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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 14:29 GMT
Radio 3 plays 'silent symphony'
John Cage
John Cage died in 1992
BBC Radio 3 has aired more than four minutes of complete silence... by design.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of composer John Cage's seminal piece 4'33", which does not contain a single note.

Radio 3 broadcast the entire composition live, even having to switch off its emergency system that cuts in when there is apparent silence.

The performance took place on Friday night at London's Barbican Centre.

It was part of a weekend of Cage's work. The late avant-garde composer "wrote" the piece in 1952.

See a selection of your views

TV viewers were also able to watch the event when BBC Four broadcast the concert, which also featured works that music lovers could hear.

Cage's reasoning for composing 4'33" was to demonstrate that "wherever we are what we hear mostly is noise".

Mostly what you could hear was people getting up and walking out

BBC Symphony Orchestra general manager Paul Hughes of the 1952 première

His estate won a bizarre copyright battle in 2002, when composer Mike Batt agreed to pay a six-figure sum to a charity because his album featured a tongue-in-cheek silent track which he credited as co-written by Cage.

General manager Paul Hughes told BBC Radio 5 Live the orchestra had rehearsed to "get in the right frame of mind".

Despite having no notes to play, the musicians tuned up and then turned pages of the score after each of the three "movements" specified by the composer.

The silence was broken at times by coughing and rustling sounds from the audience, who marked the end of the performance with enthusiastic applause.

Mr Hughes denied the performance was a "mindless gimmick" and said Cage believed "music was all around us all the time" and the piece was his attempt to make the audience focus on sounds that were "part of our everyday lives".


But the audience at the premiere in 1952 was "so discomforted that mostly what you could hear was people getting up and walking out", he said.

"They were completely outraged and extremely angry," Mr Hughes added.

He said Cage, who died in 1992 aged 80, was very proud of the silent composition.

In readiness for the performance, Radio 3 bosses switched off their emergency back-up system - designed to cut in when there is an unexpected silence on air.

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What do you think of the sounds of silence? This debate is now closed. Please see below for a selection of your comments.

In this piece, you are not supposed to be listening to the "music", you are meant to be listening to the noises which you would otherwise have missed. That is the art of the piece, appreciation of background noises.
Kate, Warrington, UK

I look forward to hearing a cover version aimed at the mainstream. Perhaps one of our idols - Will, Gareth, or newly crowned Mick McManus - could furnish us with their own interpretation? A sure-fire hit!
Pete Beale, London

Emperor's new clothes anyone?
Martin, Scotland

As a brass player myself, I can really feel for the members of the orchestra... counting all those bars rest!
Lynda Beare, Southampton, Hants

I wonder how a conductor approaches this piece. Is it acceptable to use a stopwatch or is the conductor expected to count the bars - therefore introducing the possibility of slow or fast renditions?
Beowulf Mayfield, London

I'm sorry, but this is absolutely ridiculous. The rock 'n' rollers and the punks were wrongly bashed in their day, but this genuinely deserves a big thumbs down.
Tom Green, Scunthorpe, United Kingdom

I don't see the point in broadcasting it, why not just ask listeners to switch off their radios?
Marc, UK

" "!?
Des Phillips, Cambridge, UK

I've seen this performed live by a full orchestra and it worked really well live, particularly because the orchestra really got into the swing of things and hammed it up big time. 4'33" is essentially a joke, and should be enjoyed as such, but it is interesting to sit in a concert hall watching an orchestra not play anything. In our case the conductor (a flamboyant type) stood with his baton as though he was about to start cueing instruments at any moment, and the various musicians were all poised to play whenever required. The whole thing was far less silent than you might expect - aside from ambient noise and people coughing and so on, there was the rustle of the orchestra turning over pages and so on. Some bozo in the audience shouted out: "This is stupid."
DV, Dublin, Ireland

This is clearly a gimmick, when he 'wrote' this piece he was testing who was stupid enough to fall for it. I think you'll find he wrote it on 01 April 1952.
Ralph Hornibrook , Oxford

I find it quite patronising and disturbing that self proclaimed intellectuals are trying to convince us that this is art - just another nail in the coffin for the world of art!
Sandeep Paul, London, UK

I think that this piece represents one of the extremes of human creativity. It had to be done sometime and I guess he was in prime position. Well done!
Ron Collinos, Altun

Cage's piece is an innovative work of art. It may be more philosophy than music but that's OK isn't it? This piece has always amused me. I do hope no-one drops anything.
James Sinclair, Jersey CI

Well, I've not heard it so I can't really comment. It reminds me of that play Art where the main character hilariously buys a purely white painting. That was rubbish, so...
Jon Humphreys, London, UK

Superb. If only all the R&B "artists" would write more music like this!
Phil, Warlingham, Surrey

Will the audience show their appreciation of this work with a silent ovation?
David Ross, Conwy

As with all modern art, the debate is one of authenticity. Is the piece a gimmick or is it a natural and beneficial contribution to the development of music? Generally modern art is dismissed as inauthentic or gimmick when it is for commercial gain. There is no objective way of giving meaning to a silent piece of music, but it is not a money spinner like so much modern art appears cynically to be.
H Davies, Bristol

It sounds a great deal better than the majority of music that is sold today (and was being sold 'in my day', to boot).
Adam, London, UK

Of course, there's beauty in silence. And silence is not just the absence of noise; otherwise the orchestra could simply turn off their microphones. Everyone who's tuned in, late at night, to a radio station broadcasting nothing, can attest to the allure of faint static. This is not 4'33" of silence - it's 4'33" of quiet companionship.
Matt Clifton, New York, USA

The musical equivalent of framing a blank canvas.
Lorraine, St Albans, UK

Mike B, UK

Is this how our licence fee money is being used? I've never heard of such a stupid thing in my life! God rest his soul, but this 'composition' by Cage smacks of arrogance and self importance; values which today are now being echoed by Radio 3 bosses.
James Bolton, Rugby, Warwickshire

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