Today, a virtual neighbor furnished a YouTube link of Reinbert de Leeuw performing 4'33 by John Cage on Dutch television. (There are the inevitable camera angles of members of the audience rolling their eyes, but face it: John Cage was an American composer, would such an event take place on a major US television network?)
The idea of an actual performance of the piece struck me as engaging: enough about the (supposed) idea of the piece, enough of the cavils and sneers. Whether one considers the Beethoven Op.68 or the Cage, reading the chit-chat about the music is one thing, being in the space while musicians are performing it, something entirely different.
That said, when I first saw the YouTube widget, my immediate reflex was I am not going to hit the Play button. It was not a strong resistance, but probably just a habitual doorstop. What is more absurd, came the nay-saying voice, than watching a video of a performance of 4'33?
[The performance begins at the 6:40 mark of the video.]
As I say, when my eye fell on that YouTube box, a bit of me inside scoffed . . . but then I thought, Why not? and so I did watch.
I found (quite possibly to my surprise) that it was time well spent. As with just any other piece of music, it all depends on what you do with the time, and with your concentration.
The experience of (I smile almost just to type this) watching a video of a performance of 4'33 made me think of a story told me by a friend in upstate New York, of a Dutch architect teaching a class at the time when mechanical pencil sharpeners had just been installed at each of the desks in the classroom.
The architect got the students’ attention, saying, “Before we begin, let us sharpen our pencils.”
All of the students used the sharpeners at their desks, turned the handle a few times, and in seconds all of them were done.
The architect sat down in front of the class, took his pencil, took out a knife, and without any apparent hurry, patiently whittled a sharp point. All the students sat and watched this, who knows what thoughts and emotions ran through each student's breast?
At last, the architect spoke again, “Well, then. Where are we now? You all have sharp pencils, while I — I have designed an interior.”