The line, probably John Cage’s most famous statement, appears three times over in his book Silence, which Wesleyan University Press has reissued in a smart fiftieth anniversary edition that also coincides with the centenary of the author’s birth. A self-devouring paradox, Cage’s modest avowal neatly draws attention to the impossibility of saying nothing, for once a frame of communication has been set up, be that frame a book or a musical score, a sheet of paper mounted in a gallery space or a performance scheduled in a concert hall (and Cage worked in all these media), emptiness will speak. It does so in 4’ 33”, probably Cage’s most famous musical statement, which, being entirely silent, offers clear proof that nothing is never simply nothing. The piece is the vanishing point towards which Cage’s forebears Webern and Satie were tending in their reduction of means; it is a space within which members of the audience can react, and others hear that reaction; it is an invitation to pay attention to what is normally unvalued (perhaps the sound of air conditioning or traffic outside); it is a provocation; it is a joke; and, perhaps ideally, it is an opportunity to listen to silence as keenly as we listen to (other) music.
more from Paul Griffiths at the TLS here.