A couple of weeks ago I conducted my guitar ensemble in a performance of 4'33" by John Cage. In case you don't know the work, it's 4 minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. It's in three movements.
When the ensemble asked me to lead them in this piece, I was surprised. They're a high functioning performance group, high school seniors some on their way to conservatories to study guitar, and they have quite a reputation and following in the school. This would be their last public performance. I would have thought they would have chosen one of the more challenging works they had learned, like the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, third movement, or Bachianas Brasilieras, Cordoba or the Scherzo from Beethoven's 9th, something to seal their accomplishments in memory.
I wondered why they chose this. I could only think of two possible reasons and I wasn't comfortable with either one. The first and most obvious was as a joke. The other was a kind of challenge, almost like a sense of disdain. At our first rehearsal I quickly realized it was the first, that they didn't take it seriously themselves. They wanted to go on stage holding acordians and banjos, instruments that are often the butt of jokes.
I told them that if we were going to do it, we would do it straight, like Cage intended. We would be in concert dress with music stands and our guitars and footstools. I would lift my baton in a preparation for the down stroke and hold it there for 1'36", the length of the first movement, while I watched my stop watch on the stand in front of me. I would lower my baton, reset the stop watch, prepare and hold for the length of the second movement, and then the third. We practiced the piece so they could get comfortable sitting still with instruments and to get familiar with just how long 4'33" is.
We decided not to talk about the piece so that the audience could experience it without expectations. Mostly, I was concerned that it might be seen as a joke and any expectations would stand in the way of a real experience of the piece. And I was very curious what that reaction would be. Even with our agreement to stay silent, some members spoke with a small group but it wasn't shared widely. And some who heard the name of the piece were familiar with it, or at least knew of it. These audience members were pretty excited about it.
A side note: our dance department recently did their big show of the year with a total of 99 dancers involved. They called the show 198 feet. Influenced no doubt by this program title, when our program was being printed 4'33" was translated into 4 feet, 33 inches.
So the big night came. Everyone was dressed in their best. We had a while before we went on so ordered and promptly devoured a pizza. While we waited I asked everyone to keep track of any comments they got, and even their own reactions to performing it. We discussed what we expected and realized it would take a good deal of courage to pull this off. We weren't sure if we would be laughed off the stage, whether the audience would be angry or feel cheated. There were still a few who viewed the piece as nonsense or some sort of prank. This was particularly evident when one of the players suggested we do a zen moment of quiet and prepare to go onstage. Most focused but we did get a little good natured pseudo chanting from at least one member.
We went onstage. The tech crew had the lights set, chairs and stands set out. Everyone settled into place while the audience gave us a warm welcome. I gave a short introduction intended to set the mood for a serious piece, mentioning that this was one of the most controversial works by one of the 20th Century's most controversial composers. Then we began. I held the upbeat and watched the clock. I was careful at the end of the movement to make motions that would convey that to the audience. There was some shifting between movements, normal audience sounds but much less than you might expect. All the performers held their position and facial expressions throughout. At one point I was distracted by changes in the stage lighting. Other than that the piece went off without a hitch.
And the response was enormous! Much of the crowd was on its feet, we had cheers and bravos, and I could see broad, appreciative smiles on many faces.
Now, for me, came the real fun in hearing the audience response. And it was all over the map!
Some thought it was total nonsense. Others a great enjoyable joke or even a profound experience. Several people got nervous in the silence. Others experience a rush of ever changing emotions. Some, especially those who knew about the piece, were exhilarated.
I was very surprised to hear that the tech crew was upset. Those changes in the lighting were a result of them wondering why we weren't playing, did they perhaps forget to do something, maybe we didn't have enough light? Afterwards one of them said " You had us set up chairs and stands for THAT?
Perhaps the most interesting was the performers who had a greater sense of intention and focus, a deeper understanding of the performing experience as a result. No matter how diverse, how contradictory, every response was exactly right, true, honest, appropriate. It was all those things and more: it was a true experience.
I emphasize to my students that art is not what happens on the stage: it's what happens in the audience. By that count this is perhaps the most clearly artistic experience of all. Nothing happens on the stage, everything happens in the audience. Even more, it causes us to rethink our entire concept of concert, performance, art. What do we expect to happen on a stage? What constitutes a performance? What is art? And the communal sense is more evident in this work that in many others, the sense of being part of a community listening, being aware of all those around you, wondering what they are thinking and how they are reacting, of listening to the silence - or the sounds of the group, the hall, the outside. And for some, in the silence, hearing your own thoughts. It was a novel experience for some, and some were uncomfortable in their own quiet minds.
I'd mentioned the upcoming performance to the music faculty. All, of course, knew of the work. All, had a reaction. Mostly it was a kind of disdain, seeing the work as a trick or a gimmick. I used to feel the same. I often expressed my thanks for all that Cage did so I didn't have to. But I felt much different about the work afterword. I, too, had a sense of the performance space and my performance, and the performers and the audience that was heightened. Not elevated; it didn't become something else or transcend the normal. But I had nothing to do but be aware. I didn't have to give cues, balance dynamics, set tempi. I just existed in the moment, in that space. The difference between the before and after that is the very definition of experience. You cannot know about, think about, or understand an experience. You can only have it. Perhaps that was Cage's intent.