Yesterday I decided to begin a Eucharist service with John Cage’s piece of music 4’33″ instead of a hymn or some instrumental, inspired by a friend’s comment that so much religious music is just “decorating the silence.” Cage’s piece consists of the pianist going to the piano and waiting four minutes and thirty-three seconds, then hitting a single key. Much ink has been spilled about this work. What Cage said about this famous piece is that, “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it.”
Cage himself connecting it with poetry probably led me to first consider poetry this morning when I wondered what the quality of his piece would be in writing. I thought about Gertrude Stein’s: “A rose/is a rose/is a rose.”
But what about with my own form, prose fiction? The quality of suspense is parallel to the emotion the listener feels at the beginning of 4’33″ that is a crucial element in some prose, but the suspense there is created through the noisy narrative – words, words, words.
An image in Tolstoy’s War and Peace comes closest though noisy in itself (587,287 words), this image depicting noisy war:
“He was like a horse running downhill harnessed to a heavy cart. Whether he was pulling it or being pushed by it he did not know, but rushed along at headlong speed with no time to consider what this movement might lead to.”
The passage so struck me, I gave it perhaps more than four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Is that roughly the prosaic equivalent to Cage’s work? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I really don’t know, and would really like to know, what is the quality of Cage’s work in prose?