Review of Nothing: John Cage and 4’33”

Nothing: John Cage and 4’33”Nothing: John Cage and 4’33”
by Nicholas Day; illus. by Chris Raschka
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
4/24    9780823454099    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823457601    $11.99

The very definition of music is explored in this thoughtful look at Cage’s (1912–1992) controversial musical composition, 4'33", a work that debuted with a pianist “performing” four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence in a barn in Woodstock, New York, in 1952. While there was no piano performance in the traditional sense, the absence of music amplified other sounds, such as whispers, coughs, chairs moving, and the noises of the outside world. Cage believed that “there is always something to hear inside the silence,” and the book encourages readers to listen even when it feels like there is nothing to hear. It also emphasizes the art of doing nothing. Twice, the word nothing is scrawled in cursive on a double-page spread featuring just that word, giving readers space to pause and absorb the concept. Raschka’s stunning illustrations further these heady concepts: staff lines, disembodied notes, accidentals, and oddly placed clefs visually capture Cage’s spirit. Watercolor, pencil, and ink lend themselves well to the task of representing audiences, musicians, and experimental sound art, offering details at times and at other times just suggesting things through outlines and splotches of color. The book deftly pivots in time between Cage’s childhood, the Woodstock performance, and his impact on music broadly. Extended back matter on Cage’s life and work round out the book. Pair this introduction to the experimental musician with Rogers and Na’s Beautiful Noise (rev. 11/23).

From the March/April 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Julie Hakim Azzam

Calling Caldecott co-author Julie Hakim Azzam is a communications project manager in Carnegie Mellon University's Finance Division. She holds a PhD in literary and cultural studies, with a specialization in comparative contemporary postcolonial literature from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Southeast Asia. Her most recent work focuses on children's literature, stories about immigrants and refugees, and youth coping with disability.

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