John Cage’s notorious “silent” piece 4:33 is an exercise in listening. But a compilation of covers—from New Order, Depeche Mode, and others—proves that interpreting it is not as easy as it might seem.
It’s been almost 70 years since John Cage debuted 4:33, his infamous silent piece, to a baffled crowd in Woodstock, New York. A lot of people left the concert pissed off. His friend and colleague Christian Woolf was mortified to have brought his mother, who dismissed it as “a schoolboy’s prank,” while Lou Harrison, another peer, said Cage’s work was “quite boring.” But in 2019, the hubbub having long since died down, the feeling is that someone had to do it. However grating it might have seemed, 4:33 remains arguably the 20th century’s most elegant artistic thought experiment. It’s a moon-landing-level gesture of the avant garde’s triumph over history. In a century obsessed with liberation, Cage deftly penned the ultimate musical permission slip.