-dropping ("Cage was one of the great name-droppers in twentieth-century music. Sometimes he did no more than drop them.") gets tiring.
Gann also achieves more than he set out to do, though. Ever since I came across Cage in Gödel, Escher, Bach, I connected him to Satie and Zappa in my head. I associated Cage with self-deprecating humour. The Cage that Gann describes is a self-righteous, humourless and thoroughly arrogant person.
-- Oh, and the book had the singular distinction of begin the first Amazon.com item in fifteen years I'm asking a refund for: the Kindle version has no illustrations whatsoever. "Rights were not granted to include this illustration in electronic media. Please refer to print publication" is all it says.
Most recent customer reviews
This book is a nice introduction to Cage, centering on the piece 4'33", for readers not...Read more