Philosophy of the Arts


Cage’s 4’33” Revisited

The point of Cage’s 4’33” is not that we should pay attention to sounds per se. The sounds that we are asked to pay attention to, are the sound we ourselves are producing: sounds, that is, that carry some intentional structure, and to which, normally, we would never pay any attention because of our concentrating on realising our aims. Normally we treat such sounds as merely accompanying our action without any further functionality. We register these meaningless sounds, but not to derive any extra meaning from them, or to seek their meaning through interpretation or empathy. In this unattended registration these sounds too have a role to play, in that they help us situate our actions both temporally and spatially. We might be shocked when the sounds we heard did not conform to our ordinary expectations, like when you start your car but hear the sound of someone diving into a swimming pool. The fact that these ordinary sounds fit our actions is the other aspect of them, next to the intentional structuring they acquire from this.

My suggestion here is that Cage wants us to listen to our sounds and interpret them, as though he were asking us to look in the mirror and interpret our facial expression.

I have argued elsewhere that Cage’s 4’33” may be the greatest work of art that 20th century has produced, but it is not a piece of music, even though it appears to answer to all the particulars that would seem to have to go into the definition of music. It is not music, I think, because the intentional structure of the sounds is not produced by the musician manipulating his instrument–if the work did consist in the silence produced by the pianist on stage then it would have been music (consisting of the silence), but would not have been the interesting work it really is, according to any plausible interpretation.

>> The Phenomenology of Art

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