Sunday, February 1, 2015


4'33'' is one of the most famous compositions in the contemporary music history, written by John Cage(more information is here). It's a piece that has become an icon in post-war culture, like Andy Whahol's Soup Cans, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: evidence of the extremity of destructive avant-garde art. This blog however is not about art, rather my ephemeral visit to Boston Public Library during the AFA conference.

    (Vault in the entrance hall, Boston Public Library)

Year after year, the same symphony is played in the annual conference: intensive staves filled with interviews, presentations, and endless meetings. Most audience and players come here with clear goals and search for the meaning of every act. And I am one of them.

However, I am also an economist inspired by experimental music, especially 4'33''. This composition, also called 'silent piece',  instructs the performer not to play their instrument during the entire duration of the piece, that is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence". Such compositional philosophy resounded in my mind, echoing the idea of Tao I have talked about throughout my blogs: NO action (无为).

Putting it in the conference scenario, it means doing things with no intention, searching not for meaning. It's such unintentional sound that leads me to visit Boston Public Library on a sunny winter morning.

                       (Vault in the entrance hall)

"Silence is not acoustic," he (John Cage) said, "It is a change of mind. A turning around."

Boston public library is an imposing stone building with a neo-renaissance style. I have noticed the building in the taxi the first day arriving in Boston. It instantly aroused my interest to visit even without knowing its name. Such wish became even stronger when I realized that my hotel, Westin, was just across the street from the library.

Saturday was fully scheduled, as if performing the Ring cycle of Richard Wagner without any interception. The hope to visit the library evaporated like a dew under the sun.

So was Sunday...

Monday was my last day in Boston. Chance of a bulk break was still slim. Yet the wish was so strong that I felt the calling of the building.  Governed by whim, I decided to skip the breakfast and to take the 15min gap to visit the library, then rush back to meet my co-authors.

I spent only about 14 minutes in the library. On my flight back to DC, I thought about the music of 4'33'', and linked it to my 14'33'' stay in Boston Public Library.

(Light entering the Abbey Room. In the dark are the walls graced by the murals titled the "Quest of the Holy Grail," featuring 150 life-sized figures illustrating the Arthurian legend. The ground is French rouge antique marble, and the beamed ceiling is modeled after one in the library of the Doge's Palace in Venice.)

(Iron Door at the hallway, with sunlight)

4'33'' marked a significant change in John Cage's musical thought -- specifically how it forms a point-of-no-return from the conventional communicative, self-expressive and intentional purpose of music. Back to the conference scenario, all behaviors are supposed to be professional, communicative, self-expressive and intentional. But coming to the library gave me a no-meaning break and a complete tranquil peace, echoing the essential meaning of silence in music: the giving up of intention.

However,  Cage's work is not silent at all. It embraces the whole world of unintentional sound; i.e., it is full of sounds. The library visit also enriched my mind.


In 1946, when an Indian student, Gita Sarabhai, arrived to study Western counterpoint with Cage in exchange for lessons on Indian music. He asked her what the purpose of music was in India. She replied that her teacher thought that the purpose of music was to quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences. Cage was tremendously struck by this.

He then determined to find out what was a "quiet mind" and what were "divine influences". For eighteen months he immersed himself in the philosophy of East and West, and began studying Zen Buddhism with Daisetz T. Suzuki. "I had the impression that I was changing -- you might say growing up. I realized that my previous understanding was that of a child."

(Bates Hall which features a majestic barrel-arched ceiling enclosed by half domes on each end, English oak bookcases, and busts of eminent authors.)

4'33" continues to baffle and confound people today. Intentional sounds and egocentric actions have no place there. When leaving the iron door behind and standing again in the sun, I am full of unspeakable joy. I went back to the intentional, professional world, being peaceful and humble, ready to embrace the universe of sound as music.

Photographed by Jennie Bai.
Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.

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