Silent Plight?

The annual deluge of Christmas music is in the air -- literally -- in department stores, markets, elevators, ring tones and voicemails. This is all well and good for some folks. But as you navigate the mall -- surrounded by songs you've heard a thousand times before -- have you started to feel that all you want for Christmas is to avoid Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas? When you get home, do you want to steamroll your neighbor's Mannheim Steamroller discs, or excommunicate the in-laws' Mormon Tabernacle Choir collection? And be honest -- as you try to fall asleep, do you think about how badly you want to forever silence Kenny G's Silent Night?

For an alternative silent night, try John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33" which calls for any combination of musicians to sit quietly and play no notes for four minutes and 33 seconds. 4'33" is often viewed as an absurdist stunt from a composer who regularly consulted the I Ching before getting down to business. Yes, the score does present comic possibilities -- I sometimes leave the blank sheet music on my piano to show off what I've been working on. But it's also a profound work of art.

My friend Isaac included 4'33" in a piano recital he gave for friends a couple of years ago during the holiday season. After Scriabin's bitter Prelude op. 59 #2 and before Brahms' romantic Rhapsody in G Minor, Isaac solemnly opened the music of 4'33" and sat intensely for the prescribed period of time, turning the empty pages at precisely the right moments. Ambient sounds -- an audience member coughing, a car whizzing by -- became part of the performance rather than the distractions they would have been during the other pieces. When Isaac lifted his hands to signal the end, we all seemed to awaken from a deep, powerful dream, having experienced a moving group meditation.

Cage may have been only half kidding when he told interviewers he considered 4'33" his most important work. It's been performed and recorded not only by classical artists and orchestras, but also by Frank Zappa and Liberace. Its resonance was underscored by a copyright infringement suit, which ensued when composer Mike Batt's 2002 recording of A Minute's Silence gave credit to "Batt/Cage" (which sounded more like a baseball warm-up location than a composer collaboration). Batt claimed, "I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and thirty-three seconds. My silence is original silence, not a quotation from his."

As Cage noted after the premiere of 4'33" "There's no such thing as silence. What [the audience] thought was silence ... was full of accidental sounds ... they themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out."

Of course, if you insist on actual singing and playing, there are plenty of great Christmas sounds you'll never hear in an elevator. Bob Dylan's new album Christmas in the Heart is far from his best work, but still lots of fun. Steve Earle's plaintive Christmas in Washington forgoes false cheer in favor of a bleak assessment of the political landscape and a yearning for the return of heroic figures like Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King. And The Kinks' Father Christmas combines good rockin' with a reminder to the privileged to "Have yourself a merry merry Christmas/Have yourself a good time/But remember the kids who got nothin'/While you're drinkin' down your wine. See video here.

For our part, Isaac and I are threatening to collaborate for a four-hand piano version of 4'33" for our friends' holiday pleasure. (Also worthy of consideration is the shorter and lesser-known sequel, 4'33" (No. 2) (0'00")," which Cage dedicated to, among others, Yoko Ono.) But we're not sure which of us should play the melody. Where did I put that copy of the I Ching?