John Cage

On the evening of 29 August 1952, pianist David Tudor took to the stage in the small Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock and sat down at the Steinway grand piano. The piece by the American composer John Cage that he was supposed to interpret consisted of three movements, all of which were entitled “Tacet”. The title and duration of the piece were given as 4 minutes 33 seconds. At the premiere, the pianist rolled a die to determine the length of the different movements, using a stopwatch to mark the time: 1st movement: 33 seconds; 2nd movement: 2 minutes 40 seconds; 3rd movement: 1 minute 20 seconds. As he would at any concert, the pianist quietly opened and closed the keyboard lid to mark the beginning and end of each movement. Unfortunately, there is no extant recording of the premiere. This first performance of John Cage’s work 4ʹ33ʺ triggered perplexity, anger, a flurry of whispers, and ultimately a scandal, even though the audience that evening had been invited to support the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund – and was therefore an audience that patronised modern art.

According to Cage, silence had to be redefined if it was to continue to be viable as a concept. He recognised that there was no objective separation between sound and silence but only between the intention of hearing something and that of having one’s attention distracted by sounds. For the composer, the essential meaning of silence was to give up intention altogether. This idea represents the most important turning point in his philosophy as a composer. He redefined silence simply as the absence of intentional sounds or the turning off of our awareness.

To this day, numerous artists have responded to this radical composition. In 2004, 4ʹ33ʺ was even broadcast in a version for symphony orchestra live on BBC radio. To do this, the station actually had to deactivate its emergency backup system, which is automatically triggered and reads out a message when there is prolonged on-air silence.

Anke Hervol


In the exhibition:

John Cage
4’33’’ (Original version in proportional notation)
Score 1952
Edition Peters EP6777A, 16.8.2002

John Cage
Score of the new version 4’33” 
for the exhibition opening “Kölns Weg zur Kunstmetropole – die 1960er-Jahre”, 31.8.1986, Guest book Wulf Herzogenrath N°10, Page 12
John Cage, 8.7.1990, Guest book Wulf Herzogenrath N° 13, Page 4
Private collection


Additional information about the artist