for four minutes.
and thirty three seconds.
...then stands up, takes a bow, and walks off.
The audience is left to make what they will out of the experience. Some laugh, some grow angry, some pray or meditate, and some spend the time rationalizing it into something profound.
I had always been in the first category, but I had never really given the piece its full four minutes and thirty three seconds. Having only heard the punch line, I had never bothered to experience the full journey of this piece until I performed it for a handful of students at the end of the day, as they were waiting for the busses to be called.
It happened very spontaneously. One child was at the piano, experimenting with dampening the strings and creating some very cool effects. I started talking to him about John Cage, and his works for prepared piano. Then I asked him if he had heard of 4'33". When I realized this was a learning opportunity, I called everyone over to listen, and without explanation or introduction I began the piece. They started smiling, then they started frowning. Some seemed to be praying, others thinking. Several times someone tried to say something like, "wait, has it started?" or "did he already play it?" but each question was answered by a gentle hushing gesture from a different child.
When it was over I didn't stand up and bow, I just told them that was the end. One student said it made her feel empty, another said it made him feel peaceful. They all agreed it was really cool. And so did I.
As a performer, I felt extremely vulnerable. There is only one way to perform this piece, but there are infinite ways to hear it. For the first time I could clearly see the illusion behind the whole idea of performance--the idea that the performer is in control of what the listener hears. In fact it is always a contract between the two; and the listener holds the last card every time.
If you have never performed this piece, I encourage you to try it. Gather some friends and sit down in front of an instrument. I would love to know what happens!