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It's the oboes that really brought life to the performance, don't you think?
September 22, 2007 6:03 PM   Subscribe

John Cage's 4'33" has been discussed previously on MeFi, but you might've missed the full orchestral version.

4'33" has shown itself to be a hugely influential work if only for the fact that so many people know of it. The piece is often referenced in MeFi comments, sometimes appearing in unrelated or only tangentially related threads. Here's a small sampling:

jpoulos. jfuller. mr_crash_davis. jfuller. evanizer. skwm. kozad. wheelieman. sotonohito, and immediately following sotonohito's comment in that thread, languagehat, LooseFilter, dydecker and more, in what turns into a lively discussion of this still controversial piece of music.
posted by flapjax at midnite (126 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
BTW, the BBC Radio link ("version") is accessible from the BBC News article ("orchestral") in case there's any problem with formats or whatever...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:10 PM on September 22, 2007


Thanks for the post, flapjax... I've been wanting to see this.
posted by Poolio at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2007


I just like the fact that I am named in this post.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:25 PM on September 22, 2007


Whenever someone commits to a post which is nothing but the dot, whether they realize it or not, they are referencing Cage's 4'33".

In fact, I hope when I die, someone performs 4'33" at my wake; preferably while everyone else is boozing it up and making sick perverted jokes at the expense of my rotting carcass.

It's the sounds that are not orchestrated which are the music when one attends a performance of 4'33". Even if it's the sound of an outraged audience storming off in a huff. That's what makes 4'33" one of the most beautiful works ever: it frames a snapshot of humanity. It's like a sand castle made out of people, and in five minutes the tide will come and wash it all away.

When you're sitting there 'listening' to 4'33", everything and everyone around you becomes the song. The audience becomes the music, right down to the guys without cough drops. In fact, they might be the percussion section. If it gets so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat? You become the song. It's really quite ingenious when you think about it.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:29 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


That would have been fantastic if someone had an unstoppable fit of laughter.
posted by itchylick at 6:43 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


That would have been fantastic if someone had an unstoppable fit of laughter.

Which would certainly have triggered a wave of laughter that ultimately would've engulfed the entire audience and orchestra! Cackling and whooping! And I bet Cage would've liked that!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:47 PM on September 22, 2007


The lengths that otherwise smart people are ready to go just to make sense of the pretentious! Ok, maybe 4'33 is there to make you think about what music is all about, but pretending it's good music and having a full orchestra not doing anything, well, then the joke's on you.

Watching that video is just embarrassing. It really takes intelligent people to do profoundly stupid things.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:54 PM on September 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


My favourite thing about 4'33", especially this performance, is not that it's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (which, technically speaking, is impossible); it's that it's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of people trying very hard not to make noise.
posted by chrominance at 6:55 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


In bizarre-perversions-of-copyright-filter:
"In July 2002 composer Mike Batt (best known for being behind the 1970s novelty/children's act The Wombles) had charges of plagiarism filed against him by the estate of John Cage after crediting his track "A Minute's Silence" as being written by "Batt/Cage". Batt initially vowed to fight the suit, even going so far as to claim that his piece is "a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds." Batt told the London Independent that "My silence is original silence, not a quotation from his silence." Batt eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed six figure sum in September 2002."
(From Wikipedia.)
posted by Malor at 7:05 PM on September 22, 2007


Well, stupid me, I didn't read the "previously" link.
posted by Malor at 7:07 PM on September 22, 2007


I'm always slightly annoyed that John Cage came up with the idea of 4'33" before I did.
posted by Xere at 7:20 PM on September 22, 2007


Foci for Analysis: "pretentious... stupid... embarrassing..."

The ball is now behind you. Did you not see it?

...

It almost hit the top of your head. Could you go get it for us please? Thank you ever so much. Remember to look both ways before you cross the street.

...

Apparently I've already talked about this in MeFi too. I thought I sensed some de ja vu as I was typing before. Sorry. I just get overly excited when it comes to this piece. =) It's phenomenal. To see a live orchestra actually perform it is keen.

Although I believe it was originally written for the piano. Obviously any instrument can be utilized with which to produce silence. It's the only sound any instrument can mimic from any other. That's what makes this piece so versatile.

However, I believe to really present 4'33" as Cage originally intended, there should have been a piano prominently downstage near the conductor, and manned by the most talented pianist available at the time. The audience's attention shouldn't have been primarily on the conductor, but on the pianist. Even with a full orchestra complement. That would really capture the original Cage experience, short of having Cage himself at the piano.

The conductor could then nonverbally instruct the pianist when to open and close the trap over the piano keys, which further adds to the acoustics of the piece while both educating and entertaining the audience to the movements.

Furthermore, the directions on the sheet music should say "tacet" meaning the performers are to remain silent. I noticed between movements two and three that the audience all began coughing almost simultaneously as soon as they noticed the conductor's body language indicating the end of the second movement. This is wholly wrong.

The audience does not have sheet music before them. They are supposed to behave as they normally would during any piece of music. If they feel the need to cough or whisper something to their friend, they should do so. If someone wants to laugh because they feel compelled, there should be no limitation upon the audience member to refrain, beyond the obvious peer pressure and other things that would naturally be in the situation were it a piece involving less silence.

In fact laughter should be quite an instrument in the improvisational feel of this piece. It's an absurd piece! It SHOULD illicit laughter! An entire orchestra is standing there being paid. They're all dressed to the nines and their instruments are shined and polished and ready to go. An entire stage filled with the most talented individuals the symphonic hall could muster at the time, and they produce just under five minutes of nothing. It's ludicrous. It should illicit laughter. People should react appaulled and storm off. Other people should boo the stage.

Frankly I'm ashamed at the audience at this televised presentation by the BBC. Someone could have at the very least pretended to sneeze halfway through the first movement. That mighta gotten the ball rolling. Honestly! No true appreciation for dada whatsoever in today's world.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:21 PM on September 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


Great, even as web video. I just recently saw another Cage piece, "Atlas Eclipticalis", performed in a derelict East Berlin public pool. Apparently, Cage wrote it by "superimposing musical staves over the star-charts in this atlas." More.
posted by muckster at 7:41 PM on September 22, 2007


Like it or not, this is an important piece of sound recording and composition for the implementation of the piece alone. Music and sound is better when approached intuitively. 4:33 makes this fact nakedly apparent.

Somewhere in the midst of George Clinton and P-Funk's Maggot Brain-style jams, Sun Ra Arkestra's aggravated "space between the notes," and such theoretically-derived intellectual sound work as John Cage's (as well as much of Frank Zappa's misunderstood/under-appreciated orchestral catalog), there is a natural function of sound so far beyond our use of music that when it is sussed out human kind will be moved a step further along on the evolutionary notch-stick.
posted by humannaire at 7:46 PM on September 22, 2007


I have to say I love this piece and especially this performance. As the commentator alluded to at the end there, Cage conceived of the piece when he went into an anechoic chamber and realised that instead of hearing nothing he was in fact hearing his own heartbeat therefore coming to the realisation that there was no such thing as silence.

One of my favourite memories of college was in a composition class when we had a power cut, our lecturer rather than decide we should evacuate the building or patiently wait it out, decided we should hold an impromptu performance of 4'33". One of the most amazing experiences ever!
posted by TwoWordReview at 8:01 PM on September 22, 2007


Interestingly (or not?) extended silence is now being used in pretty non-Cageian ways by improvisers (Taku Sugimoto, most notably) and composers (Wandelweiser Group) -- trombone great Radu Malfatti (previously known for his very active free improvisation in past decades) is part of both camps.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2007


ZachsMind: your rant really is funny! Hell, if it takes you eight paragraphs to explain how it should be "experienced", then something is wrong.

It's odd that you feel ashamed that the audience didn't react in a certain way since their reaction is the most common one if you look at other taped performances of 4'33". Can you really be the judge of which emotions are right when it comes to interpreting music? The rest of your argument ("It's an absurd piece! It SHOULD illicit laughter!") is too dubious to counter.

"That's what makes this piece so versatile."
Heh, really...
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:06 PM on September 22, 2007


I'm waiting for the mashup with Destiny's Child.
posted by demiurge at 8:17 PM on September 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


"if it takes you eight paragraphs to explain how it should be "experienced", then something is wrong."

Not at all. I could spend eight paragraphs describing my last journey to the facilities if it suited my fancy.

I can waft eight paragraphs on practically any topic, given obvious leniency for topic drift. I'm not sure if I could do this but the equivalent in writing is possible for me. I'm quite efficient at rambling. I have a lot of experience in that area.

As for my displeasure with this particular audience, my criticism of their performance is akin to anyone's criticism of any performance. Whether the audience knew it or not they were just as much the performance as the man with the baton. That's how this works. That's the beauty of John Cage's piece.

As Lily Tomlin once said: "The show was soup. The audience was art."
posted by ZachsMind at 8:44 PM on September 22, 2007


Joseph Gurl's comment reminded me of Phish's Divided Sky, which features a "silent jam" (this one starts around 6:20). I've seen them hold that for minutes in front of a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden. ZachsMind might have enjoyed that crowd's performance more--we were raging.
posted by muckster at 8:56 PM on September 22, 2007


4'33" is a fraud, a sham.

To have any artistic merit at all, it should have only been performed once, then permanently retired. Every performance after the first one is trite and banal.

Foci is actually on target. This is intellectual masturbation for those who "get it". However, it is so well known by now as to be pop. At most performances now, everyone is in on the joke, and it does not generate any reaction at all (witness the clip).

So, guess what? You're no longer part of the Illuminati if you "get it". Now it is no longer some sort of high-minded artistic statement. It is now a not-quite 5-minute imposition. And it's tired.

Want to really say something? Do a performance of 4'33" at the Celine Dion Vegas show on a Saturday night where people have paid $250 to watch her sit at a piano silently.

Now that would be a reaction worth watching.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:57 PM on September 22, 2007 [8 favorites]


I covered 4'33", but my version is better because it's digital.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:58 PM on September 22, 2007



posted by ALongDecember at 8:59 PM on September 22, 2007 [14 favorites]


I covered 4'33", but my version is better because it's digital.

Yeah, but once it gets listened to, it's probably gonna be in the form of a crappy mp3, through some crappy D-to-A converter, over crappy laptop speakers.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:05 PM on September 22, 2007


And the thread winner so far... ALongDecember.

It's gonna be hard to top that.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:06 PM on September 22, 2007


I covered 4'33", but my version is better because it's digital.

Huh. I'll have to run it through my tube amp to warm it up a bit then.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:09 PM on September 22, 2007


This is Tiger the Lion. Give me the knuckles of Frisco. If there's danger in the language, gentlemen, I suggest no further use of the two-way radio.
posted by The World Famous at 9:23 PM on September 22, 2007


hobbyhorse
posted by edgeways at 9:40 PM on September 22, 2007


I put on the trousers that make me bravest before I sat down to write this.

This was mildly interesting when it came into existence. In a sort of middle school kind of way.

I already know I'm a cocktruck and a philistine for thinking this but I rely on you guys to tell me again.

flapjax at midnite, I think you're an awesome mefite and I like your music on Mufi. This is my opinion on this piece, not on you as the poster. Not that you care either way.
posted by psmith at 9:54 PM on September 22, 2007


But I do care, psmith, I do! Like Elvis Costello said, I just wanna be loved. But I'm delighted to see the back-and-forth so far on this thread. Come to me, my pretties!Let the opinions fly!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:14 PM on September 22, 2007


favorite audience noises as 4'33" was performed on MeFi:

- Foci's monocle popping out

- Ynoxas's starched collar going *boing-oing-oing*
posted by fleetmouse at 10:19 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


I was just listening to Frank Zappa's performance of 4'33" tonight, from "A Chance Operation - The John Cage Tribute." It's a very tight performance, of course, and very true to the source material.
posted by SansPoint at 10:43 PM on September 22, 2007


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posted by Pope Guilty at 10:45 PM on September 22, 2007


INVISBLE SCORE
posted by NemesisVex at 10:47 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


After his first trip to Hooter's my friend was so annoyed by the obnoxious music and the girls intrusive fake attempts at flirting that he decided to set up a restuarant next door called "Wings and Tits." It would be the same as Hooters except the girls would never talk unless they were taking your order and it would only play Philip Glass and John Cage.
posted by afu at 10:51 PM on September 22, 2007


Mostly, like mr_crash_davis, I just like the fact that I'm mentioned in this post. I think I said about all I have to say about 4'33" in that thread from January.

I will say that, love this piece or hate it, think it interesting art or pretentious crap, it has played a significantly influential role in American musical composition, and some of our greatest music written since might not have been composed without it. (And I'm not assuming this--I've personally heard several contemporary composers, some quite significant, cite its importance to them.)

Ynoxas: Want to really say something? Do a performance of 4'33" at the Celine Dion Vegas show on a Saturday night where people have paid $250 to watch her sit at a piano silently.

That would only be a good idea if one wanted to be controversial and confrontational as a goal, which to me is a textbook example of pretension. It doesn't matter if the audience is "in on the joke", the experience of 4'33" is in fact rewarding to some of us beyond the first time.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:51 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


the experience of 4'33" is in fact rewarding to some of us beyond the first time.

Wait, let me get this straight- it's 273 seconds of silence, and you find listening to it rewarding? Good god, you can listen to it whenever you want- you can simply turn off noise-creating devices at home and sit there and listen to the live performance on loop for as long as you want for free! How can you possibly describe the piece as "rewarding"?
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:07 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


After his first trip to Hooter's my friend was so annoyed by the obnoxious music... he decided to set up a restuarant next doo... it would only play Philip Glass and John Cage.

Sorry, still wouldn't work for me: much of Glass' music falls right into my "obnoxious" file.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:09 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, the directions on the sheet music should say "tacet" meaning the performers are to remain silent. I noticed between movements two and three that the audience all began coughing almost simultaneously as soon as they noticed the conductor's body language indicating the end of the second movement. This is wholly wrong.

It might be wrong, but I rather like the idea of the audience squirming in their seats trying not to cough, when the whole point of the thing is their noise IS the "musical" accompaniment. It's like some oddball experiment on crowd behaviour and expectations. Or maybe just a colossal joke on the crowd, with Cage snickering in the corner. Whichever explanation is funnier. Plus I'd be surprised if Cage didn't at least anticipate the usual reaction of tense, respectful silence.

Oh, and by the way, if you turn the sound way up, you'll hear people beginning to cough through the second measure. Whether they figured out the point of the exercise or just couldn't hold it in much longer, I couldn't tell you.
posted by chrominance at 11:14 PM on September 22, 2007


...and sit there and listen to the live performance on loop...

Yeah, but it's those audible loop-point artifacts that ruin it. Better to listen to the live original.

And that way, you don't have to pay any of those pesky sample-clearance fees, either.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:15 PM on September 22, 2007


Saying you like 4'33" is like pretending that you've read S. Morgenstern's classic The Princess Bride and prefer it over the 'good parts' version by William Goldman. An obvious lie, because the 'good parts' version is infinitely better than the turgid, self-indulgent original text.
posted by stavrogin at 11:23 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's one aspect of 4'33" that isn't getting any play, but I think that, in our incessantly and increasingly noisy, crowded media landscape, it's a very important aspect that's worth considering: silence. Not necessarily the *silence* (or more accurately, the impossibility of silence) that Cage was pointing at, but something more akin to stopping. An artistic version of the "moment of silence" that we see at, say, Super Bowl games, in honor of war dead or 9/11 victims or whatever. I found it interesting that the BBC had to note that they'd disabled the "silence alarm" when broadcasting this piece. The fact that we're so inundated, every waking second, with the sound and music and noise of media and music and advertising is something that, I think, 4'33" addresses rather eloquently. Even if that wasn't the composer's original motivation or intent.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:47 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


I organized an electronic/avant-garde concert at my liberal arts college (Earlham) in the early seventies, but the electro/avant composer in residence (Rocco DiPietro) demurrred, saying that the piece needed to be performed in a more formal space than the "black box" theater we had booked. He was right, of course.

The piece, premiered a few weeks before I was born, is the most important piece of music to be written and performed in the last century.

Its visual counterpart would be the all-white canvasses of the same time period, but music, being an abstract matrix of calibrated acoustical vibrations performed in the fourth dimension, had an added aesthetic power.

Enough has been written about this piece. But it should be remembered as an excellent - and succinct - demonstration of all the advances (feel free to disagree!) of all the movements in all of the arts toward making the final statement about all of the twentieth century's avant garde final statements...fourth-wall breaking, abstracting, challenging the art/craft/entertainment paradigm...I could go on...but with Cage and Coltrane and Rauschenburg and the conceptual artists and Warhol and the color field painters and Beck's living theater and Sun Ra and Cunningham and Burden et al...all bets were off and have been, permanently.

Now (this is the optimistic artist speaking), everything is possible. Synthesis opens the doors to self-expression.

Shocking the crowd (as in using taboo words in improv comedy) is the lazy man's option, now.

Now is the time for true and total liberation in all art forms. It is an exciting time to be a working artist.

Combining previously employed modes of multicultural and multimedia forms of expression is a potentially revolutionary field of artistic expression.

Things are just beginning to heat up, as humans' life on this planet becomes more and more problematic, tenuous and possibly on its last legs.
posted by kozad at 11:50 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


For some reason, I want a 4'33" lolcat.
posted by Xere at 11:50 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


ZachsMind typed "The audience does not have sheet music before them. They are supposed to behave as they normally would during any piece of music. If they feel the need to cough or whisper something to their friend, they should do so.

Um, the audience was behaving the way that they would during any piece of music. When you feel the need to cough, you wait until the end of the movement.

It always bugs me a little bit to hear people talk about Cage like he was some sort of prankster. Of course he was aware of the humor in pieces like this one, but he did not intend to be a provocateur. What he was doing, especially in his work with silcence, was much more intuitive and emotional. Think less Warhol and more Thoreau.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:54 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


kozad, I find myself in hearty agreement with much of your above comment. This part, however:

Now is the time for true and total liberation in all art forms.

I just don't know what that would really mean. It seems to me that the very concept of "true and total liberation in all art forms" is something, well, irrelevant and indefinable.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:05 AM on September 23, 2007


Sometimes 4:33 isn't enough silence for some MeFi commenters. Some could be silenced totally from the beginning of time, which would not be enough, since they would still totally miss the point.
posted by Eekacat at 1:03 AM on September 23, 2007


If you think that you "get" this, you don't. It is nothing. It is a man contemplating silence and saying "I wish I could take credit for that."
posted by tehloki at 1:24 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, this piece is so interesting: so many people are either in the love-it or the hate-it camp. And it seems to mean so many different things to so many different people! And it's pretty interesting that 55 years after the original performance, which so many people walked out on, people are (metaphorically speaking) still walking out on it! Personally, I think this is a testament to its greatness. Audiences practically rioted (and stormed out) when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premiered, but no one would do that today. It's the very rare piece of art that can polarize people to this extent, and get them thinking about it, to this extent.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:49 AM on September 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Marcel Marceau r.i.p.
posted by doctorschlock at 3:40 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


The point is not 4'33' of silence but 4'33' of listening. It means nothing if no-one listens. Doing it in a formal and communal setting is a different experience than doing it home alone. That's why some people like to pray in church, or so I'm told. And being really quiet is an increasingly novel experience it seems. How many audience members at the average symphony concert are really listening anyway? Not snoozing, whispering, day-dreaming, rustling pieces of paper, or less rudely, are merely completely tuned out worrying about their day? They usually make so much noise I've virtually stopped going. Sometimes I think of Cage and try to accept the audience noise as part of the concert-going experience, with little success. (I'm not worthy! Dude!)

(Incidentally I believe The Rite of Spring audience were protesting the choreography more than the music, but can't be fagged finding a reference.)
posted by Coaticass at 4:19 AM on September 23, 2007


I stand, not by my original post on the topic (the one linked to above) but by my final post on the topic

I will add a new thought on the subject however.

It occurs to me that pro musicians are likely to be the people with iPods and other devices to constantly drown out the sounds of the world around them and thus fill their entire lives with music. Thus a deliberate break from that that forces them to listen to ambient noise could be seen as an amazing experience, and may be a component in the esteme with which so many pros hold 4:33.

In any event, I still can't even see how it qualifies as music and maintain that the pros should enjoy it among themselves but give up on trying to get us laymen to appreciate it, or even recognize it, as music. They say its music, I'll take their word for it, but I still maintain that its impossible for a non-pro to even recognize it as music.
posted by sotonohito at 4:53 AM on September 23, 2007


but I still maintain that its impossible for a non-pro to even recognize it as music.

So, the extremely receptive and appreciative audience members at the London performance in the linked video are all pro musicians, then? How interesting!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:22 AM on September 23, 2007


The lengths that otherwise smart people are ready to go just to make sense of the pretentious!... Watching that video is just embarrassing. It really takes intelligent people to do profoundly stupid things.

Whereas any idiot can toss off a predictable kneejerk comment on MeFi. Congratulations, you've reached the heights of "My five-year-old daughter can draw better than that!" and "It's not a novel if it doesn't have a plot!"

In any event, I still can't even see how it qualifies as music and maintain that the pros should enjoy it among themselves but give up on trying to get us laymen to appreciate it, or even recognize it, as music. They say its music, I'll take their word for it, but I still maintain that its impossible for a non-pro to even recognize it as music.


sotonohito, I'm glad you've gotten less vitriolic and more philosophical, but I think you should bite the bullet and recognize that this isn't about "pros" and "laymen" or anything "qualifying as music," it's about you and this piece. You don't like it. Fine! There's lots of stuff I don't like. But I don't try to turn my dislike into some sort of universal statement about art.

As it happens, I'm a layman, and I would venture to guess that many of the people who have been trying to defend/explain the piece to you and other detractors are laymen. We simply see things in it that you don't. That doesn't make us good/smart and you bad/dumb, it just means that we respond to a particular work of art and you don't. Every work of art has people who respond and people who don't (I've even known people who didn't enjoy Mozart and Jelly Roll Morton), and every person has artists that they don't respond to (I'm pretty sure at this late date I'll never get into Scriabin or death metal). But don't you think it's a little presumptuous to turn your personal lack of interest/appreciation into a statement about the work or people in general?

I'm not quite sure why this post is here, since we have, as noted, done Cage before and linked to performances, but I guess we needed to kick the ball around one more time.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 AM on September 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


There's always room for a little more discussion, languagehat. We might not all have said everything we might've wanted to about Cage and this piece, as you yourself, with your own contribution to this thread, have proven.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:51 AM on September 23, 2007


but you see, a five year old can draw better than that, it's not a novel if it has no plot, and it ain't music if there's no sound, and the only thing worse than the pretentious poseur jackoffs who "create" such things are the pretentious poseur jackoffs who pretend to stand in awe of it so they can sneer down their noses at sane people.
posted by quonsar at 6:47 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


present company excluded, of course l-hat...
posted by quonsar at 6:48 AM on September 23, 2007


*sneers down nose at quonsar*
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 AM on September 23, 2007


When you're sitting there 'listening' to 4'33", everything and everyone around you becomes the song. The audience becomes the music, right down to the guys without cough drops. In fact, they might be the percussion section. If it gets so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat? You become the song. It's really quite ingenious when you think about it.
“Heaven preserve us!” he thought, and opened his eyes wide, “I cannot see anything at all,” but he did not say so. Both swindlers requested him to come near, and asked him if he did not admire the exquisite pattern and the beautiful colours, pointing to the empty looms. The poor old minister tried his very best, but he could see nothing, for there was nothing to be seen. “Oh dear,” he thought, “can I be so stupid? I should never have thought so, and nobody must know it! Is it possible that I am not fit for my office? No, no, I cannot say that I was unable to see the cloth.”

“Now, have you got nothing to say?” said one of the swindlers, while he pretended to be busily weaving.

“Oh, it is very pretty, exceedingly beautiful,” replied the old minister looking through his glasses. “What a beautiful pattern, what brilliant colours! I shall tell the emperor that I like the cloth very much.”
posted by odinsdream at 7:13 AM on September 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ooh, "the emperor has no clothes"! Another brilliant and original response!

present company excluded, of course l-hat...

Heh. I love you too, q!

posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on September 23, 2007


Ok, those of you dedicated to 4'33" as a true art form, I have an experiment for you.

The next time you are at a performance of it, stand up from your audience seat and start giving a 4 minute soliloquy on the piece, repeating much of what you are saying here. Or, alternatively, start faux-drunkenly singing a loop of Kumbaya.

If Cage really meant it as you are describing, and everyone else at the performance appreciates it for what it really is, then you'll be unmolested. However, at any sort of formal function you'll be shushed, hissed, and perhaps forcibly removed from the performance hall.

In that case, it's not REALLY about the audience at all then, is it? Everything you are saying is total crap. It is, as I said before, a sham, a hoax.

Sometimes, things are exactly what they appear to be. This is an exercise in separating the wheat from the chaff. This is a screening mechanism for those who truly appreciate an art form versus pretentious, ridiculous poseurs.

Yes, I will be very clear here: if you try to legitimately state that you enjoy a song which is silence, a painting which is a blank canvas, a statue that is an empty base, a play that is an empty stage, or a photo that was taken with the lens cap on, then you are a pretentious, ridiculous poseur.

As I said, it was something worth saying... once. After that, it no longer has any value, because the message is the piece. Or, perhaps put more pretentiously so some of you will understand: once people understand it, and "get it", it no longer has any value.

4'33" is not music, it is performance art. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it is absurd to call it music. It would be like me pretending to hang a non-existent painting in a museum and then forcing people to stand and contemplate it for 5 minutes.

That would make a statement, but it also would be performance art, and its message becomes noise after repeated attempts. I assume that has already been done, and also assume that is why it is not regularly repeated.

languagehat: it pains me to point out that your criticism of someone invoking "the Emperor's New Clothes" is just as trite and tired as the original invoking itself.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:22 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I remember a bit in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon about how, when Randy is in Jail, he mentions to his lawyer the book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. The lawyer says he never heard of it, but can guess what it is about by the title. Randy says that it's the kind of book that, once hearing the title you never need to read.

That's kind of what I think of when I hear about 4'33": a piece that, once you know what it is, tells you everything you need to know about it. I could be wrong though, I've never seen a performance.
posted by Green With You at 7:48 AM on September 23, 2007


It's too loud.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:04 AM on September 23, 2007


posted by Roger Dodger at 8:05 AM on September 23, 2007


from above: It occurs to me that pro musicians are likely to be the people with iPods and other devices to constantly drown out the sounds of the world around them and thus fill their entire lives with music

I don't know, but as a musician (and a Cage fan), I am totally uninterested in sticking music in my head all day. I play music, I don't want to fill my life with it all the time. I like the sound of the wind, waiters dropping water glasses, peoples' random conversation, and all of life's acoustical randomness. I'll listen to a CD every day or two, but that's about it.
posted by kozad at 8:16 AM on September 23, 2007


When you're sitting there 'listening' to 4'33", everything and everyone around you becomes the song.

Absolutely, Zachsmind. As a performer myself, this piece was a revalation. As I sat in the audience during a performance, it truly did challenge my performer-centric view of music and taught me to appreciate the space and appreciate the audience much more than I ever had before. 4'33" helped me become a better musician, and in a very small way, a better person, because I now have a better regard for the people of the audience.

Of course, not everyone has the same experience, and not everyone likes to have their expectations challenged, and that's fine. It's just as silly to snark about the philistines at the gates as it is to snark about the hoi polloi.

But it really is music. All art, I think I can roughly generalise, is very intertwingled with formal expectations it establishes and which we also bring to it. 4'33" isn't nearly as powerful or interesting unless we call it music, which is precisely why some people refuse to call it so.
posted by honest knave at 8:18 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ynoxas: The next time you are at a performance of it, stand up from your audience seat and start giving a 4 minute soliloquy on the piece, repeating much of what you are saying here. Or, alternatively, start faux-drunkenly singing a loop of Kumbaya.

Why? You wouldn't do this at a recital of a Mozart piano sonata. Cage had a sense of humour, but 4'33" isn't a joke or a prank.

honest knave: It's just as silly to snark about the philistines at the gates as it is to snark about the hoi polloi.

Not sure what you mean here. 'Hoi polloi' means 'the many', who are surely the same as the 'philistines at the gates'.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 8:29 AM on September 23, 2007


Ynoxas, if I were to stand up from my seat and sing "Kumbaya," I would be performing, and no longer be a member of the audience.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:42 AM on September 23, 2007


Anybody else catch the choice of font for the sheet music?
posted by hydrophonic at 8:49 AM on September 23, 2007


Some of you more excitable types are gonna end up on street corners handing out REPENT! 4'33" IS A LIE flyers.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:42 AM on September 23, 2007


Does the orchestra tune up for the performance?
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:01 AM on September 23, 2007


languagehat No, it isn't that I don't like it as music. I don't like, for example, Tammy Wynette's music. But I can at least recognize that it is music, even if its music that I dislike.

I cannot recognize 4:33 as music. I know that music pros define it as such, and thus I accept that it must be music. But I am incapiable of seeing how it is music. I can regonize every other bit of music that I dislike as music. I hear it and I say "ah, that's music, but I don't like it". I "hear" 4:33 and I say "well, its a bunch of musicians deliberately not playing their insturments" [1]. Music, to my non-pro mind, *REQUIRES* deliberate sounds produced by musicians. Obviously the pros disagree and since its their area of specialty I will accept their definiton. I just can't see any music there personally.

So, no, it isn't just me not liking the piece. Its me being unable to even see that it is music.

As for the people enjoying it? Honestly, I think that it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that many of them were faking it to avoid appearing uncultured. I could be wrong, but I'll bet that not a one of them would ever download a copy of a performance of 4:33 and listen to it for fun. For that matter how often have you to the copy you own? Weekly? Is it on your iPod's top list?

[1] Deliberately as opposed to incidentally. They don't play when they sleep but that's a different kind of not-playing than 4:33.
posted by sotonohito at 10:17 AM on September 23, 2007


This is a frustrating thread.

There are some people who understand what the piece is / tries to be, and dislike it. That's great.
There are some people who understand what the piece is / tries to be, and like it. That's great.
There are a ton of people who don't understand what the piece is / tries to be, but dislike it based on their misunderstanding. That's incredibly annoying.

It's like hearing this conversation:

"How about that fried chicken?"
A: "I love it. So tasty."
B: "I hate it. Too greasy."
C: "It sucks, and you're all stupid for liking it. It's the worst doorstop I've ever seen." (said seriously)

sotonohito writes "They say its music, I'll take their word for it, but I still maintain that its impossible for a non-pro to even recognize it as music."

Whoa, sweet, I'm a pro musician! I never knew!
posted by Bugbread at 10:19 AM on September 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ynoxas writes "if you try to legitimately state that you enjoy a song which is silence"

4'33" is NOT SILENT. It is full of sound. It is just not sound made by the musicians on the stage. Whether you like it or not is a matter of personal taste, of course.
posted by Bugbread at 10:28 AM on September 23, 2007


4'33" is NOT SILENT. It is full of sound. It is just not sound made by the musicians on the stage.

Bullshit. This is a perfect example of someone trying to be high and mighty and call down upon the poor ignorant plebeians, when they don't understand it themselves.

I am a musician. I don't know if you are, but if you are, then it would be simple to prove to yourself that 4'33", AS SCORED, is silent.

I can program the score for 4'33" into a midi keyboard, take the digital output of that keyboard, and through spectral analysis PROVE to you that it is, indeed, silence.

What you MEAN to say, is that the silence of 4'33", as typically performed in a recital hall full of patrons, is masked by the ambient noise of the crowd.

This is NOT the same thing by any stretch of the imagination. 4'33" is, indeed, silence. That's all. Nothing more. Nothing higher. Nothing greater.

Or, consider the following: if I were to have an orchestra perform Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" at double tempo, and do it twice through, so the length was exactly the same, do you think it would be different, or the audience would notice?

Now, if I were to perform 4'33" at double tempo, would anyone notice?

That's why I say it is not music, it is performance art.

As performance art, it has some merit, but as I keep straining at above, it has little merit beyond its initial performance. After that, it is almost a mockery of itself. It becomes a caricature.

Consider a fashion show, where the designer has placed what appear to be models under drapes. As the drapes are removed, all that remains is a mirror. The fashion designer then tells the observers that fashion is merely what people choose to wear. That each of them are actually responsible for fashion.

That might have some meaning and some value as a form of performance art, but it most certainly is NOT fashion design, and it would lose practically all its impact after multiple viewings.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:04 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, no, it isn't just me not liking the piece. Its me being unable to even see that it is music.

But it's still you and not the piece. That's the point. Why do you insist on insulting everyone who "gets it"?

As for the people enjoying it? Honestly, I think that it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that many of them were faking it to avoid appearing uncultured.


Honestly, I think that's uncalled for. But at least you're not being an over-the-top insulting jerk, like Ynoxas, who has no idea what he's talking about but feels like spewing crap anyway.
posted by languagehat at 11:09 AM on September 23, 2007


I'm going to be really annoying and link to my previous comment, just to be sure people see it.

Seriously, Ynoxas and sotonohito, pick up some of Cage's writings. You'll quickly see that he's not who you think he is.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:15 AM on September 23, 2007


Ynoxas writes "I am a musician. I don't know if you are, but if you are, then it would be simple to prove to yourself that 4'33", AS SCORED, is silent."

According to sotonohito, not only am I musician, but I'm a pro. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure he's wrong. Does anyone have an image of the score to 4'33"? If it mentions "ambient sound" anywhere, as one of the instruments, etc., then you'd have to put that into your spectral analyzer. If not, judging from everything I've heard about Cage, then the problem isn't that he wrote something which was meant to result in absolute silence and we're all misunderstanding him, but that he meant to write something which included ambient sound, and he fucked up when he wrote the score.

Ynoxas writes "if I were to have an orchestra perform Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" at double tempo, and do it twice through, so the length was exactly the same, do you think it would be different, or the audience would notice? Now, if I were to perform 4'33" at double tempo, would anyone notice?"

It depends. If, as everything I've heard has indicated, the audience is part of the piece, then you'd have to tell them you're playing at double-speed, and they'd have to play along at double-speed (same with your Vivaldi piece: if you played at double-speed but all the musicians ignored that, or, worse yet, you didn't even tell them to play double-speed, than nobody would notice that it was played double-speed twice, because the musicians wouldn't be doing that). But if you had a cooperative audience, and they were aware that the piece would be double-speed, yeah, you could tell the difference. Coughs would be short and more frequent. As would sniffles. People would adjust in their seats twice as fast, and there'd be more rustling and chair squeaking.
posted by Bugbread at 11:21 AM on September 23, 2007


sotonohito: Here's the problem. You're reacting intellectually to the concept of the piece, but while you're busy doing that, you aren't actually present and experiencing it. Shut up and LISTEN.

(This is good advice all the time, not just during performances of 4'33", by the way.)
posted by xil at 11:24 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ynoxas writes "This is a perfect example of someone trying to be high and mighty and call down upon the poor ignorant plebeians, when they don't understand it themselves."

I take exception to this. I hate musical classicism. Hate hate it.

Musical classicism, in its extra-bad form, says "Piece A is an amazing work, and you're just too ignorant to appreciate it."
Musical classicism, in its normally-bad form, says "Piece A is an amazing work, and you don't have to like it, but you do have to admit its excellence."
I'm saying "Go ahead, find it to be shit, but find it to be shit for the right reasons."

You can hate the Foreman grill for making a lousy melted cheese sandwich. But don't hate it because it doesn't play PS2 games.
posted by Bugbread at 11:26 AM on September 23, 2007


Ynoxas, I am one hundred percent in alignment with your position. I see 4'33" as performance art that, once done, never needed to be done again.

That said, I also don't like it. And I don't like the way people treat it like a magic hat, pulling out shit that doesn't belong there and saying it was meant to be that way from the beginning. And I refuse to acknowledge that it is a controversial piece, nor even a piece of music at all. It is simply the poster child for the eternal conflict between my camp (including Ynoxas and quonsar if he wasn't joking) and you people, all you people who have the dubious ability to find specific, intentional meaning in a musical vacuum.

There is something to be said for it - something short and to the point, and someone almost certainly said it 50 years ago. But like other vague, left-to-interpretation performance art, it can be (and is) said to embody almost anything an observer is willing to project into it. And this does not mean that it actually has those ideas within it, and it is not to be credited when someone does interpret it in such and such a way. Quite the opposite - if it can mean anything, then it really means nothing at all. In the end, all the interpretations surrounding the piece are as empty as the score.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:03 PM on September 23, 2007


BlackLeotardFront writes "And I don't like the way people treat it like a magic hat, pulling out shit that doesn't belong there and saying it was meant to be that way from the beginning."

So Cage wrote a piece of silence based on the fact that he found it interesting that in an anechoic chamber, he wasn't confronted by silence, but by the little sounds (such as his own heartbeat) that get drowned out by other sound, and yet the piece he wrote as a result of this realization is not meant to be about hearing the sounds of the audience / musicians / wind / whatever, and we're all pulling shit out of magic hats when we say so?

Sounds like your statement that people are pulling shit out of magic hats is a bit of shit you've pulled out of a magic hat.

BlackLeotardFront writes "Quite the opposite - if it can mean anything, then it really means nothing at all. In the end, all the interpretations surrounding the piece are as empty as the score."

Once again: your evidence that "it can mean anything" is? Because you imagine it to mean so? Fine. Then I imagine that Romeo and Juliet is a play about a talking pig and a wise electrical engineer. Sure, I've got no evidence, but that's what I imagine, and other people imagine differently, therefore it can mean anything, and thus means nothing at all.
posted by Bugbread at 12:19 PM on September 23, 2007


languagehat: Kiss my ass. You are out of your area of expertise. This is something that I happen to know more than a small amount about. Just because you are "teh intuhlectual" around here doesn't mean you are the ultimate authority on every topic.

The vast majority of the time I agree with you, but on occasions like this, I see how you earn the contempt of several people. Either everyone follows your dictates, or else they are being an over-the-top insulting jerk?

I have PERFORMED 4'33". In a concert hall. With an audience. And I felt fucking stupid, even though all those overdressed in attendance thought it was just the most serious and moving thing evar. Oh how deep. Oh how thrilling!

I have played all sorts of modern/avant-garde/progressive/nonsensical music.

I have participated in performances for "prepared piano". I have performed pictorial music and circular music.

It is all a bunch of stupid crap.

That's my opinion, but how else am I supposed to comment on it except to give my opinion?

And frankly, I don't care if you like or validate my opinion or not. Yes, as a musician, I feel qualified to say that playing a piece of music that requires a piano to have foreign objects thrown across the strings is stupid, pseudo-intellectual ridiculous absurdist crap.

What, can't a painter have a belief that a certain style of painting is absurd? Can't a musician believe that a certain style of music is crap?

This attempt to legitimize and standardize everything is harmful to art, not beneficial. I refuse to believe that everything has equal value in the arts.

I am not a sculptor, so if I take a marble slab and smack it square in the middle and shatter it, and then place that next to David, and then insist that they are the same, that one is just as valid as the other, then I am insane. Although there would be no shortage, likely the same people in this thread, who would drone on and on about how a pile of rubble makes the observer really think about what sculpture is, and that the statue is not the important part of a sculpture, but the expectation of the sculpture, and the audience's reaction to the absence of the sculpture is what is really art.

Phooey.

As I pointed out above, I think 4'33" is interesting as a one-time performance art piece. So, I'm not saying it has no value at all.

What I'm saying is that what value it had has evaporated since the reveal.

But of course, I'm sure you'll disagree, and ridicule me for being wrong, and less of a person than you, for the simple fact that you simply know more about this than me, just because you declare that you do, even though I have practical, real-world experience with the subject matter, but yet you once read somewhere it was a masterpiece, so therefore, your opinion is more valuable than mine. Whatever.

bugbread: Please. You are actively participating in your own example of"extra-bad form". You are trying to convince me that a little over 4 and 1/2 minutes of silence is a masterwork, and that if I can't recognize that, then I just don't "get it".

That's really the point of this whole thing.

Some people keep insisting that others don't "get it". The others are saying no, we "get it", it's just stupid.

If I reproduce the Firebird Suite on the spoons and washboard, is it stupid? Or do you just not "get it"?

Enough. If you want to believe that nothing and anything and everything is music, then fine, have at it. Amaze yourself at the rhythmic wonder of your dishwasher and the cosmic harmonies of the microwave.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:28 PM on September 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's like hearing this conversation:

"How about that fried chicken?"
A: "I love it. So tasty."
B: "I hate it. Too greasy."
C: "It sucks, and you're all stupid for liking it. It's the worst doorstop I've ever seen."


To other people, it's like this:

"How about that fried chicken?"
A: What you've given me to try is not fried chicken, I'm pretty sure it's a peanut butter and honey sandwich. I've had fried chicken before, and I've had peanut butter and honey sandwiches before, and there is no information being provided by my senses that would lead me to believe this is fried chicken.
B: I like this! Mmmm, the way the bread is lightly toasted, and the way that the crystalized honey sticks to the nuts in the peanut butter. This is really good fried chicken.
C: Whatever this is, I don't like it.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:48 PM on September 23, 2007


4 33 shows how most of the world of music can get off to and celebrate a 7th grade idea because there's apparently such a paucity of interesting ideas in the field.

I mean, christ, this is interesting for like 5 seconds. And that's generous because it assumes you "get it."

Silence in a song or an orchestra hall begets noises or conversations or whatever. oh my god. we can listen to that and.. wait... we can hear it! brilliant!

This is an example of mediocre and fucking boring and obvious thinking being celebrated as genius.

I have an idea, let's all read Emerson and Thoreau and celebrate our awesomeness!
posted by psmith at 12:48 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ynoxas writes "You are trying to convince me that a little over 4 and 1/2 minutes of silence is a masterwork, and that if I can't recognize that, then I just don't 'get it'."

No, I'm not. You're not reading what I'm writing, or you're reading things in that I am not saying.

I'm saying two things: "4'33" is a piece which uses silence by the musicians so that the audience instead hears the sounds of the audience / room". I'm also saying: "Go ahead and like or dislike that piece, find it worthy of praise or worthy of ridicule. But know what the piece is before you vocally declare your love or hate for it."

I'm not saying it's a masterwork. I don't think it is. I think it's a neat idea, but that's about it. I don't expect anyone else to think it's a neat idea. I just hope people recognize what the idea is before they say the idea is dumb. Think the time cube guy is crazy for his incoherent ranting. Don't think he's crazy for petting sting rays, that's some other guy. Think that Vietnamese food tastes bad because it has too much cilantro. Don't think it tastes bad because it has too much corn syrup, that's some other food.

Ynoxas writes "Some people keep insisting that others don't 'get it'. The others are saying no, we 'get it', it's just stupid."

And some others of us are saying: "Some of you guys get it, but think it's stupid. That's awesome. Some of you guys don't get it, but think it's stupid. That's stupid."

I think you're just so used to discussions like this consisting of people who Think Something Is Great, And So Should Everyone Else, and people who Think Something Sucks, And So Should Everyone Else, that you're assuming that I must be on one side or the other, and are reading me as such. I'm not. I'm in the middle. Know what it is and like it, or know what it is and don't like it, or don't know what it is and have no opinion. Not knowing what it is and taking a stance (on either side) is dumb. May as well discuss how much we hate or like the PlayStation 5.
posted by Bugbread at 12:53 PM on September 23, 2007


psmith writes "Silence in a song or an orchestra hall begets noises or conversations or whatever. oh my god. we can listen to that and.. wait... we can hear it! brilliant!

"This is an example of mediocre and fucking boring and obvious thinking being celebrated as genius."


THIS is a perfect example of how to hate 4'33". Awesome, psmith! Understanding of the concept, and rejection of the concept as peurile and obvious. This is what I have been talking about.
posted by Bugbread at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2007


"4'33" is a piece which uses silence by the musicians so that the audience instead hears the sounds of the audience / room". I'm also saying: "Go ahead and like or dislike that piece, find it worthy of praise or worthy of ridicule. But know what the piece is before you vocally declare your love or hate for it."

I don't know if other people are saying this, but I will: What makes it a piece?
posted by 23skidoo at 12:57 PM on September 23, 2007


Total non-musician guess here: a "piece" is the descriptor for the performance of a composition? So the "composition" would be the sheet music, "piece" would refer to the playing of that composition in a general sense, and "performance" would be a specific instance of playing that composition?

Just guessing.
posted by Bugbread at 1:08 PM on September 23, 2007


I heard that Phish covered this song but they got all into it, not playing the vacuum and a tuba and jumping on trampolines while they didn't play their guitars. They extended the non-jam out to a full 45 minutes.
posted by mullingitover at 1:20 PM on September 23, 2007


xil I've seen 4:33 performed once and was, and remain, unable to see that it is music.

It has nothing to do with liking or disliking the piece, and everything to do with being completely unable to *SEE* the piece. People tell me that its music, and they know more about music than I do so I'll take their word for it. But I can't see any music there.

I can see it as performance art, and from that perspective I find it, like I find most performance art, moderately interesting as a concept but not really worth actually doing once much less several times.

I've noticed that many people who get deeply into art often tend to be fascinated by randomity or near randomity as it applies to their genre. Thus we get Jackson Pollok and his jet engine pieces, Cage and his Imaginary Landscape No. 4, etc. Some people obviously appreciate this and see it as art. For whatever reason I'm unable to see randomity as art, whether its random noises the audience makes during a measured silence or the random spattering of paint on a canvas. Its not that I think its bad art, its that I simply can't see art there. If you can, good on you, but I can't.
posted by sotonohito at 1:34 PM on September 23, 2007


There is an element of theatre in all live music performance. A contract between the performers and the audience. A dyad of attentiveness, a blank canvas of living minds. Frequently the audience and indeed the performers are not consciously aware of this. Being made aware of it is a wonderful thing. Maybe it is (only) performance art; however it is performance art ABOUT music. To have this effect, and as much as 4'33" is (only) performance art, and unlike other performance art, it can ONLY be performed by musicians in a formal setting. To say it is invalid because you wouldn't want to listen to it on your MP3 player is missing the point. I strongly disagree with Ynoxas's view that it was only of interest the first time, because the idea is not the experience. Being there can potentially change the audience (and performers). I'm sorry you feel that way about it Ynoxas, (and others) but my personal experience both as an avant-garde musician and audience member, has been diametrically opposed to yours. All the work of Cage reminds me of Nadia Boulanger's famous advice: "Just listen". But I don't listen to it for pleasure- except the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of having a vibration reach my ears, the pleasure of being alive.

All this sniping about who is or isn't qualified to comment is disappointing and irrelevant. Everyone is entitled to their opinion about it- just as everyone's experience of 4'3" is unique and that is part of the point.
posted by Coaticass at 2:30 PM on September 23, 2007


4'33'! Must learn to proof-read...

Okay, the canvas isn't really blank. I have committed rhetoric.

A dislike of prepared pianos is understandable. It can sound amazing but the wear and tear on the instrument is unconscionable.
posted by Coaticass at 2:43 PM on September 23, 2007


Ynoxas: "So, guess what? You're no longer part of the Illuminati if you "get it"."

Not quite.

You're not a part of the Illuminati until you think you "get it." That is, provided you are deemed worthy by those already think they got it before you did. But that's only the Illuminati that THEY want you to see. You never actually get into The Real Illuminati. The people who think they're in The Real Illuminati aren't really in The Real Illuminati, because The Real Illuminati does not include people.

I'm glad I could clear this up for you.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:48 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


You can hate the Foreman grill for making a lousy melted cheese sandwich. But don't hate it because it doesn't play PS2 games.

mine does, and in 32-bit color.
posted by quonsar at 3:01 PM on September 23, 2007


As I was watching this video the guy in the apartment below mine started practicing saxophone like he always does around this time of day. At first I thought it was a pretty neat coincidence, that "actual" music would start to play during a silent piece meant to get you to listen to the sounds of your surroundings. Then I remembered that John Cage asked, "Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?" The answer is that one isn't more musical than the other.

It sounds pretentious and repellently nihilistic and post-modern, which it sort of is, but I think John Cage is right. The real pretentiousness lies in thinking that a performing symphony orchestra is making sounds that are essentially any different from any other sounds.

(Which is not to say that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is as impressive and stirring as a crowd of people coughing and sneezing. Beethoven totally wins that comparison.)
posted by tepidmonkey at 3:09 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


So yeah, it's not the silence that's amazing, it's the philosophy of music it tries to get you to think about.
posted by tepidmonkey at 3:11 PM on September 23, 2007


I have no qualms being described as pretentious and ridiculous. I consider such descriptors badges of honor. However, 4'33" is neither pretentious nor ridiculous. Our reactions to it can be described as such. One can find oneself in an absurd situation, sitting there in a concert hall listening to an entire stage filled with musicians that aren't making sounds.

Ever seen a clown that wasn't making you laugh?

Ever seen a mime say something?

Ever watched a car chase in a movie that was going twenty miles an hour? MITCHELL!

Just because something isn't doing what you expect it to do, or is doing something you don't expect, that doesn't mean it's wrong. It doesn't mean it has nothing to say. And if it does that twice, that doesn't mean it isn't worth experiencing again. Been there done that bought the T-shirt. That's YOU being pretentious, not the piece.

4'33" is merely a musical composition by John Cage. As with any song in existence, your impression of it doesn't define it. What we bring to it does not define it. However, how we react to it can be used to define us.

Ynoxas: "Yes, I will be very clear here: if you try to legitimately state that you enjoy a song which is silence, a painting which is a blank canvas, a statue that is an empty base, a play that is an empty stage, or a photo that was taken with the lens cap on, then you are a pretentious, ridiculous poseur."

There is no silence.

Maybe in outer space, in a vacuum, but even that can be questioned.

"As I said, it was something worth saying... once. After that, it no longer has any value, because the message is the piece. Or, perhaps put more pretentiously so some of you will understand: once people understand it, and "get it", it no longer has any value."

That doesn't work for me.

Do you honestly believe that something can only be said once and then it has no value? I can perhaps agree with you regarding the end of the film The Crying Game. However, I still enjoy seeing The Sixth Sense every now and again, even though I know what the end of the film says. There are people who can listen to classic rock over and over again and appreciate it, although such repetition may drive their children into killing sprees.

Life is not about the destination.

4'33" is not about silence. Maybe you need to listen to it again, Ynoxas. This piece has much more to say to you than you're willing to hear at the moment.

Coaticass: "The point is not 4'33' of silence but 4'33' of listening. It means nothing if no-one listens."

Ah herd dat!
posted by ZachsMind at 3:44 PM on September 23, 2007


I'm leaving this retarded discussion. Nothing will come of this - and I'm not talking about the kind of "nothing" that has all sorts of meaning. You will never acknowledge that we "get" the piece enough to "legitimately" denounce it as nonsense.

I will never give this so-called "piece" any more credit than a person who says "Shh - listen."
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:57 PM on September 23, 2007


Ynoxas: languagehat: Kiss my ass. You are out of your area of expertise. This is something that I happen to know more than a small amount about. Just because you are "teh intuhlectual" around here doesn't mean you are the ultimate authority on every topic.

You're being a dick, and, I suspect, projecting a perspective that comes from a series of negative performance experiences with conceptual music onto commenters in this thread (languagehat, certainly, has not conveyed the attitude of which you accuse him).

But, since bona fides matter to you, how about this: I am a conductor and associate professor with multiple degrees in music, and work directly with composers on a regular basis commissioning, performing, and championing new music. Does that make my opinion have more weight for you? If so:

I think your argument that 4'33" is performance art rather than music is defensible, as long as one defines performance art as substantially different than performance of music. This distinction can not be taken as self-evident, however, as many would disagree and find such a distinction needlessly arbitrary.

I love 4'33", and am very thankful that it exists in the world, because--as I've commented before--I am certain that the musical world I live in would not be so without it. I have never programmed it, because--like you--I'm not so sure what the piece does is important for audiences and musicians these days. I might be wrong though, and could change my mind and include it on a concert some day. But I would never insult those who find value in it. I think of conversations I have personally had with George Crumb, who cited the liberating perspective of Ross Lee Finney's teaching, how it allowed him to develop his unique voice in a time when almost nowhere else would have allowed it, and how Cage's music and writing were a seminal influence in that perspective (and led another Finney student, Roger Reynolds, to publish at least two long interviews with Cage); or when John Adams said that 4'33" specifically was a lightening bolt in his narrow, stifling world studying at Harvard with Kirchner. (Ironically, both Cage and Kirchner studied with Arnold Schoenberg, who described Cage as "not a composer, but an inventor--of genius." Does that satisfy your appeal to authority enough? Personally, I think Schoenberg was needlessly preoccupied with the organization of pitches as the core of musical composition, a conceptual orientation of his formative years, and find the distinction as he makes it essentially meaningless. Nonetheless, A.S. recognized Cage's faculties.)

To make any reasonable assessment of the value of this work, you really must consider historical context--that is, why Cage has said he created such a strange thing, in what context he created it, and what impact it had (or perhaps has). In 1953, it was an incredibly important statement to make among musicians and audiences, and that it is still performed means it still has value to some. Ultimately, your or my opinion of the piece is irrelevant; it had and continues to have resonance with musicians and listeners, and thus has value.

Cage's ultimate statement is one, I infer from your comments--especially their tone--that you need to hear. A piece of music should be able to be whatever span of time a composer chooses to frame, and filled with whatever sounds he/she chooses to include. If you recall your mid-20th century American musical history, a more important, timely message is hard to conceive--we have a 'lost generation' of American composers because of decades of stifling, pervasive dogma in institutions that teach musical composition, and that dogma died in no small part due to Cage's work and example. He was and is very influential to other composers, and 4'33" in particular was a signal event in its time.

Again, whether or not it continues to have value remains a local decision--if musicians and listeners somewhere think the experience of that piece valuable, then it's valuable. If not, not.

And, BlackLeotardFront: You will never acknowledge that we "get" the piece enough to "legitimately" denounce it as nonsense.

You have a problem with the concepts of authority and authenticity, I think. Whose opinion of 4'33" (or any work of art) would be definitive for you? For me, it is my own, and I try to make sure my opinions and judgments are as informed and considered as I can make them. You seem to have a need to change people's minds about this piece, which is weird to me, and obviously futile.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:26 PM on September 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


sotonohito writes: it isn't that I don't like it as music. I don't like, for example, Tammy Wynette's music. But I can at least recognize that it is music, even if its music that I dislike.

sometimes it's hard
to be a composer...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:47 PM on September 23, 2007


...the piece...
...this work...


LOL. the pretention, it literally oozes.

*plays stooges "i wanna be your dog"*

now this is a piece of work!
posted by quonsar at 6:40 PM on September 23, 2007


quonsar, please elaborate: are you criticizing the work concept in music? That 4'33" self-evidently does not deserve such monikers? Your knowier-than-thou snarking is vague, and of little use to the discourse. Unless you don't want to converse about this at all, and are just being a dick, in which case nevermind.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:49 PM on September 23, 2007


I'd say, LooseFilter, that with his repeated accusations of pretension and snobbery on the part of people who defend 4'33", quonsar is fulfilling a need to demonstrate how unpretentious he himself is. Quonsar, you see, is down with the common types, the real people. It's the kind of populist stance that works so well for so many American politicians. Ultimately, of course, this brand of anti-pretension is itself simply a kind of pretension.

Myself, I like Iggy and Cage.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:05 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


A piece of music should be able to be whatever span of time a composer chooses to frame, and filled with whatever sounds he/she chooses to include.

Completely true, completely the point of the track, and completely fucking obvious. Cage did not make this point - every musician who ever played a note has made that statement. Hell, the first semi-human who beat a hollow log with a bloody bone probably thought "this is my definition of music and no one can tell me otherwise." Give us a little credit here; Ynoxas and I don't need you to spell out the goddamn secret message. We need you to not treat us like neanderthals just because we think this track is an overrated, outdated piece of performance art!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:01 PM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter: Thank you for your comments. I'm glad to see you are predominantly in agreement with my message if not my tone.

I'll cop to my tone being acerbic, but it is because I react viscerally to this because I actually give a damn about the medium, as opposed to "drive-by" aficionados who pretend they have transcended and can no longer be bothered by "normal" music.

What you are describing is 4'33"'s importance in the unfurling of the musical tapestry that has occurred in the 20th century. As I have iterated and reiterated above, I admit it has value, or more precisely, it had value.

You are detailing the historical relevance of this work, but that says nothing of its current value or worth as a contemporary piece.

The fact that it had an important moment does not mean that it still has relevance today, nor that it merits performance, as the very performance of the piece, in my opinion, ruins what it was trying to accomplish.

Once someone knows what 4'33" is, then they cannot further benefit from experiencing its performance. The whole point of the piece is the understanding. If you already have the understanding, the performance is superfluous.

And yes I do consider performance art and music different types of art, as I consider painting and weaving different types of art.

I disagree that the difference is trivial.

If we are to call 4'33" "music", then we are to say everything, anything, and indeed nothing, are music too. And at that point, since anything and everything and nothing are music, there is no value to identifying anything any longer as music.

This is what I was decrying above as the legitimization of "everything". When you do that, you also minimize significant works.

The visual arts suffer this as well, but seem to have more or less gotten past it. Museums, I don't believe, are showing displays of the "Blank Canvases of Picasso". People who truly insist, today, that blank canvases are still some sort of important, vital, necessary works would seem to be marginalized. That ship has sailed, so to speak.

I feel the same about this Cage piece. But others are holding on to the moorings for dear life, straining desperately the whole time screaming at the heavens "you just don't get it!!!!" Yeah, we do. It's not that hard. It's really not that deep. It was novel, I grant, but hardly impenetrable.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:48 PM on September 23, 2007


If we are to call 4'33" "music", then we are to say everything, anything, and indeed nothing, are music too. And at that point, since anything and everything and nothing are music, there is no value to identifying anything any longer as music.

No: "everything, anything, and indeed nothing" that is framed as music is music. It's like Duchamp's Fountain -- if I'm quiet for 4'33", that's just silence. If musicians do it in front of an audience, it's music.
posted by muckster at 10:51 PM on September 23, 2007


It seems as though 4'33' has become the dogma John Cage sought to comment on.
posted by stavrogin at 11:30 PM on September 23, 2007


Coaticass wrote "To say it is invalid because you wouldn't want to listen to it on your MP3 player is missing the point."

On the other hand, I don't think its unfair to argue that 4:33 is unique among music in that people who like it *don't* listen to it on their MP3 players. Which plays into the performance art argument.

I won't deny that there is an element of performance to music, and I'd certainly value the experience of seeing the New York Philharmonic perform a piece than I would listening to an MP3 of that piece. But, and this is an important but, the MP3 would be of value, would be listened to, etc.

There are MP3's of various performances of 4:33 out there, and no one here who likes 4:33 has claimed to listen to them with any frequency. Which makes 4:33 different from every other thing classified as music that I'm aware of.

tepidmonkey wrote "The real pretentiousness lies in thinking that a performing symphony orchestra is making sounds that are essentially any different from any other sounds."

And here I'm going to disagree completely. On a purely physical level, of course, sound is merely a waveform produced by vibration, and at that level one could equate all sounds.

However I don't see an pretentiousness in acknowledging that we can divide sound into "deliberately produced" and "incidentally produced" categories. Further, one can subdivide the intentionally produced category into a spectrum between informational sounds (e.g. spoken words, warning beeps from your computer, etc) and asthetic sounds (music). Since its a specturm some sounds in the category are both asthetic and informational. James Earl Jones delivering a lecture would fit into the informational category due to the content of his words, and the asthetic category due to the fact that his voice is pleasant to listen to. Or birdsong, which is informational on the part of the bird (this is my territory stay away! hey females of my species come fuck!) but to us is asthetic.

"Which is not to say that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is as impressive and stirring as a crowd of people coughing and sneezing. Beethoven totally wins that comparison"

Again, I see no pretention in recognizing that Beethoven's Ninth is categorically different from, say, a truck passing by outside. The former is produed both deliberately and for asthetic purposes, the latter is non-deliberate and not intended for asthetic purposes. Despite both being waveforms in the atmosphere, and thus physically examples of the same thing "sound", there is difference between them.

Now, if you want to argue that one must be pretentious to say "I prefer listening to Beethoven's Ninth over the sound of a ten year old making farting noises with his armpit", I suppose that's your right, but I think you'll look like a twit. Both, technically fit into the same category intentional sound, and the same end of the information/asthetic spectrum, but I think there's further differences that are also legitimate.

However, if you *REALLY* stand by your statement, why isn't your MP3 player filled with truck noise, crowd sound, etc? Are you pretentious, or were you just stirring up false arguments when you made your claim? I'll argue for the latter....
posted by sotonohito at 3:27 AM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


BlackLeotardFront : "Cage did not make this point - every musician who ever played a note has made that statement."

Actually, from my understanding, this wasn't really true until somewhere around the late 1800's or early 1900's. Until then, musicians made the point that a piece could contain stuff they liked, and be a length they liked, but not whatever they liked for as long as they liked.

Ynoxas : "Once someone knows what 4'33" is, then they cannot further benefit from experiencing its performance. The whole point of the piece is the understanding. If you already have the understanding, the performance is superfluous."

Depends how you define "benefit". I'd enjoy hearing the piece once. You don't define "enjoying" something as a benefit of it. I do.

Ynoxas : "But others are holding on to the moorings for dear life, straining desperately the whole time screaming at the heavens 'you just don't get it!!!!' Yeah, we do. It's not that hard. It's really not that deep. "

Right. It's simple. It's shallow. Some people get it, and hate it. But from what you've said here, though, you don't seem to be one of them.

Psmith knocks it out in one:

psmith : "Silence in a song or an orchestra hall begets noises or conversations or whatever. oh my god. we can listen to that and.. wait... we can hear it! brilliant!

"This is an example of mediocre and fucking boring and obvious thinking being celebrated as genius."


There you go. He clearly gets it, and clearly thinks it sucks ass. Why is this so hard for you, Ynoxas?
posted by Bugbread at 5:02 AM on September 24, 2007


There you go. He clearly gets it, and clearly thinks it sucks ass. Why is this so hard for you, Ynoxas?
posted by bugbread at 7:02 AM on September 24


Well, I'm not sure how to answer your question, because I do get it. Completely. Thoroughly.

I've long since abandoned that simple observation (oh, 15-20 years ago) and moved on to saying it is not even music, but instead, a form of performance art.

I rebelled against it because at the time I did not consider myself to be a performance artist, I considered myself to be a musician. I felt like I was a sculptor who was being asked to paint. I resented it; I thought it was banal and trite even back then. I think my response was that this was something better suited to the theatre department.

The ironic part is that now I don't consider myself a musican so much anymore, and I am now being drawn towards some performance art, and especially public/community art projects.

So, I get it just fine, thank you. I have graduated from 4'33" Class 101. I have advanced to questioning its classification and merits, as opposed to just tacet-ly (heh) accepting that it is a masterwork of music (not your words). Why is this so hard for you, bugbread?
posted by Ynoxas at 7:20 AM on September 24, 2007


4'22" is conceptual art, and like all conceptual art, it is the concept that is brilliant, not the piece itself. The fact that Cage created it has great artistic merit, but there's no merit and no art in going out to see an entire orchestra sit in silence.
"The emperor has no clothes" is a perfect response to the idea that those who "get it" are superior to those who don't.
posted by rocket88 at 8:22 AM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, I know, 4'33"...
posted by rocket88 at 8:23 AM on September 24, 2007


accepting that it is a masterwork of music

That's the strawman that's been making a lot of this thread so confrontational, I think. I don't think I've asserted, in any of my comments in this thread or the one linked in the post, that 4'33" is a Masterwork of Music. I've only presented my perspective that: it is a piece of music, even though it is framed silence; that it was quite important when Cage created it, and thus worth our consideration now; and that some musicians and audiences obviously still find value in experiencing it, and that's OK.

The most enthusiastic fans of 4'33" in this thread have been (IIRC) Zach'sMind and pyramid termite, and both were mainly commenting about their love for this piece, not that we all should genuflect before its towering majesty, and any who don't are ignorant philistines. That's where the vitriol from Ynoxas and BlackLeotardFront is puzzling to me.

Ynoxas: You are detailing the historical relevance of this work, but that says nothing of its current value or worth as a contemporary piece.

Its historical relevance has a lot to do with its current value, was my point. Also, the fact that musicians and audiences still find that the experience of 4'33" has value, means that it has value.

Once someone knows what 4'33" is, then they cannot further benefit from experiencing its performance. The whole point of the piece is the understanding. If you already have the understanding, the performance is superfluous.

Here is where we most fundamentally disagree about 4'33", I think--I don't think understanding the piece has anything to do with what it's 'about'. The experience of any piece of music is everything (something too often forgotten in universities and conservatories, where the fetishization of compositional craft often obscures the actual experience of music). The point is to actually experience four and half minutes of no intended sounds from a performer(s). If you think once is enough for you, fine. Myself, I like to come back to it every now and then, just to remember quite viscerally what Cage was saying.

Also, if I draw out the implications of your statement, there is no need to really ever listen to anything. If I have a complete theoretical, technical understanding of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, of all the development that begins even before the first theme of the exposition is even fully presented, of the extraordinary subtlety of his developing the second theme before it's even played at all (!), then I don't really need to hear the thing, do I? Of course I do, because all of that understanding should enhance the experience of that piece of music, not the other way around. (I know, you're probably screaming, "but Brahms made sounds!!!" I get that, but what Brahms really made was an experience about 45 minutes long through sounds, and that's a subtle distinction that Cage was actually trying to draw attention to.)

Also: It seems as though 4'33' has become the dogma John Cage sought to comment on.

I can see how that might seem true, given this thread, but it isn't. Not until students at universities and conservatories everywhere are forced to compose only conceptual pieces of music, and must employ techniques of non-intentionality in order to successfully complete a degree, let alone get a job somewhere, are we anywhere near what the dogma of serialism became. We are, thankfully, and due in no small part to Mr. Cage's work, ideas, and efforts, in a completely different place, where young composers are free to find their own voices.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:40 AM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter:

That's what makes 4'33" one of the most beautiful works ever

It's phenomenal.

is the most important piece of music to be written and performed in the last century.

As a performer myself, this piece was a revalation

Those were the sorts of comments I was railing against. But less explicitly, for a work this extreme to remain, it has to be considered some-sort-of masterwork. It is implied strongly, if not explicitly stated. If not, then that is my mistake. Speaking of mistakes:

bugbread: You're not reading what I'm writing, or you're reading things in that I am not saying.

You are right, I was reading in to what you were saying. You were arguing that it is valid as a musical art form, which (see above) I think is still giving it way too credit. I still think the strong defenses of the work by most here at the very least implies most-favored status.

Would there have been such an outpouring and would anyone have argued as vociferously over one of Dvorak's concertos (or even symphonies)? Those are great works by a master's hand, but yet they certainly don't enjoy the nearly universal accolades that are handed Cage for the sole reason that the piece is, well, 4'33".

LooseFilter: Back to you. I have been contemplating this line of yours for a good part of the morning:

A piece of music should be able to be whatever span of time a composer chooses to frame, and filled with whatever sounds he/she chooses to include.

I want to agree with this statement implicitly, but then I become faced with things like another Cage work, As Slow as Possible, and its current 600+ year performance. It's absurd, purposefully so, and it looses legitimacy in my mind.

I come back to my deeply held conviction that "music" should be something that is recognizable as music to someone other than a musical theorist, and that performances should have a reasonable time frame for completion.

I realize both of those categories are completely subjective. But I don't know what alternative one can have, except for the one presented a few places here: that everything is acceptable. Nothing violates. Everything is valid.

A Geiger counter produces music, just the same as a violinist?

I'm just never going to get there.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:56 AM on September 24, 2007


I come back to my deeply held conviction that "music" should be something that is recognizable as music to someone other than a musical theorist

I'm not a musical theorist, and I recognize everything that Cage did as music.

A Geiger counter produces music, just the same as a violinist?

A geiger counter produces music, sometimes much better than a violinist. There's no such thing as an out-of-tune geiger counter with no sense of rhythm.
posted by The World Famous at 11:21 AM on September 24, 2007


Ynoxas, thanks for your continued thoughtful comments. This is very interesting, and fertile, ground we're treading, I think. You mention:

It's absurd, purposefully so, and it looses legitimacy in my mind.

My reaction to a piece like that is 'why is he [Cage] being so absurd?'. And I think you're right, that there are some pieces by Cage that he really didn't intend to be pieces of music as we normally conceive them, but rather to challenge unexamined prejudices all of us have about music. Especially musicians, we're the most prejudiced of the lot--due to our training, we are biased in all sorts of ways; I think of my earlier comment about Schoenberg, and what I consider one of his great failings: that he never considered that the focal point of musical composition might not be the organization of pitches, that it could be any number of other aspects of sound and silence.

That fixation on pitch as the primary organizing element of musical composition is probably the most pernicious dogma among musicians, in my view, and is one of the ideas Cage was directly challenging. As you point out, that's an historical argument, but I still think many of his pieces continue to have value, because much of these hidden dogmas, biases, or prejudices continue to exist, in the minds of musicians and non-musicians alike. Many of us are products of much the same system (and thus ideas about music) that produced the limited thinking of the mid-20th century, and inherited the same boxes around our thinking. I, for one, have found the experience of some of Cage's work quite liberating, and I was an undergrad 15 years ago. It was important to me then, and it's still important to some now.

The significance of one's experience with a piece of music may or may not correlate with the inherent substance, craft, originality, or whatever of the composition itself. It took me a long time to figure that one out--the subjective vs. objective in art is an important distinction to understand, for me at least, and I still think about it a great deal. "One of the most beautiful works ever", "phenomenal", are comments that to me indicate the speaker's personal relationship with a specific piece rather than a truly objective evaluation--we rarely express our feelings and thoughts with absolute precision, and those comments--while superlative--are clearly subjective statements. (Now, asserting that it is an "important" work would require some justification--along the lines I've provided.)

The music I consider Great is music that has both: it offers a valuable experience in performing and listening, and stands up to further critical study as well. This is why artists like Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms continue to provide a standard--the experience of their music continues to astonish and move, and the music itself also yields great rewards upon focused study of specific works. (not just classical music falls in this category, by the way, I've written long examinations of the work of the Beatles, the development of funk into hip hop and electronica, etc.)

Thus my statement that "a piece of music should be able to be whatever span of time a composer chooses to frame, and filled with whatever sounds he/she chooses to include." Is a Geiger counter producing music? I don't know--does it move you? I can't comment on your experience listening to a Geiger counter, and how moving it may or may not be, but I could offer some objective analysis*, that may or may not be of value. If a composer frames 5 minutes of Geiger counter ticking and calls it a piece of music, that's fine by me, they're free to do so--I'm also free to not buy a ticket to that concert, or not program it on my own concerts.

(*My own sense--disagreeing with Cage somewhat--is that music does need to have intent for it to be considered a creative work. If there is no intent, what has one actually created? 4'33", btw, is full of intent. It's just not manifested as sound from the musicians.)

Anyway, sorry to be so rambly. But as a conductor, I can tell you that I am just plain tired of worrying about Greatness in Music, and think that the fetishization of the canon as Masterworks has been, on balance, more detrimental and limiting to the art form of music than it has been invigorating. These days, I program music that I find moving, interesting, clever, well-crafted, etc., and leave the rest to history.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:39 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


LooseFilter: Thank you for your response. I wish you had been one of my music professors. You are making this old dog at least look at the new trick, if still not embrace it outright.

Your last paragraph in particular I can nod my head and say that I agree with you. Let's just try to schedule some nice chamber music now and then, and not just "Rondo for 3 Shredding Machines and Egg Timer". *wink*

Maybe you can help me with this. What do you do, as a conductor, if you encounter obstinate purist/traditionalist musicians like myself? Am I really all that rare? Are your charges all open and accepting of anything thrown their way?

I was asked to perform a piece in symbolic notation. After a few minutes, I complained that "this isn't music, this is noise".

My conductor's response was "it doesn't matter what it is". Which while I suppose its possible he was trying to give me a metaphysics lesson, I think it more likely he just didn't care to explain it.

Looking back, I know I was being snobbish. But I really did feel like I was somehow maintaining the integrity of the craft.

I realize that music doesn't need me to take up for it. But in a weird way, I kind of see how conservatives feel about "defending marriage" or the "American way of life", sentiments that I normally find repulsive and ignorant. But, in this realm, I feel like someone should stand up and hold the banner and say that the encroachment of these non-musical invaders shall go no further.

John Cage, you shall not pass!

Stupid, huh? *shrug* On some level I know it is. But it is just how I feel.
posted by Ynoxas at 3:20 PM on September 24, 2007


4 33 is like A Separate Peace or A Catcher in the Rye. Welcome to mildly interesting ideas. It's sad the world of music thinks this is IMPORTANT, DEEP, and INTERESTING. Because it's really not.

-- Mr. Bob Dobalina
posted by psmith at 3:47 PM on September 24, 2007


Ynoxas : "Those are great works by a master's hand, but yet they certainly don't enjoy the nearly universal accolades that are handed Cage for the sole reason that the piece is, well, 4'33"."

Hehe...we must be reading different threads, because every thread I've ever read about 4'33" consists of a giant argument about it. I've never read a modern tear-down of Dvorak. If anything, the nearly universal accolades are reserved for Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, and the most criticism is reserved for Cage, Glass, and Schoenberg.
posted by Bugbread at 5:11 PM on September 24, 2007


...and the most criticism is reserved for Cage, Glass, and Schoenberg.

Well, in all fairness, Glass often deserves it ;-)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:20 PM on September 24, 2007


Ynoxas, thanks for your kind words! You asked:

What do you do, as a conductor, if you encounter obstinate purist/traditionalist musicians like myself? Am I really all that rare? Are your charges all open and accepting of anything thrown their way?

Those are really good questions--when I started programming much more progressive works, I thought my most conservative reactions would come from audiences. My audiences (in a college town in the middle of California, very not-hip like the Bay area, for instance) have been extremely receptive to just about anything we've played. In my experience, listeners just want to have a rewarding experience, even if it's quite different from what they're used to or may have expected. I also make it a point to talk to the audience, mention some things about a piece that's new and might be particularly challenging--describing the sounds they'll hear, some thoughts on how the music is conceived and organized, etc. I've been quite successful with listeners.

My students, however, were unexpectedly my most conservative constituency. As I should have remembered, young music majors can be awfully dogmatic about music, having only recently discovered Great Music and being in the thick of learning What Makes It Great. (I was a pretty big classical music asshole around ages 19-21....thankfully I've mellowed and my perspective has broadened.) But what has been key for me in being successful leading students through new, unexpected, and sometimes quite difficult music has been a combination of: trust, first and foremost. They trust me as a musician and teacher--which I developed by working with them on standard repertoire and of course regular classroom teaching--and also as a creative artist. I don't hesitate to talk with them, inside and outside of class, about music, their and my ideas about it, its role in culture and lives, etc. So the new stuff is sort of part of an ongoing dialogue. Second would be successful experiences with new things--the first few times I brought a composer in and we premiered a new piece was mostly motivated by trust. But those first experiences were quite successful, which of course makes them open to further experiences.

But even with that foundation, they sometimes think I've lost my mind--for instance, last spring we played a concert with an extremely talented young composer who is also an electronica DJ, and the concert was a very innovative format, with a crazily eclectic program. Many of my senior students really thought I'd gone off the deep end with that one, but their trust in me was enough for them to commit to the event with good effort and intention. And then the concert happened, and it was just amazing, an incredible experience, and some of the most musically conservative of my students told me that it was among the most rewarding concerts they'd ever participated in. So that combination of trust, respect built from work on more standard/traditional repertoire, and previous positive experiences allows me a fair bit of latitude. I can't ever stray too far from the core of concert music, but I wouldn't want to, anyway. Our Great Music is in fact pretty fucking great, but one can't esteem the museum to the exclusion of a vibrant, living art (IMHO).

If I encounter a particularly obstinate student, I use that attitude as a teaching opportunity: engaging in conversation, I ask questions about their view specifically, and ask the student what reasons he/she has for having such an emphatic point of view. And I ask questions, always, to get them to really consider why they think, feel, react the ways in which they do. In that context, it's easy for me to then offer my own answers and reasons. That usually opens the door a crack, makes them a little more willing to step out of their comfort zone, and try something very different. With varying degrees of success, I can fairly consistently broaden my students' horizons, and they know that they don't have to love it, either--just participate with an open mind and honest effort. I am not offended if something just isn't their thing.

This has enabled me to do some wildly eclectic things, and makes my job much more gratifying creatively, but also connects my students to music as a living art in a much more meaningful way. We've played Riley's In C, concert funk, pieces with a DJ, bitter, dense anti-war music, a concerto grosso for rock band and chamber winds, all kinds of stuff. No 4'33" yet, but maybe this year might be the time to try it....

I think the conductor you mentioned was just being kind of an asshole, and would rather be impatient than explain to you what that music was about, where it was coming from. One thing I always do is prepare a great deal as to how I'm going to present these divergent works and experiences, so that my students are prepared for them, and at least intellectually understand what's going on, even if they don't love it. After all, it is college, and they're there to learn as much as possible (hopefully) and then are free to use their own judgment down the road as to what has value for them.

But, in this realm, I feel like someone should stand up and hold the banner and say that the encroachment of these non-musical invaders shall go no further.

I totally understand that feeling, and still have it sometimes myself. I try to always remember that music is a creative art, which means we're supposed to be making it up as we go along, and so that means I just plain won't like some of what's there. But that's cool, because it all means that the art form is thriving and growing and changing, is alive, and for me that trumps any specific objections I personally might have. Plus, music I used to hate is now some of my most favorite, so you never know. (Makes me think of the Proust line that the real voyage of discovery does not consist in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.) But I don't think it's stupid to feel that way at all, actually I think it's quite natural.

(If you're interested, you can hear a recording of my students that I posted over on the music page last year here, and I also have a very basic personal web page with pics from the electronica event here (that's me in the Beatles shirt, 5th pic down), and an interview with that amazing composer here.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:52 AM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


How do you evaluate the quality of this piece and is this in any way similar to how other music is valued and appreciated?

I contend that a blank canvas can be art but not a painting, and 4'33" can be art but not music. I don't think it's very good art.
posted by erikharmon at 4:16 PM on September 25, 2007


How do you evaluate the quality of this piece and is this in any way similar to how other music is valued and appreciated?

Use the Duke Ellington music evaluation method, as with all other music.
posted by The World Famous at 4:39 PM on September 25, 2007


Use the Duke Ellington music evaluation method, as with all other music.

Ah yes, of course!

"it ain't worth a pence,
if it ain't got si-lence".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:44 PM on September 25, 2007


"it ain't worth a pence,
if it ain't got si-lence"


I was thinking of "if it sounds good it is good," but I think I like yours better.
posted by The World Famous at 5:17 PM on September 25, 2007


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