A monological composer working in a conventional Euroclassical context accepts as a matter of course a wide swath of assumptions as built in components of the specific “composition” (sonic design) being constructed. The concert hall convention is assumed, within which an audience quietly attends to sounds emitted by an ensemble of literate performing musicians who act as representative agents of the (usually absent) composer’s designs and intentions. Prevailing standards of intonation and instrument design, along with what kind of timbre and articulation can be expected from each performer are taken for granted as well. With so much structure already in place, it really is practical for a remote composer to commit a design to notation — and for that design to be sounded in pretty close correspondence with what the composer had in mind.
The remarkable resilience and strength of this elaborate and very particular metacompositional structure (an immense collaboration sustained by the collective efforts of many, many thousands of people over centuries) was remarkably demonstrated by the North American composer John Cage in 1952 with his composition 4’33’’. Cage very cleverly leveraged Euroclassical concert hall conventions in order to intentionally frame a sonic portrait of “non-intention.”
Listeners responded to notices announcing a concert to be presented by the Woodstock Artist’s Association at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York at 8:15pm on Friday, August 29. During the performance, listeners were seated before a performance area where pianist David Tudor sat at a piano, and placed a score on the piano and sat quietly. He alternately lifted and lowered the keyboard lid to indicate respective movements of the piece while timing the length of each movement with a stopwatch and turning pages at the appropriate moment. Listeners were able to hear the incidental sound of wind among the trees outside, a few raindrops on the roof, page turns and eventually, increasing human whispering and grumbling among the concertgoers.
Cage’s construct was radically iconoclastic in terms of its sonic “content” in a way that’s since exerted a powerfully enduring influence on the imagination of composers and listeners. Cage could argue rhetorically on behalf of “sound in themselves:” but in order to introduce them as “music,” he (ironically) reaffirmed the underlying metacompositional assumptions of Eurological concert music. The interaction structures segmenting the roles of composer, performer and audience remained intact and unchallenged. As Cage himself once put it, “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” Cage made sure that everything remained hands-off, non-interactive and non-reciprocal.