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Sounds like every other song, or at least the spaces between the notes
April 27, 2010 5:04 AM   Subscribe

John Cage's piece 4'33'' was originally written for piano but has been performed by a full orchestra. In modern times its movements have been interpreted by the guitar, harmonica, nose flute, ukulele, and toy piano. It was pretty exciting to watch Cage perform 4'33" live, but I still enjoy dancing to the party mix!
posted by twoleftfeet (200 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
The party mix should have had a heavy drumbeat and maybe a few laser sound effects.
posted by DU at 5:08 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I liked the demo version better.
posted by chillmost at 5:19 AM on April 27, 2010


I liked the book better.
posted by The White Hat at 5:20 AM on April 27, 2010


Silencio!
posted by Saddo at 5:21 AM on April 27, 2010


 
posted by gmm at 5:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


So many people seem to miss the point of 4'33" (as witnessed in the dance remix above) - it's not supposed to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, it's 4:33 of the sound of a non-performance. It doesn't make any sense to abstract it from instrumentation altogether.
posted by iivix at 5:25 AM on April 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


it's not supposed to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, it's 4:33 of the sound of a non-performance.

4'33" is the notes between the silence.
posted by DU at 5:27 AM on April 27, 2010


This FPP should have included a warning to turn your speakers down :(

Or up.
posted by kcds at 5:28 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's wonderful to see the full orchestral version by the way, to see both the gravitas and the absurdity ramped up like that.
posted by iivix at 5:29 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It would have been awesome if, during the full orchestral version, someone would play just one tiny note. A flub, if you will, in an otherwise perfect performance.
posted by jquinby at 5:45 AM on April 27, 2010 [14 favorites]



For the Taoists: What is the sound of one man's infatuation with artistic license?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Didn't they do a cover of this in Pootie Tang?
posted by mullicious at 5:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think I'm proud to miss the point on the awesomeness of this piece.

The philosophical question is that if John Cage performs this in an empty forest and nobody sees it, has he actually advanced the art of music one iota?
posted by MuffinMan at 5:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Previously on MeFi.

> I think I'm proud to miss the point on the awesomeness of this piece.

You're proud of having an opinion on a par with "my five-year-old daughter could paint better than that"? Whatever. If you look through the earlier thread I linked, you'll find a number of people who share your proud point-missing (countered by numerous informed and appreciative commenters).

As I said back then: 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 6:06 AM on April 27, 2010 [17 favorites]


It is stuff like this that helped to guide me away from being a music major. Too often I felt like everyone was conspiring together to maintain a joke that I wasn't being allowed in on.
posted by charred husk at 6:09 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


John Cage and the soundproof room

" Going into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, I expected to hear no sound at all, because it was a room made as silent as possible. But in that room I heard two sounds. And I was so surprised that I went to the engineer in charge … and said, There’s something wrong, there’re two sounds in that room, and he said describe them, and I did, one was high and one was low, and he said, the high one was my nervous system … and the low one was my blood circulating. So I realized that … I was making music unintentionally continuously.”"
posted by The Whelk at 6:12 AM on April 27, 2010 [26 favorites]


Best. Modern. Music. Evar.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:13 AM on April 27, 2010


I wanted to respond with Ligeti's 0'00", but I was unable to find a recording of it on YouTube. Strange, considering that people perform it all the time.

As for Cage, I like his early stuff more.
posted by Syme at 6:15 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're proud of having an opinion on a par with "my five-year-old daughter could paint better than that"? Whatever

Actually I don't think that. I just don't think that the concept of a non-performance is particularly enlightening.

It's a one line gag. It's something quite clever. Once. It's now more often used as a come-on to people who like to say "my five-year-old daughter could paint better than that" as an intellectual shibboleth.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:15 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think I'm proud to miss the point on the awesomeness of this piece.

*Another* Palin thread?
posted by DU at 6:16 AM on April 27, 2010


So many people seem to miss the point of 4'33" (as witnessed in the dance remix above) - it's not supposed to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, it's 4:33 of the sound of a non-performance. It doesn't make any sense to abstract it from instrumentation altogether.

I find it highly amusing that you think the dance mix is missing the point, since it does indeed incorporate the sound of non-performance, as well as adding a couple extra layers on top. It's just that it's not a full orchestra or weirdo composer non-performing, it's a non-performance by an anonymous internet remixer. The only difference is the first case carries enough artistic legitimacy to make you take it seriously and try to interpret it.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:17 AM on April 27, 2010


...has he actually advanced the art of music one iota?

The days of advancing music are over. These days, we just play it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:18 AM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


John Cage had come to feel
that art in our time
was far less important
than our daily lives,
to which so many'd become
more or less inclined.
The purpose of it's not unique.
Not to build masterpieces
for a delectative elite
but simply to wake to your life.

Tiger the Lion

~The Tragically Hip
posted by bwg at 6:18 AM on April 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


> It's a one line gag. It's something quite clever. Once.

That's your opinion, I get that. I'm not sure why you think your opinion is definitive. Lots of well-informed and experienced musicians and listeners disagree with you. At the end of the day, the piece exists and occasionally gets performed whether you like it or not, but if you're invested in your not-liking, feel free to keep repeating it.
posted by languagehat at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


The days of advancing music are over. These days, we just play it

Very quietly
posted by MuffinMan at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2010


I guess we needed to kick the ball around one more time.

Brother 'hat, hopefully folks will kick it around for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds, while listening very intently to the sound of the ball being kicked.

posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:21 AM on April 27, 2010


It's on iTunes. Three movements at .99 each, or just get the whole thing for $1.99.

It's a one line gag.

We joke about it, but it isn't a joke.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why you think your opinion is definitive

I'm not sure why your opinion of my belief that my opinion is definitive is definitive.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2010


I think I'm proud to miss the point on the awesomeness of this piece.

The philosophical question is that if John Cage performs this in an empty forest and nobody sees it, has he actually advanced the art of music one iota?


Gosh, MuffinMan. If Mozart's last piano sonata were performed in an empty forest, we would've missed out on that particular advancement in music, too. That doesn't negate the value of it.

As someone sworn to defend the honor of twentieth-century music, I have only lukewarm praise for 4'33". It was "important," in the sense that someone had to make this point, so I'm glad Cage got it over with so he and others could move on to even better stuff. But it was also pretty inevitable. If not Cage, someone else would have come along and done it not much later. So it's not exactly a work of genius that way.
posted by aswego at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2010


The high art / low art distinction lives on, of course -- but the thing that makes art music so interesting is that it never COULD be representational in the first place. Sure, you can do some word-painting and write high notes when the lyrics talk about soaring through the air and things like that, but when it comes down to it, music has no real semantic content. You'd think that this might make music even MORE likely than the plastic arts to delve into philosophical quandaries over the meaning of art or aesthetics, or at least start toying with the forms that make it up. And it has, to an extent -- but in the process, it has lost its market, whereas galleries of modern art continue to surge on to some extent.

I suppose the rich benefactors of art are able to tolerate strange splotches of color on their walls, but unwilling to subject themselves to the screeching sounds of much of 20th century music.

Or maybe "popular music," the "low art," actually became its own "high art," since all consumers of music automatically find it much easier to adopt an aesthetic frame than consumers of graphic design.

Anyway, these are the sorts of thoughts that 4'33" encourages in me these days, not just wonder at the aesthetic experience. If it was meant to shatter peoples' disengagement with music by pointing out the absurdity of our accepted concert demeanor protocols, it failed miserably. But I don't think that was the point.
posted by phenylphenol at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2010


The thing about 4'33" performed live is that you shouldn't just listen for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. You have to listen before it starts, and after it ends. The context and the changes in atmosphere in the hall before, during and after the piece really make a difference. Our local orch did it a few years ago and it was wonderful.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:25 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


> I find it highly amusing that you think the dance mix is missing the point, since it does indeed incorporate the sound of non-performance, as well as adding a couple extra layers on top.

It's not a non-performance, it's a non-recording.

>The only difference is the first case carries enough artistic legitimacy to make you take it seriously and try to interpret it.

No, the difference is that one is a performance in which you have a performer and an audience, and one is video without any sound recorded.
posted by iivix at 6:26 AM on April 27, 2010


Our local orch did it a few years ago and it was wonderful.

No, no, you just think it was wonderful. In fact, you see, MuffinMan knows better: It's a one line gag. It's something quite clever. Once.

So, you must have been mistaken about the wonderful part.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:29 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


No, no wait. Nobody's allowed an opinion on it at all. You see, because some people have said it's great, you're not allowed to disagree.

In fact, it's even better if you just pretend that they weren't expressing an opinion but demanding that everyone else agree with it.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:31 AM on April 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


I've got this as my ringtone.

More seriously, I'm working on the ultimate fidelity digital recording of this piece. More channels, higher bitrates, greater bit depths than any audiophile system available can reproduce. It will be wonderful.
posted by scruss at 6:33 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's more important for its concept than its execution. It's the music equivalent of a painter creating a blank canvas or a fashion designer sending naked models onto the catwalk, both of which have been done.
Those who like 4'33" tend to dismiss those who don't as unsophisticated for not understanding the point. Let me assure you that some of us get it, but still don't like it.
posted by rocket88 at 6:34 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


4'33" is a fantastic musical twist on an earlier work by Hans Christian Andersen.
posted by cleancut at 6:35 AM on April 27, 2010


...has he actually advanced the art of music one iota?

Only someone really without any knowledge of American musical composition over the past century could ask this question, so I'll assume that you really don't know and say "Yes. Yes, John Cage was and remains very influential, perhaps more as a musical thinker than a literal composer, but yes." I'll start your homework for you, from Wikipedia:
While much of Cage's work remains controversial, his influence on countless composers, artists, and writers is undeniable. After Cage introduced chance, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis remained critical, yet all adopted chance procedures in some of their works (although in a much more restricted manner); and Stockhausen's piano writing in his later Klavierstücke was influenced by Cage's Music of Changes and David Tudor. Other composers who adopted chance procedures in their works included Witold Lutosławski, Mauricio Kagel, and many others. Music in which some of the composition and/or performance is left to chance was labelled aleatoric music—a term popularized by Pierre Boulez.

Cage's rhythmic structure experiments and his interest in sound influenced an even greater number of composers, starting at first with his close American associates Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff (and other American composers, such as La Monte Young), and then spreading to Europe. For example, almost all composers of the English experimental school acknowledge his influence: Michael Parsons, Christopher Hobbs, John White, Gavin Bryars, who studied under Cage briefly, and even Howard Skempton, a composer seemingly very different from Cage, and one whose work has been described as "the emancipation of consonance." Cage's influence is also evident in the Far East: one of Japan's most prominent classical composers of the 20th century, Tōru Takemitsu, was influenced by his music.

Cage's influence was also acknowledged by rock bands, such as Sonic Youth (who performed some of the Number Pieces) and Stereolab (who named a song after Cage), and various noise music artists and bands: indeed, one writer traced the origin of noise music to 4′33″. The development of electronic music was also influenced by Cage: in the mid-1970s Brian Eno's label Obscure Records released works by Cage. Prepared piano, which Cage popularized, is featured heavily on Aphex Twin's 2001 album Drukqs. Cage's work as musicologist helped popularize Erik Satie's music (some of which Cage was the first to discover the scores of, in circa 1950), and his friendship with Abstract expressionist artists such as Robert Rauschenberg helped introduce his ideas into visual art.
Notice one name on that quick list of influences, LaMonte Young--a name you may not recognize, but he is the earliest innovator of a style that became American minimalism, a style now internationally influential, and Cage's work helped him find those fundamentally important first means. And more recently, how about direct, profound influence on the most-played living American composer, John Adams: "Adams experienced a musical awakening after reading John Cage's book Silence (1973), which he claimed "dropped into [his] psyche like a time bomb." Cage's school posed fundamental questions about what music was, and regarded all types of sounds as viable sources of music. This perspective offered to Adams a liberating alternative to the rule-based techniques of serialism."

So while you may not like 4'33" very much (which is totally fine by me), please don't come in the thread and ignorantly shit all over very, very respected and influential work out of ignorance.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:36 AM on April 27, 2010 [20 favorites]


you're not allowed to disagree.

That is correct. Now we're getting somewhere.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:37 AM on April 27, 2010


I think I'm proud to miss the point on the awesomeness of this piece.

The philosophical question is that if John Cage performs this in an empty forest and nobody sees it, has he actually advanced the art of music one iota?


No, because 4'33" is explicitly intended to play with the concept of "listening", and it's not a trick that really bears much repeating once done for the first time, but the first time it's innovative and highly experimental.

Imagine you're at the concert where this was first, err, not played. You've just heard a lot of complicated, interesting and well-played music that you've enjoyed very much. Pretend you like jazz, or pretend it's something you like. And then the band or orchestra makes all the apparent movement to begin playing the next piece and then... nothing. They sit there in tension, at attention and purposefully poised to not play.

Meanwhile, you and the audience is also poised at attention, ready to hear. What do you hear? What happens?

You hear the audience. Someone coughs. You can hear musicians shifting and moving on stage. You hear the ambient noise of the concert hall - ventilation, perhaps. Air conditioning? People turn pages of the program and fidget, there's a nervous giggle somewhere. Someone sneezes. Someone gets up to go to the lobby or restroom. There's small murmurs of conversation. A door claps shut somewhere. Perhaps today a phone would chirp or ring.

Because of that act of intentionally, purposely poising on the edge of not playing, because of the audience poised on the point of intentionally listening the whole concert hall and everything in it becomes an instrument and part of the performance. You're hearing things you wouldn't normally hear, things you would normally filter out. Four and a half minutes isn't very long, but it's long enough to let it sink in, long enough to think about.

Visual artists not only get to play with the concept of "nothing" or "negative space" they're encouraged to do so as one of the fundamental tools of art. Nothingness has value and meaning in the right context. It's atmosphere, delineation and more.

It's much harder to do with music even though it inherently relies on spaces between notes and beats else it is cacophony and noise. Empty space marks time and signature just as much as melody and rhythm.

But to willfully use all of that negative space - not silence, but negative space - as though it were an instrument, as though it were a great big, impossible thin and fragile envelope to contain the entire performance audience and all was startlingly brilliant.

It wasn't a prank, it wasn't a piss-take or a stunt. He's not saying "I'm so brilliant I don't even have to perform" at all.

It's the sounds of the listener actually listening.

I read it as the intentional, forceful inclusion of the audience as participants rather than mere spectators. An acknowledgment and a tip of the hat to the listeners.

In essence the inside-out version of "If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?" posed as "Is it music without someone listening to it?"
posted by loquacious at 6:37 AM on April 27, 2010 [54 favorites]


rocket88: "It's more important for its concept than its execution. It's the music equivalent of a painter creating a blank canvas or a fashion designer sending naked models onto the catwalk, both of which have been done.
Those who like 4'33" tend to dismiss those who don't as unsophisticated for not understanding the point. Let me assure you that some of us get it, but still don't like it.
"


This was actually illuminating, because until Isaw the live performance of 4'33", I thought John cage performed it by pressing down on the keys enough to depress them but not so focefully that they produced any sound.
posted by ShawnStruck at 6:38 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Those who like 4'33" tend to dismiss those who don't as unsophisticated for not understanding the point. Let me assure you that some of us get it, but still don't like it.

For my part, I have no problem whatsoever with this point of view. Lots of musicians whom I respect a great deal think this also, but as you say, they understand that which they criticize. My objection is to dismissal from ignorance.

But ultimately agree with languagehat, not sure why we're kicking this ball around again.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:42 AM on April 27, 2010


What I wanna know is why doesn't my FPP on 4'33" (or any of the other previous 4'33" posts) show up on the "Related Posts" box at the bottom of this page? Is Related Posts broken or something?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:42 AM on April 27, 2010


flapjax at midnite: "What I wanna know is why doesn't my FPP on 4'33" (or any of the other previous 4'33" posts) show up on the "Related Posts" box at the bottom of this page?"

That's because your previous post wasn't an about reading what the poster posted, but rather about the act of readers reading and therefore doesn't register.
posted by charred husk at 6:47 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


.................................
.................................
.................................
.................................

Ok, where's my NEA grant?
posted by Kskomsvold at 6:49 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ok, where's my NEA grant?

George Bush ate it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've done a speed-metal version of this -- we blazed through it in a blindingly fast 2:27.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


My objection is to dismissal from ignorance.

It seems to me, though, that at this point in the game anyone who is going to talk about it is familiar with it, and all of the talking points about it. In MuffinMan's joke, it's pretty clear that he knows the piece is inextricably tied to its live performances, and that the piece is known for advancing the art of music. He may have made a lame joke, but to say that he (or anyone else in this thread) is ignorant of what the piece is about seems to be a stretch.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lisa Simpson: "You have to listen to the notes she's NOT playing."
Jazz Hole patron: "I could do that at home!"
posted by kimota at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


More seriously, I'm working on the ultimate fidelity digital recording of this piece. More channels, higher bitrates, greater bit depths than any audiophile system available can reproduce. It will be wonderful.

In the converse, is it possible to take 4:33 of high-fidelity silence and crunch it down with nasty mp3 compression to the point where all you have is artifacts? Utter, complete silence probably wouldn't work. It might involve needing tape hiss (and random incidental room noise, like breathing, etc.) from an analog recording of 4:33 -- I wonder what the results would sound like, say compressed at 56k again and again.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:56 AM on April 27, 2010


I wonder what the results would sound like, say compressed at 56k again and again.

Time to start on that grant proposal, Rancher.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:58 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


but to say that he (or anyone else in this thread) is ignorant of what the piece is about seems to be a stretch.

Perhaps, but comments like this make me think otherwise: I just don't think that the concept of a non-performance is particularly enlightening. As loquacious wrote (really well) above, the piece is far from a "non-performance."
posted by LooseFilter at 6:59 AM on April 27, 2010


Going into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, I expected to hear no sound at all, because it was a room made as silent as possible. But in that room I heard two sounds. And I was so surprised that I went to the engineer in charge … and said, There’s something wrong, there’re two sounds in that room, and he said describe them, and I did, one was high and one was low, and he said, the high one was my nervous system … and the low one was my blood circulating. So I realized that … I was making music unintentionally continuously.

I went back in with a renewed sense of self, place, and perception, and was immediately attacked by the chuckling axe murderer and ravaged by his growling attack dog.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:00 AM on April 27, 2010


Right now I can hear the sound of a trash can banging against a truck.

I played 4'33" at a high school concert in my senior year. I think this is a piece where performing it helps you understand it; even being in the audience can help, but performing it makes you acutely aware of what's happening. 4'33" is like Rothko: It's possible to see a picture of a Rothko painting and try to intellectually grasp what's going on, but it's only when you see one in person that the enormity of his work hits you. Till then it's just a color.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds is a long time. You sit at the piano, hands poised... and then nothing. For nearly five minutes, nothing. That's the length of one-and-a-half pop songs on the radio.

In that time, in that period where the audience wanted to focus on me-the-pianist, they instead were confronted with the sounds that were all around then anyway. Shifting in seats. Light movements. All the sounds of day-to-day living that we ignore, with their natural rhythms and textures.

It's impossible to create total silence. But it's possible to create enough of a silence that natural noises take the forefront.

It's not music only if you use the limited Western definition of music that says you need a melody to have a song. Don't get me wrong! I love melody! Dig ABBA! But one big thought that Cage worked with was: Maybe we don't need all these things in music after all. Maybe it's possible to write a song that has X but not Y. Or maybe you can remove X and Y, and still have something.

And there's really something beautiful about such absence. You notice it when you play 4'33". There's still tension in the room — it's not 4'33" if there's no tension between musician and audience — but in that gap you latch onto every sound you hear. You notice the thorough uniqueness of wherever you're playing. My high school room with its plastic seats and thirty sitters. Or a richer, lush place, with a hundred people and a room engineered for good sound.

There is no silence. We are surrounded by the presences of every person and every thing around us. We exist. The sounds of 4'33" were intended to remind us of this. The only sound that's lacking is that of piano. All the other sounds are here.

You get it with Cage's successor, La Monte Young, too. Young would write hour-long compositions where only several notes ever played. At first it sounds boring and pretentious and useless. Then you start noticing the textures of those notes. The way they sound sustained. How multiple musicians play with each other to keep up a balanced sound. And by the end that note is beautiful and meaningful. Then you go to a more involved piece and it feels like blasphemy. So many notes with so little regard for each!

Which is a philosophy that then got picked up and studied by John Cale, and through him the Velvet Underground, and through them a whole shitload of musicians, so that now there're plenty of musicians that pay that tasteful respect to each note. But I digress.

4'33" isn't music in the sense of Beethoven. But it's absolutely music, and I'd bet that for a lot of people, 4'33" taught them more than any individual Beethoven piece ever did. It did for me. 4'33" forces you to think about what makes music, and what makes sound, and whether music is that thing you've been thinking it was this whole time. Lots of people conclude that they've been wrong. Which, again, isn't a bad thing! Cage's definition of music allows for ABBA. But it also allows for a hundred varieties of music that are so lacking in melody and conventionality that they'd never have been created by people approaching music from a traditional perspective. I'd appreciate that music even if I didn't appreciate John Cage.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:07 AM on April 27, 2010 [33 favorites]


The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played. This is why it makes no sense , to me, for it to ever be played live again. I can't ever go to a performance of 4'33" without knowing exactly in some way what I am expecting i.e. to hear the concert hall's sounds and listen intently. I mean I guess if it was just sprung up on me and I had no idea, but I would probably figure it out at least half a minute in because I didn't have a program.

Also, John Cage was influential because of his general work which was very important to advance music. However, was 4'33" itself influential beyond making a statement? I can't seem to find any references to it by any one composer.

Also, this from the Wikipedia:
Cage was not the first composer to conceive of a piece consisting solely of silence.

Precedents and prior examples include:

Alphonse Allais's 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of nine blank measures. Allais's composition is arguably closer in spirit to Cage's work; Allais was an associate of Erik Satie, and given Cage's profound admiration for Satie, the possibility that Cage was inspired by the Funeral March is tempting. However, according to Cage himself, he was unaware of Allais's composition at the time (though he had heard of a nineteenth century book that was completely blank).[14][page needed]

Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 "In futurum", a movement from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano. The Czech composer's meticulously notated composition is made up entirely of rests.[15] Cage was, however, almost certainly unaware of Schulhoff's work.[citation needed]

Yves Klein's 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony (informally The Monotone Symphony, conceived 1947–1948), an orchestral forty minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence[16] (the first movement being an unvarying twenty minute drone).


So, he wasn't even the first to do it, just the most experimental and probably the one who came at the right time. Although it can be argued that he had a different statement to make or purpose in creating it than the others, but apparently, it was hardly a novel idea.
posted by lizarrd at 7:08 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]



posted by ALongDecember at 7:14 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


> The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played.

Huh? That makes no sense. You could say the same about any piece of music: hey, it's already been heard, it's done its job, let's move on. The first audience (of what, a few dozen people? a few score?) may not "need" to hear 4'33" again (though that is highly debatable), but there will always be far more people who have never heard it, or even heard of it (pace those commenters who seem to think that because they're familiar with it, everyone must be), and those people can benefit from exposure to this startling work. Or not, if they're closed-minded or indifferent, but that's true of everything.

> I'm not sure why your opinion of my belief that my opinion is definitive is definitive.

Not only do I not consider my opinions definitive, I don't consider them particularly interesting. I've changed my opinions too many times to take them seriously. I used to sneer at Cecil Taylor—just a bunch of random keyboard-pounding!—and mock CT acolytes as deluded worshippers of an insane god. Now I own a bunch of his records. Maybe one day you'll change your mind about 4'33". Life's a funny thing.
posted by languagehat at 7:18 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I once played this on my college's carrillon. Sadly, there is no surviving footage of the performance.
posted by Tsuga at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2010


There is, I think, one significant advantage for those of us who dislike 4:33 that it holds over similar concept art, such as Duchamp's "Fountain". The advantage of 4:33 is that we are not subjected to dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators, all producing examples of a thing valuable only for its novelty and useful only in its original instance.

Following "Fountain" the world of sculpture and art has been flooded with myriad would be artists producing, if that is the word, readymade art. No composers have been writing 6:21, or 1:04, or the like, and for that, speaking as someone who understands that those with greater understanding of music consider 4:33 to be both interesting and worthwhile, but as someone who dislikes it intensely, I can only be thankful. If only the visual artists had the same restraint as the audio artists I'd be a happier person.

A friend of mine once defined "art" as "what people make", and I have yet to find a better definition despite the fact that I rather strongly dislike that definition. Thus 4:33 is most definitely art, it isn't art that I like but so what?
posted by sotonohito at 7:28 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Then you go to a more involved piece and it feels like blasphemy. So many notes with so little regard for each!

Yes, this exactly! Such a great comment, Rory Marinich, this also is very true for me: But it's absolutely music, and I'd bet that for a lot of people, 4'33" taught them more than any individual Beethoven piece ever did. It did for me.

>The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played. This is why it makes no sense , to me, for it to ever be played live again.

This makes absolutely no sense to me, sorry. Was everyone in the world, including those yet to be born, in the room for that first performance? The point a lot of people have made in this thread is that just knowing of the piece, intellectually understanding what it is and what Cage was after, is very different from actually sitting in a performance. You have to have the actual experience to understand it, not just read about someone else's experience.

The logic I read in that comment would make this sentence make sense too: "The problem with climbing mountains is that I can see the value in all the work to get up there the first time, but once somebody's done it, been up there and taken pictures, what's the point of anyone else climbing that mountain?" The point of course, is doing the thing yourself, experiencing it yourself.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:30 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


4'33" for java applet.
posted by idiopath at 7:34 AM on April 27, 2010


One thing that people might be missing about 4'33", at least in my opinion, is the the time period it came from. Ideas about meditating, exploring silence, and the like weren't really mainstream then (they aren't really now either, but much more so than then). People needed some kind of artifice as an invitation to stop with all the manic associative thought patterns and just listen. One can judge 4'33" on some kind of avant-garde standard and say that it is cliched, and on that basis perhaps they are right. But someone, particularly a younger person, might encounter it and take it seriously and actually have an experience of listening. Listening hasn't become cliched, no matter how many people squawk on the media monster incessantly. It's good that 4'33" still gets attention.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:34 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why did Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest? To get to the other side.

Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.

(



                                 )
posted by kmz at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post! I have heard of 4'33" but I didn't really get it until I saw the video of the live performance. It reminds me of this recent post about artist Marina Abramović and her The Artist is Present performance in the way it plays with the idea of what music (or art) is or could be. I would really like to be in the audience of a future performance.
posted by lysistrata at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


sotonohito: "Following "Fountain" the world of sculpture and art has been flooded with myriad would be artists producing, if that is the word, readymade art. No composers have been writing 6:21, or 1:04"

Unlike sculpture or painting, western music traditionally separates composition from performance as totally different artforms. Only one person needed to compose such a piece (a change of duration is at best a rearrangement if the "content" is substantially identical).
posted by idiopath at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2010


rocket88: It's more important for its concept than its execution. It's the music equivalent of a painter creating a blank canvas or a fashion designer sending naked models onto the catwalk, both of which have been done.

Only if you presuppose that it's essentially a conceptual work and not an experiential piece of performance art. You can watch the BBC 4 version for yourself, or see Cage's own version, in the videos linked by the OP. Why not watch them properly and see if you can't experience it yourself rather than just talking about your notion of it.

sotonohito:
There is, I think, one significant advantage for those of us who dislike 4:33 that it holds over similar concept art, such as Duchamp's "Fountain". The advantage of 4:33 is that we are not subjected to dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators, all producing examples of a thing valuable only for its novelty and useful only in its original instance.

Well, two things. Firstly, as above, this only applies if you think that 4'33" is essentially a throwaway conceptual joke rather than an actual (non- or anti-)performance. Secondly, Duchamp's Fountain was recreated a number of times for a number of different shows, which rather suggests that there was an experiential quality to that piece to, and the value wasn't simply in the novelty of the concept behind it.
posted by iivix at 7:43 AM on April 27, 2010


If you're going to make fun of a ridiculous piece of modern piano music, at least go for something good. Like La Monte Young's "Piano Piece for David Tudor #1," in which the performer brings a bale of hay and a bucket of water on stage for the piano to eat or drink. The piece is over after the piano eats or decides not to.

Young: "To me the concept was extremely important. The humor is there. Nobody laughs harder than me when I see that piece performed. Some people have done hilarious realizations of it. It's very funny."
posted by Madamina at 7:45 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, people did go somewhere with 4'33" - interesting places, in fact.

Pauline Oliveros did a number of "deep listening" pieces, which were as much meditative workshops for the audience as they were concerts, usually focusing on simple sounds (often times she led the audience in making the sounds themselves) or the sounds already present in the environment.

Cage himself went on to produce some of the only "earthquake proof" compositions ever written - that is, if an earthquake were to happen during the performance, it would not ruin the performance, it would become a substantial part of the performance. The goal with these pieces being to separate the performance from the ego of the composer and the ego of the performer to some degree, a Zen inspired letting go and letting happen in the context of performing and making sound.
posted by idiopath at 7:49 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Huh? That makes no sense. You could say the same about any piece of music: hey, it's already been heard, it's done its job, let's move on. The first audience (of what, a few dozen people? a few score?) may not "need" to hear 4'33" again (though that is highly debatable), but there will always be far more people who have never heard it, or even heard of it (pace those commenters who seem to think that because they're familiar with it, everyone must be), and those people can benefit from exposure to this startling work. Or not, if they're closed-minded or indifferent, but that's true of everything. - languagehat

Sorry, I should've been clearer it's too early in the morning for me. For people that have no idea about the piece or what it is, yes, then the piece being performed is worthwhile as far as I'm concerned because they will listen with the intent of hearing a piece being performed and then they just hear all this sounds which could arguably be called music. I do not disagree at all with the last portion of your paragraph.

With 4'33" if I had heard it once and didn't know about its premise, I'd be in shock, awe, and just impressed that he would do such a thing and listen to everything. The next time I would go see it (or hear it recorded) I'd be intent on listening into the sounds possibly but not AS intently as I was the first time although maybe I would pay attention to more sounds.

Hmm, on preview: I meant to those who have already gone to at least one performance of 4'33". Also, giving the audience knowledge of what it is ahead of time also defeats the purpose if they know. Again, experiencing 4'33" without any knowledge of its premise will be absolutely totally and entirely different from experiencing 4'33" once you know the premise of it. They can still be good experiences, and yet, not the same. A repeat performance of 4'33" will be entirely different even then.

So, I'm not saying people shouldn't be climbing those mountains even though people have already been there.

I think my main problem with it is the spectacle that is made of 4'33". I don't think the premise should be given out to those who don't know, those who know, if they go, should enjoy the performance in a different vein, and those completely caught unawares should try to enjoy themselves.

The other problem I have with it is: It was a statement, it made it's point. John Cage was far more influential for his work with aleatoric and indeterminate music making than he was for 4'33". That just made him famous.
posted by lizarrd at 7:49 AM on April 27, 2010


The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played. This is why it makes no sense , to me, for it to ever be played live again.

Like LH said, you could say the exact same thing about, say, Beethoven's 9th symphony, and it'd be just as true (or not).
posted by ludwig_van at 7:49 AM on April 27, 2010


It was a statement, it made it's point. John Cage was far more influential for his work with aleatoric and indeterminate music making than he was for 4'33".

4'33" is an aleatoric piece.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I meant his other aleatoric music although I briefly forgot that sometimes Cage's music isn't referred to as aleatoric, so I will correct that even further his other indeterminate/chance music.
posted by lizarrd at 7:59 AM on April 27, 2010


Guitar Hero
posted by roll truck roll at 7:59 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nice. My girlfriend and I went to an exhibit on Saturday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art that was John Cage and someone else (sorry lesser known dude, I don't remember your name)...

Chance was the theme. Nice to see some of his work (didn't realize he did visual art).

I told her about 4'33" and how our music teacher told us about it, without really giving us the real idea behind it, just that it was "cool" cuz it was "different". Which was kinda sad.

I've never seen the old Cage -- just a clip form Modulations with his clean-shaven face. Cool to see the beard :) Thanks for the links!
posted by symbioid at 8:01 AM on April 27, 2010


The YouTube comments on roll truck roll's link are amusing.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:02 AM on April 27, 2010


Also of note to any (serious) discussion about 4'33" is the new book by longtime "downtown music" champion Kyle Gann (whose previous book Music Downtown is required reading in this household).
posted by mykescipark at 8:03 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


iivix: You can watch the BBC 4 version for yourself, or see Cage's own version, in the videos linked by the OP. Why not watch them properly and see if you can't experience it yourself rather than just talking about your notion of it.

Thanks for making my point that those who like 4'33" assume those who don't aren't listening to it "properly".
posted by rocket88 at 8:05 AM on April 27, 2010


iivix Well, I do view it that way. I've been subjected to 4:33 twice now, both times during an otherwise enjoyable concert filled with what I'd term "real music", and both times I found the experience simultaneously pretentious, boring, and completely without enjoyment, meaning, or value. I heard some people making the noise people always make in a large room filled with people. B. F. D.

Others, who know much more than I, say it was an amazing and necessary piece. They say it helped develop music. Fine, I accept their judgment because they know more about music than I do. But I don't like it, and I'm pretty sure that most people who do claim to like it, and don't have degrees in music theory, are just being pretentious.

If you're a person with a degree in music theory, or even a layman with a bent that direction, I suppose I can see how you'd be fascinated enough by sound that maybe you don't spend much time listening to ambient noise so being forced to do so for a few minutes would be a revelation. For me, and I strongly suspect most of the species, it just isn't all that interesting. Yeah, there's noise all the time, no I'm not planning on listening to "sounds of toilets flushing, doors closing, and the smooth operation of ventilation systems" for enjoyment anytime soon, thanks anyway.

Same goes for "Fountain". It started an entire trend of slick con artists convincing pretentious rich people to buy junk for millions of dollars. My art history professor friend said that "Fountain" was a necessary piece, essential for the development of the visual arts, and he knew more than I did about art so if he says so I'll assume he's right. But I don't like it, or an of its con artist descendants. Since mostly they rip off pretentious rich people with more money than taste, and in general I consider fleecing such people to be a benefit to society, I don't really despise the found art scene as much as I could. But I don't like it, and I don't like being told that I'm a philistine for not enjoying it.
posted by sotonohito at 8:12 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


What? 80 comments in and no one has trotted out the old story of how they did a college paper on this--consisting of 12 blank pages with a title and bibliography?
posted by sourwookie at 8:13 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


What? 80 comments in and no one has trotted out the old story of how they did a college paper on this--consisting of 12 blank pages with a title and bibliography?
posted by sourwookie [+] [!]


I really would like to know if this has actually been done.
posted by lizarrd at 8:15 AM on April 27, 2010


> Thanks for making my point that those who like 4'33" assume those who don't aren't listening to it "properly".

Thanks for willfully misinterpreting my point.
posted by iivix at 8:17 AM on April 27, 2010


That last, I think, is my real gripe: 4:33 and its visual arts equivalents, are regularly trotted out as real treats for those of us who enjoy art, or music, or what have you, and then when we say "nope, I didn't like it and I don't see any artistic merit in it" we're told that we're bad people for not appreciating the genius involved.

I'm not a bad person simply because I don't like 4:33, nor am I an idiot, ignorant, nor even just never "listened right" or anything of that sort.

I. Don't. Like. It.

I've acknowledged that among the music theory crowed it's considered seminal, and I've stated that I accept their judgment while continuing to dislike the piece. But that isn't enough. Apparently unless I join in the adulation of Cage and 4:33 I'm to be lectured and belittled for my poor taste.
posted by sotonohito at 8:19 AM on April 27, 2010


I heard some people making the noise people always make in a large room filled with people. B. F. D.

It must have been a different piece if someone played a B diminished triad.

when we say "nope, I didn't like it and I don't see any artistic merit in it" we're told that we're bad people for not appreciating the genius involved.

I'm not a bad person simply because I don't like 4:33, nor am I an idiot, ignorant, nor even just never "listened right" or anything of that sort.

I. Don't. Like. It.


Maybe you should put 4'33" on and do some quiet rumination on the difference between "I don't like it" and "I don't like it and don't see any artistic merit in it."
posted by ludwig_van at 8:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


sotonohito: Same goes for "Fountain". It started an entire trend of slick con artists convincing pretentious rich people to buy junk for millions of dollars. [...] But I don't like it, and I don't like being told that I'm a philistine for not enjoying it.

You're not a philistine for personally not enjoying it, you're a philistine for being so cynical as to write off the whole of modern and contemporary art as nothing more than a conspiratorial rip-off and a pretentious one at that.
posted by iivix at 8:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Apparently unless I join in the adulation of Cage and 4:33 I'm to be lectured and belittled for my poor taste.

I don't think so, and if I went to some performance somewhere and the performers suddenly sprung 4'33" on the audience I would personally find it rather hackneyed and presumptuous of them that I should need to have that experience then. But I also think there is merit in at least trying to unravel the significance of 4'33" and in doing so maybe make exploring silence an active thing rather than just something to fill with head chatter.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:25 AM on April 27, 2010


Maybe we could can the calling other people who don't see art just like I do "philistines" thing all together since it's like slamming the cellar door on communication, even if you're joking.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:26 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think my favorite sound ever was the hushed awe at the Sistine Chapel.

It would have been even better if Vatican guards didn't need to bark every few minutes at someone for taking a picture
posted by cyphill at 8:31 AM on April 27, 2010


Apparently unless I join in the adulation of Cage and 4:33 I'm to be lectured and belittled for my poor taste.

I think it's more that, by being hostile and dismissive to things that you admittedly don't understand (or understand just enough to know that some fancy-pants people with book-learning CLAIM to understand), you celebrate poor taste. I don't care whether you like or dislike 4'33" or Fountain, and frankly I think they are sort of immune to 'like' or 'dislike'. But they are interesting, and in both cases they have remained interesting to many people for many years, and have profoundly changed the way people think about art and music. But you go on not. liking. it. and resting assured that you didn't get fooled.

Maybe we could can the calling other people who don't see art just like I do "philistines" thing all together since it's like slamming the cellar door on communication, even if you're joking.

Even if we are using that as a strawman against ourselves?
posted by dirtdirt at 8:33 AM on April 27, 2010




tl;dl
posted by notmydesk at 8:43 AM on April 27, 2010


it's not supposed to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds of absolute silence, it's 4:33 of the sound of a non-performance.

Which also isn't the point, just a result. Cage looked around him (in 1952!) at what was going on in the music world (which was moving in many different directions), and wrote a piece that asked a simple question: "What is music?"

I'm irritated by people who perform it today; it's a conceptual piece. As a composition, it's important. As a repertoire piece, it's lazy and pretentious. (Yes, music degree.)
posted by coolguymichael at 8:48 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm probably not listening to Lady Gaga's music properly, either. It's the only explanation for not liking it.
posted by rocket88 at 8:49 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just can't wait til they do this on Glee.
posted by seanyboy at 8:50 AM on April 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Liking things is overrated. You like something, you don't like it, why should anyone care?

This is a piece that represents a significant turning point in modern music, one part of an ongoing dialog about what music is or could be that contributed to the abandonment of serialism, and eventually led to minimalism, ambient, the postmodern reclaiming of tonality, industrial music, and noise.

It was an exploratory piece, asserting "I made it out this far, and it looks like everything between here and where we started is all music". And quite a bit of what has been new in the music world since then has been figuring out exactly what exists in those spaces in between.

And it is just fine that you don't like it. You don't have to like it. But it is important, and remains important.
posted by idiopath at 8:55 AM on April 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm probably not listening to Lady Gaga's music properly, either. It's the only explanation for not liking it.

No, see you are actually listening to it.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:55 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


To draw an analogy here, 4'33" has a huge PageRank, but the indexer is going berserk trying to extract semantic content. The argument seems to derive from one camp using the PageRank as the major factor in their relevance score while the other group is asking, "Where's the beef?"

This reminds me of an assertion by someone pursuing a graduate degree of some kind related to art history and criticism (I was unsure of the title) who said that the art object was not important, what people said about the art object was. She was actually a bit more sneerish about the art object than that, but that is not relevant. I suspect that the gut reaction of people to her statement would be highly correlated to their reaction to 4'33".
posted by adipocere at 9:04 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


ludwig_van wrote Maybe you should put 4'33" on and do some quiet rumination on the difference between "I don't like it" and "I don't like it and don't see any artistic merit in it."

I'm well aware of the difference between the two, and that's why I specified both.

I don't like Picasso's cubist stuff, just not to my taste. But I can see that there is artistic merit there. Though I'll confess that what, exactly, "artistic merit" means I'm a bit more fuzzy on.

I like Buggs Bunny, but I'm not sure there is any artistic merit therein.

Both "Fountain" and 4:33 I neither like, nor see in them any particular value, artistic or otherwise. That may be a limit of my vision, as I said I freely acknowledge that others more educated, and perhaps of more refined taste, than I do apparently both like and see value therein.

iivix wrote You're not a philistine for personally not enjoying it, you're a philistine for being so cynical as to write off the whole of modern and contemporary art as nothing more than a conspiratorial rip-off and a pretentious one at that.

The whole? Not at all.

But I do think that visual art and composition should be separate from the artist. If a piece is valuable, if a piece is interesting, if a piece is enjoyable it must be because it is, for example, #5, not because it is Jackson Pollock's #5. If it's worth millions it should be worth those millions purely because of the particular arrangement of paint on canvass, not because of the person who produced it, or that person's fame, achievements elsewhere, or groundbreaking work.

Thus, if Duchamp can sell replica urinals and live a life of luxury from those sales, but I can't sell replica chamber pots and make the same money, I don't think its unreasonable to see pretension involved. If that's the case then from my POV it appears that it isn't the work that is important but the glory of the artist who created the work. That it's more about celebrity than art.

If John Cage's 4:33 is art, then so must be Joe Blow's 2:16. Otherwise neither is art. If Jackson Pollock throwing paint through a jet engine is art, then so too is it art if I do it. If we get paid differently for doing the same thing, for producing identical results, then yes, it's a con job, pretension, and a rip off. Or at the very least it's about a cult following rather than about art.
posted by sotonohito at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Shiin.... a great sound, heard too seldom, Cage was lucky to find it, those that didn't know it are luck Cage gave it to themm
posted by Some1 at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2010


To draw an analogy here, 4'33" has a huge PageRank, but the indexer is going berserk trying to extract semantic content. The argument seems to derive from one camp using the PageRank as the major factor in their relevance score while the other group is asking, "Where's the beef?" -adipocere.

Could someone translate that for me? I feel like it makes sense, but I can't seem to parse it properly.

If I'm correct PageRank would be the importance of 4'33" (and by extension, John Cage and his work) to the musical world. The indexer tries to take content from a link to be able to accurately and quickly link to it? So, PageRankers = 4'33" and its importance to music and indexers = those who don't like the content or something of the form?
posted by lizarrd at 9:14 AM on April 27, 2010


Hitler disapproves.
posted by 47triple2 at 9:21 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


If John Cage's 4:33 is art, then so must be Joe Blow's 2:16. . . .

Joe Blow's is art as well. If it is not worth as much money, it is because the art market values innovation and originality. You've offered a fine critique of the capitalist version of artistic worth. But that says nothing about the value of the work itself or the intellectual/social/historical context which contributed to its production.
posted by barrett caulk at 9:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


sotonohito: "If John Cage's 4:33 is art, then so must be Joe Blow's 2:16."

Yes, the importance should be separate from the person who introduced it. But it is not independent of time and place. 4'33" today plays the same significance that Beethoven's 9th or Bach's Well Tempered Clavier - it represents an important piece of a musical history, but not necessarily what would be in any way interesting or relevant today as a new composition today. Joe Blow's 2:16 is of equal unimportance to the thousands of hours of derivative neo-classical schlock that get written and forgotten. It is not just what is said - being able to formulate it and present it at the right time also matters. History gives things meaning.
posted by idiopath at 9:24 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


If we get paid differently for doing the same thing, for producing identical results, then yes, it's a con job, pretension, and a rip off.

Art is communication. The person speaking affects what is being said. "I am going to kill you" said by a three year old has different meaning that it does when said by a man in a dark alley, or by your best friend. John Cage had been a thoughtful, respected musician for many years by the time he produced 4'33". Joe Blow (and I guess by Joe Blow you mean someone who has not been a serious musician for many years) cannot say the same thing even if the 'words' are the same.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:25 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


dirtdirt: "John Cage had been a thoughtful, respected musician for many years by the time he produced 4'33"."

Just to be pedantic, Cage neither got nor deserved nor wanted respecting as a musician. He was a composer. This is also significant regarding the hypothetical Joe Blow piece. If you want to be taken seriously as a composer you need to show not only that you wrote down a score, but also that it is significantly different than any previous composer's score (the difference between composition and arrangement). And there have been many others, most without a cult of personality like that surrounding Cage, who were able to challenge and refine the limits and boundaries of music and performance before and after 4'33".

I do think that 4'33" suffers for being over-exampled. There are so many people who cannot cite a boundary pushing performance piece other than 4'33", cannot cite a graphic score other than Pendarecki's Threnody, cannot cite a minimalist piece other than Einstein on the Beach. The echo chamber of art history and art theory reifies things for sure - everybody refers back to the common reference points (sometimes fairly arbitrary ones), and their fame and their significance has as much to do with the importance of the critic citing the example as the relative merit of the pieces themselves.
posted by idiopath at 9:36 AM on April 27, 2010


sotonohito: "If it's worth millions it should be worth those millions purely because of the particular arrangement of paint on canvass, not because of the person who produced it, or that person's fame, achievements elsewhere, or groundbreaking work."

This criticism is just as valid for traditional/pre-20th-century art, if not moreso. When you get into big-money art, the name and provenance is much more important than the painting itself. The funny thing is that so many of the names you're throwing are people whose work was all about questioning and drawing attention to that disparity.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:37 AM on April 27, 2010


dirtdirt I must disagree. 4:33 of people not playing music is 4:33 of people not playing music. If you say "only John Cage's 4:33 is art and worthy" then I must say "then to me it looks like it's not really the 4:33, its the cult of personality around John Cage".

The Old Man and the Sea is a damn fine story. It would be a damn fine story if Hemingway had never published it, but rather it had been found sometime after his death and in such a manner that no one knew it was written by Hemingway. It is the story, the art, that is of value and import, not the creator.

If you can't say the same about 4:33, if it can't stand on its own but must be supported by the celebrity and fame of its creator, then I must conclude that it isn't as good as you and others claim it is.

Or take a comparison between the Mona Lisa and Fountain. If the former were discovered, yesterday, and no one knew it was done by da Vinci it would still be breathtakingly beautiful and widely appreciated. If Duchamp had died, forgotten and unknown, and Fountain were unearthed somewhere no one would think, for even a moment, it was art, had anything to say, or any value at all. Again, to me that seems to say that it was not the work itself that was valued, but rather the cult of personality, the celebrity, the fame, of the creator that gave it value.

If the art can't be separated from the artist then it's only of celebrity value.
posted by sotonohito at 9:39 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


In 1957, there was a song called "Three Minutes of Silence." It was, as advertised, three minutes of silence. I am not a Google Master, but I was able to find this. Anyway, jukeboxes were very popular at the time, and I think they were new, too. Not everyone liked hearing music playing while they dined, so someone created a three minute record of silence that people could play if they wanted to eat in peace.

I am aware of all of this thanks to Casey Kasem and American Top Forty. For reasons far beyond my comprehension, I remember an enormous amount of the things he told me ("here's a long distance dedication from Carl, who will be released from prison in March -- 'I'm Coming Out' by Diana Ross!" -- not even remotely making that up). Casey did a piece on this "Three Minutes of Silence" song. It apparently sold enough copies (obviously for jukeboxes) that it actually charted on the Billboard Hot 100. It made it to sixty or something like that. He didn't play the song, unfortunately, but I remember that story well.
posted by flarbuse at 9:41 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


When you are performing 4'33", what are the logistics of knowing when you are finished? Do you have a clock that you watch, or do you just guess? Are there 'rules' constraining that such that certain lengths constitute a performance of the piece and other lengths do not, in the way that there is with most other musical performances? Is that a good rule-if I schedule a performance of "Let It Be" and play the first chord and take a bow, what do we say about what I've done?

I'm more interested in having a conversation about the 'rules' that a work of art bends or breaks than about classifying art according to those rules. Are the rules useful? Are they necessary? Are they desirable? Some of them have to be-a piece like 4'33" is dependent upon some rules about the structure of a performance to be intelligible at all-it wouldn't do to suggest that we all go around performing 4'33" every silent second. So which rules are the rules? Does that question even make sense to ask?

These are Phil Art 201 level musings. I have noticed in the past that there doesn't seem to be anyone in the Metafilter userbase who knows very much about the philosophy of aesthetics. Perhaps that person might use this moment to come forward?
posted by Kwine at 9:42 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm probably about 100 comments alte on this, but:

It's more important for its concept than its execution.

I'd argue the opposite for both 4'33" and for Malevich's Black Square called his black canvases in the corner. The execution is precisely what it's about, for different reasons for each, though.

Cage's piece, as others have tried to point out, is not the absence of notes but the presence of sound and reality even in the absence of notes. It's a forced awareness of the sonic structures that are always all around us that are every bit as structured and musical as music, but get ignored and relegated to something even less important than white noise. It raises so many hairs when it gets dismissed because that's precisely the point. You're dismissing reality as unworthy of attention.

Malevich, sitting on the edge of Dada, was kind of playing a joke on himself. If you look at a good photo of the painting, you'll see that it's not a flat black canvas. He still had to paint it, and on top of that it was first displayed hung across a corner like an idol. For some reason this is pointed out less often than not. So he had to make this painting that was conceptually of nothing which was displayed like an object of worship. Okay, yes, the suprematists' work is pretty dated now, and Duchamp was doing the same thing, but much better at the same time, but remember this was almost a hundred years ago, when (educated) people still thought that art was something definite that could be right or wrong.
posted by cmoj at 9:44 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


sotonhito: I don't like it, and I'm pretty sure that most people who do claim to like it, and don't have degrees in music theory, are just being pretentious.

This is a problematic double standard of a statement. If you're asking other people to take at face value the assertion that you don't like 4'33" (which is fair enough; if you don't like it, you don't like it), then you should at least give others who do like it the same credit as you're asking for. Dismissing anyone who claims to like it without having either a theoretical background or a layman's interest in same as pretentious is not giving those people that credit.

re: Duchamp's fountain: But I don't like it, and I don't like being told that I'm a philistine for not enjoying it.
You're not a philistine for not enjoying/liking it. You're claiming that anyone who might is not enjoying it for the right reasons, either because they're a rich idiot you're glad to see parted from their money, or because Duchamp was progenitor to a bunch of con-artists. Which I'd dispute, but that's neither here nor there; it's like blaming Frank Sinatra for American Idol and I don't think that argument flies.

On preview:

Or take a comparison between the Mona Lisa and Fountain. If the former were discovered, yesterday, and no one knew it was done by da Vinci it would still be breathtakingly beautiful and widely appreciated. If Duchamp had died, forgotten and unknown, and Fountain were unearthed somewhere no one would think, for even a moment, it was art, had anything to say, or any value at all. Again, to me that seems to say that it was not the work itself that was valued, but rather the cult of personality, the celebrity, the fame, of the creator that gave it value.

If the art can't be separated from the artist then it's only of celebrity value.


This almost entirely misses one of the many points that Duchamp was making.
posted by Len at 9:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


if it can't stand on its own but must be supported by the celebrity and fame of its creator, then I must conclude that it isn't as good as you and others claim it is.

Ok. By all means conclude that. But if you spend much time at all evaluating and discussing art you will probably come to a different conclusion. Intention and framing (what you call fame and celebrity) matter, as much as any other component of art.

This can be rewarding, fascinating shit. It really can. But if you plug your ears to this very basic point you won't level-up to the good stuff. Granted, you can live a very full, happy life without that particular good stuff, but it really is worth exploring. There are certainly charlatans and frauds in the history of art, but no more than anywhere else.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:54 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


but if you're invested in your not-liking, feel free to keep repeating it.

See also: the Lost thread.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:00 AM on April 27, 2010


Kwine: "what are the logistics of knowing when you are finished? Do you have a clock that you watch, or do you just guess? Are there 'rules' constraining that such that certain lengths constitute a performance of the piece and other lengths do not, in the way that there is with most other musical performances?"

The score recommends a stopwatch. This was the case with many other Cage pieces in the decades before that as well: he often relied on specific mechanical measurements of time rather than any musical logic of time (made necessary because his compositions broke away from the traditional usage of pulse to mark time in music).

There are three movements. It is considered standard to indicate the ending of each movement in the same way you would do so between the movements of any other piece. And yes, it is was originally very much about the context of performance and what it means to act within this predefined context of a musical concert.

Many libraries will have a copy of the score (the one in my city definitely does).

Most of us don't go around performing 4'33" day to day any more than we perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5. It is about the presentation of one's self as a performer in front of an audience, an audience that has shown up with the intention of listening, and is attentive and ready to hear something. Which is in many ways culturally specific, because that concert culture of showing up and being attentive to sound has been nearly eradicated by the pervasiveness of party music and the ready availability of recorded music for those who want to pay attention to sound (it is easier to pay close attention to music alone in ones own home, but sadly most of us cannot afford an actual performance in the privacy of our homes, so what music can or should be has been impoverished by the limitations of the artifact of the recorded medium).
posted by idiopath at 10:01 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


To expand on what I just said (and what dirtdirt said too):

Intention, framing, context, relationships with other artworks and artists both contemporary and historical, all matter for all art, whether that's a 17th century miniature portrait, Manzoni's tinned can of shit, Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho or anything and everything in between. The point in considering all this stuff is not just a simple "cult of celebrity" argument – and you do a massive disservice to artists when you claim that it is. The point is to situate it within a context, which references, to greater or lesser degrees, that which already exists, and thus becomes commentary on what has come before, whether that commentary is positive, negative or neutral, at the same time as it exists as a work in its own right.

It's impossible to divorce any work of art from all other art that exists, in this sense (whether that work is any good or not is another question entirely, and not particularly relevant to this argument); each work exists within a continuum, and to demand that all art be able to exist – and to justify itself to some nebulous standard of what counts as "real art" – independently of this continuum is to massively ignore the point of art itself.
posted by Len at 10:02 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


4'33" today plays the same significance that Beethoven's 9th or Bach's Well Tempered Clavier - it represents an important piece of a musical history, but not necessarily what would be in any way interesting or relevant today as a new composition today.

I'm not going to deny that 4'33" is an important part of music history, but I would seriously disagree that Beethoven's 9th or the Well Tempered Clavier would not be "interesting" or "relevant" if created or found today. Cage's piece might be important conceptually, but it simply cannot have the same detailed musical impact as great works by such people as Bach and Beethoven. Those composers changed the face of everything that followed--no one can write for solo violin without being influenced by Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, just as no one can write a symphony without being influenced by Haydn and Beethoven. Great composers fundamentally change the reality of music. Cage might have changed our perception of music, but to say that his impact is equal to Bach seems overly generous.
posted by Go Banana at 10:03 AM on April 27, 2010


idiopath: "yes, it is was originally very much about the context of performance and what it means to act within this predefined context of a musical concert."

I should add here that it was also specifically a piece for piano - the performer was to sit down at the piano, and raise the cover over the keys to indicate the start of the movement, and hold their hands at ready to indicate that the piece had been started and was starting with an extended tacit. At the end of each movement the performer would close the lid of the piano, turn to the next movement in the score, and reset the stopwatch.
posted by idiopath at 10:04 AM on April 27, 2010


Go Banana: "Cage might have changed our perception of music, but to say that his impact is equal to Bach seems overly generous."

Found sound, ambient recording, the usage of accidents of technology and unmusical components in a musical context are a large part of what separates music today from music before Cage. 4'33" played a vital role in informing these things.

And composing music that sounds like Bach or Beethoven is a standard exercise for music school. Lots of people can do it, and it is not particularly interesting.
posted by idiopath at 10:08 AM on April 27, 2010


Once when I was organizing an avant-garde/electronic music performance on campus in the early Seventies, I asked the composer-in-residence if he would perform the piece for us. He said no, he couldn't, because the space and the context were too informal. I think that says something about the intent of the piece.
posted by kozad at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


If the former were discovered, yesterday, and no one knew it was done by da Vinci it would still be breathtakingly beautiful and widely appreciated.

This is a common argument against conceptual art. It is weak because it presupposes, with no supporting evidence, that the judgment of history would be the same with a hypothetical history. Why? Because it is a great piece of art. Circular and not convincing.
posted by barrett caulk at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2010


Liking things is overrated. You like something, you don't like it, why should anyone care?

This is a piece that represents a significant turning point in modern music, one part of an ongoing dialog about what music is or could be that contributed to the abandonment of serialism, and eventually led to minimalism, ambient, the postmodern reclaiming of tonality, industrial music, and noise.

It was an exploratory piece, asserting "I made it out this far, and it looks like everything between here and where we started is all music". And quite a bit of what has been new in the music world since then has been figuring out exactly what exists in those spaces in between.

And it is just fine that you don't like it. You don't have to like it. But it is important, and remains important.
posted by idiopath at 4:55 PM on April 27 [3 favorites +] [!]


I disagree with this.

To me (and to a vast number of other people I suspect), music is entirely about liking it or not liking it. Its "importance" is irrelevant when the word "importance" is defined in terms of the influence that it has on things I also don't like.

Listening to music because it is considered "important" is in my opinion just as impoverished a way of approaching things as listening to certain music because it is considered "cool", or for that matter wearing certain items of clothing because they are considered "cool".

Listening or not listening to 4'33" should be entirely about the effect that it has on you as an individual listener. I can know that 4'33" is "important" without ever attending a performance, and therefore the "importance" is superfluous to my listening experience.

I probably will attend a performance of 4'33" one day. I suspect (but cannot know of course) that I will find it funny (and therefore enjoyable). I also strongly suspect that I will only ever attend one performance because I'm almost certain will not find it funny or enjoyable a second time. Spending 4'33" waiting for the next piece is not my idea of a good time.
posted by jonnyploy at 10:10 AM on April 27, 2010


4'33 is the musical example of "blank artwork is not blank art", one of the key discoveries/themes of 20th century modern art. John Cage was influenced by Eastern philosophy as well; it's very appropriate to view the piece as a Zen kōan.

BTW I find the dissonances at 1:26 so grating on the ears, don't you!?
posted by polymodus at 10:10 AM on April 27, 2010


Spending 4'33" waiting for the next piece is not my idea of a good time.

Exactly. This is very Western take on life. Not to rag on you specifically, but do you see that the thesis of 4'33" is the questioning of our attitudes of this sort.
posted by polymodus at 10:12 AM on April 27, 2010


Cage might have changed our perception of music, but to say that his impact is equal to Bach seems overly generous.

Bach didn't create the music he did in a vacuum. He merely created a lot of brilliant pieces of music that together laid out a definitive view of a certain kind of art.

Cage similarly did not come out of a vacuum, but if you want to look at the last century of music you'll find that he directly inspired many of the most influential musicians we've had. His philosophy of music leads to minimalism, for instance, which inspired both Terry Riley's indeterminate music and his electronic music, each of which created diverse and influential genres of their own. It also inspired Brian Eno's ambient music, which similarly led to Eno's work with some of the biggest pop artists of the last forty years. In fact, I'd argue that much of modern music owes more to John Cage than it does to Bach, as complex theory has lost prominence to complex sound production.

I'll make a plea, which I'm sure will be ignored. Can we please stop treating art history like it's an objective thing? Like these philosophies exist outside of the kin of human existence? It is possible to dislike and disagree with something without claiming some objective rightness. We can argue Duchamp, Cage, and Pollack as personal preferences rather than as if some great mandate were forcing itself on the art world. I love music that comes from people who actively loathed Cage; I love Frank Zappa's music and Brian Eno's music, even though Eno hates Zappa, because my appreciation of music is my own and not Brian Eno's. We live in a postmodern society, which means that we have to accept and embrace the fact that how Rory Marinich likes music is not how Go Banana likes music, and that there is no possible way to absolutely reconcile the two, and that this is a good thing because it means there's a diversity of opinion and appreciation.

We have threads devoted to musicians that aren't John Cage, so it's stupid to treat Cage as an edge case when he shows up here. He's just a musician. I love him and look up to him. You might not. I don't think you're wrong not to and it hurts my feelings when people assume that it's wrong to. Let's be nice.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:14 AM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I listen to this piece sometimes on infinite loop. Words cannot do it justice.
posted by Skygazer at 10:17 AM on April 27, 2010


If John Cage's 4:33 is art, then so must be Joe Blow's 2:16. Otherwise neither is art. If Jackson Pollock throwing paint through a jet engine is art, then so too is it art if I do it. If we get paid differently for doing the same thing, for producing identical results, then yes, it's a con job, pretension, and a rip off.

Firstly, not a single comment in this thread has given anyone grief over not liking 4' 33", rather about being casually dismissive of a respected work and not understanding its importance in the field. Please refer back to my first comment above and you'll see that the statement "the work of John Cage is significant and influential, in particular the piece 4' 33"" is not one of opinion. He first presented the piece over half a century ago, and its impact and influence (you know: its importance) is demonstrable, as attested to personally and on the record by lots of other musicians--you know, people who actually work in the field and whose work would actually be influenced by such pieces. You are mistaking such assessments as statements of opinion, it seems; they are not.

About your comment quoted above: anyone can do what Cage did after he did it. Once the conceptual space is cleared, once someone is smart enough to conceive of just the right translation of ideas into composition, and brave enough to put it out there, then sure, the rest of us can follow. I can head right on over to the west coast if I want to, too, but somebody had to go first and blaze the trail, show it could be done and one way to do it.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:23 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rory Marinich: "He's just a musician. I love him and look up to him."

nah, he wasn't much of a musician, he was a great composer though

A friend recalled a conversation between a mutual acquaintance of ours and Cage:

Brün: Your denial of intention is fascist, John. "Going with the flow" is exactly what the assholes in charge want from us. Your music is fucking fascist.

Cage gives Brün a big hug

Cage: I love you too, Herbert.
posted by idiopath at 10:25 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I used to have a radio show from midnight to 3 a.m., at which point the station shut down for 3 hours. So when I was signing off, I usually said something like "I'd like to leave you now with the the 3 hour extended dance version of John Cage's 4'33""
posted by hooha at 10:29 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Spending 4'33" waiting for the next piece is not my idea of a good time.

Exactly. This is very Western take on life. Not to rag on you specifically, but do you see that the thesis of 4'33" is the questioning of our attitudes of this sort.
posted by polymodus at 6:12 PM on April 27 [+] [!]


I have no problem with you ragging on me specifically. Yes, I totally see this. But I can see it without ever attending a performance of the piece, in the same way that I know that Shostakovich's Symphony 5 has great importance without ever attending a performance. However, it is the emotional impact that Shostakovich's 5th Symphony has on me which is what matters to me.

John Cage can question my attitude all he likes but I happen to think it's a pretty good attitude in that it keeps me happy. In fact it's deeper than that - I couldn't change my attitude to music if I tried. My tastes are constantly changing, and I guess it's conceivable that one day my tastes may change to such a huge degree that I would "enjoy" a second helping of 4'33". Don't hold your breath though.
posted by jonnyploy at 10:30 AM on April 27, 2010


To me (and to a vast number of other people I suspect), music is entirely about liking it or not liking it. Its "importance" is irrelevant when the word "importance" is defined in terms of the influence that it has on things I also don't like.

This is one way, a very common way, to listen to music. I myself often listen to music for enjoyment. But there are other ways to listen, other kinds of experiences to have when listening, and the fact that most people opt for the emotional one (I like this/I don't like this) shouldn't invalidate all kinds of listening and musical experiences; it certainly does not obviate the musician's responsibilities to all kinds of listening and listeners and musical ideas.

Listening or not listening to 4'33" should be entirely about the effect that it has on you as an individual listener.

This is both correct and entirely wrong: as a statement of your personal values as a listener, I agree wholeheartedly--you know what you want when you listen to music, and seek it out; as a truism, or categorical statement, though, it's completely mistaken: there is no should. Music shouldn't be anything other than what the musicers make it. They can choose to provide listeners with experiences they want and expect; they can choose to challenge listeners; they can work in familiar styles and idioms or they can present more exotic ones; no matter, music is what the people playing it decide it will be at that moment.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:31 AM on April 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Listening or not listening to 4'33" should be entirely about the effect that it has on you as an individual listener.

This is both correct and entirely wrong: as a statement of your personal values as a listener, I agree wholeheartedly--you know what you want when you listen to music, and seek it out; as a truism, or categorical statement, though, it's completely mistaken: there is no should. Music shouldn't be anything other than what the musicers make it. They can choose to provide listeners with experiences they want and expect; they can choose to challenge listeners; they can work in familiar styles and idioms or they can present more exotic ones; no matter, music is what the people playing it decide it will be at that moment.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:31 PM on April 27 [+] [!]


Yes, fair enough. I regretted using the word should in that post on reading it back after pressing the 'Post Comment' button.
posted by jonnyploy at 10:34 AM on April 27, 2010


> I've acknowledged that among the music theory crowed it's considered seminal, and I've stated that I accept their judgment while continuing to dislike the piece. But that isn't enough. Apparently unless I join in the adulation of Cage and 4:33 I'm to be lectured and belittled for my poor taste.

I'm sorry you feel that way; perhaps it will help if I mention that I'm quite impressed with the way you've refined your views since the subject first came up. I have no interest in your "joining in the adulation of Cage" (I myself have no adulation of Cage, though I do respect him), and I don't care whether you like the piece or not. I do care whether you treat anyone who disagrees with you as an ignoramus and/or poseur, which is the impression you were originally giving off, and you seem to me to have stepped away from that. Good for you; it's not easy to refine one's position when you feel like everyone is attacking you.
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


So: declawing cats, I/P, obesity, religion and 4'33"?
posted by charred husk at 10:37 AM on April 27, 2010


People keep applying the Intentional Fallacy to this work, and that is fine. It is true that what the artist wanted to do or who the artist was, means nothing in the judgment of the value of the work. But this isn't a narrative work, it is, like all music, a piece of performance art.

If I, or Joe Blow, created this piece and performed it in the bathroom, the sounds would be reproduced, but the piece would not. But the same is true of a Bach cantata or Jumping Jack Flash. (Aside: I know someone who claims to have lived behind Stevie Ray Vaughan over thirty years ago, and to have called the police on him for practicing at three am.) Every piece of music, or drama, or juggling, is dependent upon the audience and, yes, the audience can be delayed as a recording or youtube clip.

Other people, and sometimes the same people, are arguing in favor of the Affective Fallacy; this isn't music because it doesn't move me, I have no emotional reaction to it. I think that reasoning is useful in judging a performance piece, but as you are making the argument you are disproving it. It simply is not the usual response that you have to music, but it is very much a response. Music, performance, takes a commitment to be appreciated (similar to the suspension of disbelief needed by fiction.), if you can't do that, it is you lose. And while no one is arguing that you must like this work, or any other work, it is fair to point out that you are missing something by refusing to try, to be an engaged and active audience.

There are people who spend three forth of the time they are hearing Beethoven's Ninth only waiting for the choral parts, and if you spend Cage's 4'33" waiting for the next piece, you are doing the same thing.
posted by Some1 at 11:07 AM on April 27, 2010


I believe it was in the Lennon/McCartney episode of Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats where he expounds on his opinion that mid-20th century avant guard music (much to western culture's detriment) abandoned the traditions and building blocks of European music.

Those building blocks (melody, harmony, rhythm, and (late in the game due to technical reasons) bass) had produced so much excellent music that sounded and was structured quite differently from other music in other parts of the world were thrown over in favor of people dropping ball bearings down ladders, hitting discordant notes on a piano with no understandable pattern, and calling it "Music".

I don't know Goodall's opinion of Cage's work in general, but I find 4'33" to be an excellent example of this thesis.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:12 AM on April 27, 2010


So: declawing cats, I/P, obesity, religion and 4'33"?

And Gaga and Critical Mass.
posted by everichon at 11:19 AM on April 27, 2010


Other people, and sometimes the same people, are arguing in favor of the Affective Fallacy; this isn't music because it doesn't move me, I have no emotional reaction to it. I think that reasoning is useful in judging a performance piece, but as you are making the argument you are disproving it. It simply is not the usual response that you have to music, but it is very much a response. Music, performance, takes a commitment to be appreciated (similar to the suspension of disbelief needed by fiction.), if you can't do that, it is you lose. And while no one is arguing that you must like this work, or any other work, it is fair to point out that you are missing something by refusing to try, to be an engaged and active audience.

There are people who spend three forth of the time they are hearing Beethoven's Ninth only waiting for the choral parts, and if you spend Cage's 4'33" waiting for the next piece, you are doing the same thing.
posted by Some1 3 minutes ago [+]


As I believe this comment is directed partly at me, I should reiterate that I probably will go and see a performance of 4'33" at some point in my life. I am also more than willing to concede that while I may know of its importance beforehand, I will potentially not appreciate that importance until I have experienced a performance. I think this takes me out of the 'refusing to try, to be engaged and active' category that you mention above.

However, I maintain that the chances of me going to a second performance of 4'33" rely on me wanting to repeat or expand upon my experiences at the first performance. Obviously that's not an impossibility, but knowing me as I do, I'm going to place it in the 'highly unlikely' column for now.
posted by jonnyploy at 11:20 AM on April 27, 2010


OH BOY MORE JOKES ABOUT 4'33".
The thing that kills me about people going off about 4'33" is that, if you want an example of the ridiculous excesses of "modern" music, there are much better, much cooler examples. My favorite piece of music is Nam June Paik's "Creep Into The Vagina of a Living Whale"; it is performed by creeping into the vagina of a living whale. It has never been performed, and probably never will be, if those philistines at SeaWorld keep stonewalling me.
But come on, guys. If you're going to talk shit about new music, go big or go home. The point of 4'33" is fairly obvious, especially if you actually see it performed. Let's just move on and start discussing "Creep Into the Vagina of a Living Whale".

That's right. Go "Creep Into the Vagina of a Living Whale" or go home.
posted by 235w103 at 11:27 AM on April 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: "his opinion that mid-20th century avant guard music (much to western culture's detriment) abandoned the traditions and building blocks of European music. "

Yeah, questioning those traditions was pretty much the point.

"I don't know Goodall's opinion of Cage's work in general, but I find 4'33" to be an excellent example of this thesis."

dude, Cage made music that would make a metalhead's ears bleed.

But my problem here is that there is an immense arrogance behind Goodall's attitude. He is complaining that some group of composers are composing the wrong kind of music. That there was something objectively better about the Western Classical tradition, and that these people were doing something morally wrong by not making that kind of music.

If you don't like the music some group of people is making or listening to, go ahead and not listen to it. But to get up on your high horse and object to the very fact that music you don't like is being made is extremely offensive.
posted by idiopath at 11:35 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played. This is why it makes no sense , to me, for it to ever be played live again.

Like LH said, you could say the exact same thing about, say, Beethoven's 9th symphony, and it'd be just as true (or not).


I find this argument extremely disingenuous, and highly pedantic: I don;t think anyone really means it. Cage's 4'33" only makes sense conceptually, since it requires someone to be made cognizant that a work of art is occurring. That is true whether or not one finds the "work" deeply meditative and moving or pretentious and gimmicky. Whereas, unless one is deaf, music by definition is recognized without any reference to "art." I have to tell you that 4'33" is occurring, but I do not have to tell you if music (even extreme "noise" music) is playing. As a Zen exercise, 4'33" may or may not work, but no one is going to know 4'33" is or is not being "performed" unless they are told: the context is everything. Thus, one can actually hear something like 4'33" any time and anywhere there is no music occurring. It seems really, really disingenuous to me that one might have a craving to "hear" 4'33", and thus go to put a "recorded version" on. The idea that someone, alone in their own surroundings, might "play" 4'33" on a CD, in order to hear it, seems suspect: unless one is incapable of just sitting still for 5 minutes instead.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:35 AM on April 27, 2010


HP LaserJet P10006: that is if you identify the word "music" in its entirety with the phenomenon of sound. One of the component parts of this piece is that it tries to tie the act of performance to the music, as a vital part of what the music is. Which is why it is so alien from a recorded version of itself. Or the concept of a "remix". Or the concept of "having an urge to hear it".

The point is that it simply is. There is a written score that tells a performer with an instrument what to do. The performer does it with an audience. We can as audience members decide that this is a dead end, and that the only important thing about a piece of music is the sound abstracted from all cultural and circumstantial ephemera, some kind of platonic version of the sound. But at the very least the existence of 4'33", and the experience of seeing it performed, helps us make that decision rather than taking the idea of music as an abstract thing separate from social rituals of performance for granted.
posted by idiopath at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2010


If you don't like the music some group of people is making or listening to, go ahead and not listen to it. But to get up on your high horse and object to the very fact that music you don't like is being made is extremely offensive.

I just rewatched the relevant section of the L/M episode. His argument is that whatever the intention of the avant guard composers, they created music that most people didn't like, couldn't relate to, and as a result huge swaths of the music-listening population were turned off to Classical Music. Those who remained tended to want to hear the same old standards performed over and over rather than try something new that they would find unappealing and unpleasant and hard to follow.

As a result, Western Musical tradition got divided into the old stuff that people still liked (Mozart, Handel, et al), and the new wierdos rubbing sandpaper and throwing tennis balls exposed piano strings that most people don't relate to.

Turn on any Classical station and you'll hear very few new composers.

So I believe his argument is not so much "this music is bad", but that
"This mid-20th-C musical trend of wholesale abandoning of Western musical traditions created music people didn't like, drove away much of the audience for western classical music, and caused the genre to stagnate and be less of a vibrant, growing musical tradition than it had been for hundreds of years. This was not a good thing.

"The alternative at the time was popular music, but that was simplistic and formulaic and in it's own creative dead end.

"The came the Beatles and they reminded people just how much creativity, freshness, and challenging music that people actually liked and would listen to could be made from solidly within the Western musical tradition."
It's not so much a musical-snob argument as it is an anti-postmodernist one.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2010


IMO, 4'33" is good because it finished coloring in between the lines of what music is. We had already tried non-harmonic music, atonal music, music-concrete, percussive music and so on.

Is it still music if there aren't any notes at all? Apparently, yes.

Good, now we can move on. It's good that it exists, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's particularly aesthetically pleasing.

Also, it's interesting to note that having a time of 4'33", the sole creative choice possible once deciding to do a song of silences, seems to have been a solid choice-- the song of 20 minutes of silence would have been a bit to much to bear for the audience, and if it was much shorter, it wouldn't have made its point.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on April 27, 2010


Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: "It's not so much a musical-snob argument as it is an anti-postmodernist one."

The Beatles aren't postmodern music?

Its his own beloved pretentious bullshit about "the great music" which caused the problem in the first place.

The mythology had it that there was some lineage of greatness handed down in the traditions of serious music, which made it better and more important than what the masses were listening to. Well the problem with that is that the lineage he and the other snobs so deified was a specific historical dialog, and it wasn't just one or two bad apples that made it start producing difficult, unlikable, horrid music (mind you as I say all these things it is music I love, but it is this very difficulty and unlikeability that appeals to me) - this was the inevitable conclusion of the idea of progress and the cult of the genius as applied to music.

They hitched their wagons to modernity and genius and progress, so that is where the wagons took them.

And postmodernism in music is exactly the attempt to clean up the pieces after that dead ended project. Neo-classical revivalism, minimalism, ambient, pop music, world music, or plain old noise, these are some of the postmodern choices in composition today. And the likes of Goodall with their nostalgia for a great tradition of genius masters of objective brilliance can go sit on a fucking oboe.
posted by idiopath at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


idiopath's story about Cage reminds me of a story a teacher of mine* told me about his friend, also an acquaintance of Cage, who was griping about exactly the same thing. He said:

"You know, the thing that gets me about John is that I could run up to him on the street and kick him hard in the ass, and if he were being consistent he'd have to turn around and say, 'gee, Dave, thanks so much for kicking me in the ass, it's really opened my eyes up to a new facet of sensory experience.'"

He taught Analysis of 20th Century Music, and we spent a good long time on open-form and aleatoric works. In that respect, he's my Morpheus.
posted by invitapriore at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2010


Also, it's interesting to note that having a time of 4'33", the sole creative choice possible once deciding to do a song of silences

That's not quite true -- it has a title, and as mentioned above, it's written in 3 movements.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:25 PM on April 27, 2010


What's truly fucked up is that Cage's estate claims copyright to four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, so if you create a track that has silence in it you will be sued and forced to pay royalties. This is not a joke. Don't sample the silence.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:46 PM on April 27, 2010


As other posters have said, it's something that had to be done eventually, kind of like Ad Reinhart's black painting.

i will continue to prefer pieces that take talent and skill to play as well as "makes ya think"
posted by Miles Long at 12:51 PM on April 27, 2010


More seriously, I'm working on the ultimate fidelity digital recording of this piece. More channels, higher bitrates, greater bit depths than any audiophile system available can reproduce. It will be wonderful.

Sounds great with Monster cables, I hear.
posted by inigo2 at 12:53 PM on April 27, 2010


They hitched their wagons to modernity and genius and progress, so that is where the wagons took them.

And postmodernism in music is exactly the attempt to clean up the pieces after that dead ended project.


This is exactly right, a damning and should-be-obvious indictment of musical intellectuals who wish to eat their cake and have it too. Arnold Schoenberg himself, that caricatured figure who started all this (as charged by some) off-the-rails serialist nonsense, was more than a little baffled at response to his work, especially from within the music world, because he thought he was just doing the next thing. His work really, really isn't so radical when you understand how it came directly from the work and ideas of, among others, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler. AND he was a master of tonal composition in the late Romantic western classical idiom himself. (Editorial aside: my personal sense is that his blind spot was the quantum threshold between 'music that somehow references a tonal center, however obliquely' and 'music that has any tonal center systematically eliminated'; not such a big difference, conceptually, but to listeners the difference is HUGE.)

Also: His argument is that whatever the intention of the avant guard composers, they created music that most people didn't like, couldn't relate to, and as a result huge swaths of the music-listening population were turned off to Classical Music. Those who remained tended to want to hear the same old standards performed over and over rather than try something new that they would find unappealing and unpleasant and hard to follow.

I know that's not your argument, but it's been mentioned a couple of times in this thread and is actually a terrible assessment of what happened, very simplistic, and belies the speaker's bias toward the great "works" of the "old masters". It would be nice if all that happened was composers started composing challenging music so listeners went away--if that were the case, listeners never would have stopped going to orchestra concerts, at least in the U.S., because it's not like American orchestras have ever been champions of German Expressionist music; their programming always has been and remains today mostly focused on the "classical canon," has been ever since Theodore Thomas put on those first Jubilee concerts over 150 years ago. And a problem of mere alienation would be easy to fix: just start playing different kinds of music and listeners will return.

What happened was technology: the radio (displaced pianos in homes, allowed widespread dissemination of vernacular music); the microphone (allowed amateurs to sing loudly enough to perform in large halls, also allowed very different uses of the voice in concert performance, which is how e.g. blues priestesses were able to perform in public venues); and etc. From Bill Ivey, from the fantastic anthology Engaging Art:
By the early 1930s, America’s new cultural industries were well on the way to transforming the way citizens engaged culture, thereby reconfiguring our definition of participation in art and culture…as piano sales began to decline, the boom in records and radio actually accelerated. In 1919, 2.2 million phonographs were sold; even more remarkably, four million radios were sold in 1929, just before the Great Crash. The radio, or the radio-phonograph, often dressed up in handsome cabinetry, emerged as the new cultural center of American homes; it was the introduction of our electronic hearth.
(Yes, I wrote about this recently and had the quote handy, why do you ask?)

So yeah, stop blaming difficult music. Concert music lost most of its audience because culture changed, and because most of that industry (orchestras, opera houses) was focused on preserving the past, i.e., the masterworks of the 18th & 19th centuries, they were and remain effectively left behind. (In fact, I know of no data that shows that 20th century avant garde works ever really got put in front of audiences enough to be rejected, but would love some sources if someone has information along those lines.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


so if you create a track that has silence in it you will be sued and forced to pay royalties.

Well, if you create a track that has silence in it and credit John Cage as the co-composer of the track, yeah, you'll get sued.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


dirtdirt: "Well, if you create a track that has silence in it and credit John Cage as the co-composer of the track, yeah, you'll get sued."

Exactly.

Write some pulp horror about a guy going crazy in a hotel and you are fine. Reference the fact that you are rewriting The Shining by putting "and Stephen King" on the cover and you deserve to get your ass taken to court.
posted by idiopath at 1:11 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is a written score that tells a performer with an instrument what to do. The performer does it with an audience. We can as audience members decide that this is a dead end, and that the only important thing about a piece of music is the sound abstracted from all cultural and circumstantial ephemera, some kind of platonic version of the sound. But at the very least the existence of 4'33", and the experience of seeing it performed, helps us make that decision rather than taking the idea of music as an abstract thing separate from social rituals of performance for granted.

I'm not sure I disagree with this. But I'm also not sure it's relevant to the point I was attempting to make. By way of analogy, that point was that just as one does not to need to understand a language in order to recognize simply when a language is being spoken, so too one does not need to know the "social rituals of musical performance" to recognize when music is being played (live or record, it matters not)--except in the case of 4'33". With this piece context is everything. If I walk by a music hall (with an open side door) while 4'33" is being performed, I will have no clue that music is taking place. I'm not arguing whether this is good or bad, worthwhile or not. I'm simply making an observational point that Wittgenstein might make: in 4'33" the usual game of what constitutes music vs. non-music is inverted, and because no one can recognize 4'33" unless they are told somehow that it is being performed, then the claim that one might while all alone to hear 4'33" all by oneself seems a bit dubious. Why is this last point important? Because it undermines the notion that 4'33" is no different than any other piece of music: at a basic conceptual level of what constitutes music it is different. Thus saying that wanting to hear 4'33" more than once does not strike me as specious: it strikes me, rather, as grasping what makes 4'33"--since strictly speaking (a la Heraclitus) it can never be performed more than once. Now it's true that each time we listen to a piece of music (not including 4'33" for a moment) we hear different things (the experience is never exactly the same), nevertheless we have certain familiarities in the sounds being produced. The great paradox of music is that we want to listen to certain pieces more than once (probably b/c they invoke certain feelings or moods which we find beguiling). Music, even wholly improvised music, bears repeated listens. With 4'33", saying that one want to hear it again is just fine: but I don't really believe anyone who says it, is all. Finally, the notion that one turns to 4'33" to escape certain assumptions about what constitutes the social aspects of music seems to me precisely backwards: since with 4'33" there is only the context of the social aspect. Without that context, no one would ever seek to duplicate it in performance. Paradoxically, like many extreme conceptual attempts at non-art or anti-art or art-without-art or art-without-an-object, for better or worse, what remains is precisely the social context of the work, and nothing else.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:38 PM on April 27, 2010


4'33" is art, but not music
posted by tehloki at 1:42 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


HP LaserJet P10006: "Paradoxically, like many extreme conceptual attempts at non-art or anti-art or art-without-art or art-without-an-object, for better or worse, what remains is precisely the social context of the work, and nothing else."

That is only a paradox if you think the artists was trying to transcend the social and cultural circumstances rather than call attention to them.

There is an enduring mythology in the way art is often talked about that the art itself is somehow abstracted or pure or outside of the particular circumstances of its creation - much of this anti-art is trying to call attention to the very fact that this idea of a transcendent platonic art is bullshit.
posted by idiopath at 1:48 PM on April 27, 2010


That is only a paradox if you think the artists was trying to transcend the social and cultural circumstances rather than call attention to them.

There is an enduring mythology in the way art is often talked about that the art itself is somehow abstracted or pure or outside of the particular circumstances of its creation - much of this anti-art is trying to call attention to the very fact that this idea of a transcendent platonic art is bullshit.


You're misunderstanding my point: the paradox is that the more one attempts to de-Platonize the art the more one re-Platonizes it. The paradox is that art-without-an-object, if it were truly made, could not be recognized as art in the first place. I'm emphatically not making a judgment here (I like some conceptual art, fwiw). I'm observing the reality whereby art that seeks explicitly and determinately to "tear down the wall" always finds the wall still standing. It's like Wittgenstein's remark about the impossibility of a private language.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2010


idiopath re: the lawsuit. I think there's something deeply wrong about a world where a person can be sued for having a sense of humor. Mike Batt paid between $100,000 and $999,999 for a joke/homage. I think there's something pretty seriously wrong with that whether you like, dislike, or are indifferent to 4:33.

languagehat I shouldn't have jumped here. I've been involved, in real life, in an argument on the topic of avant garde theater, enjoyability, and my status as a philistine for expressing a desire to perform theater that people might actually want to watch. I shouldn't have let it spill over into the blue and taken a crap on the latest iteration of the eternal 4:33 thread.
posted by sotonohito at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2010


Another way of saying this would be: art is bounded to the objects of its process like language is bounded to its meanings.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:59 PM on April 27, 2010


I prefer the Rose Mary Woods extended dance mix 18'30."
posted by kirkaracha at 2:03 PM on April 27, 2010


sotonohito: the problem is that the suit had nothing to do with "claim to authorship of the silent composition", despite crappy reporting in the news media on the subject (including BBC who should have known better). He put a famous composer's name on his own work without permission. He was being sued for using that composer's name fraudulently and settled out of court.
posted by idiopath at 2:08 PM on April 27, 2010


HP LaserJet P10006: "Another way of saying this would be: art is bounded to the objects of its process like language is bounded to its meanings."

And funny enough the objects of the processes of art can be the rules and boundaries of creating the art itself. That one would call attention to the social context in which art is created by stripping its other trappings is not always a paradox or a failure.

One could (and many have) done something similar to dance: reducing dance to the simple presence of a human body on stage. If they are trying to transcend dance to pure art you may call that paradoxical. If you think they are playing with the social agreements by which we decide something is dance, then there is no paradox or contradiction there: they are in the simplest way they could manage, pointing to that social agreement.

Or, since you bring up language: there are poets whose poetry is about making sounds with their mouths. The purposefully refuse to intentionally use meaningful words. If they think they are trying to transcend language to something more pure, they are probably failing in a pretty laughable way. If they think that they are playing with the boundaries between what we call poetry and what we would not call poetry, then what they are doing is straightforward and not really all that controversial.
posted by idiopath at 2:20 PM on April 27, 2010


idipath: you really are not understanding me.

Of course the objects of the processes of art can be the rules and boundaries of creating the art itself. 4'33" is an example. An empty frame or Malevich's white canvas as well. So too the performance pieces of Beuys or Abromovic, or the readymades of Duchamp. I get that, but in each case what remains is still a trace of the presence-of-an-object. Indeed, that's often all that remains. The greatest conceptual artists would be one no one has ever heard of, because he/she never even identified himself/herself as an artist in any way.

there are poets whose poetry is about making sounds with their mouths. The purposefully refuse to intentionally use meaningful words. If they think they are trying to transcend language to something more pure, they are probably failing in a pretty laughable way. If they think that they are playing with the boundaries between what we call poetry and what we would not call poetry, then what they are doing is straightforward and not really all that controversial.

Yes, Mallarme and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, and many more besides. But again, you are missing my point: if a poet does away with language, with marking, and with sound entirely, what precisely will remain? What does "controversy" have to do with it? The avant-garde in the West is at least 100 years old. It has an entire apparatus (academic, curatorial, theoretical) around it in order to enshrine it and sustain it. And that's fin: I'm not making judgements about art per se, but rather am attempting to show the uncanny way the most radical art ends up making the very move it seeks not to make. Should artists continue to attempt to play with these boundaries? Of course. Is there a metaphysical paradox whereby the absence-of-a-boundary is its own boundary? Yes.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:30 PM on April 27, 2010


I like Buggs Bunny, but I'm not sure there is any artistic merit therein.

What?!
posted by mrgrimm at 2:40 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny, I just got done watching the documentary Cage / Cunningham last night, and there's a point where Cage talks about all the "serious" musicians who told him his compositions weren't music, and then finding that dancers *loved* what he was doing and considered it some of the best stuff to dance to. The doc's just a bit too elliptical to be great, but is definitely worth a look for some great interview bits and the amazing archival footage of the very strange early dance experiments of Cage's partner Merce Cunningham.

I found out afterwards that Cunningham created a dance piece called "Stillness" to accompany 4'33". I'm sure it would be neat to have seen that. Once.
posted by mediareport at 3:30 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


art is bounded to the objects of its process like language is bounded to its meanings.

Which is a compelling thought but I think not true for music, which has no objects to begin with. This object perspective (termed 'work-concept' in the field) has been actively dismantled for a while now, not least by pioneers like Cage, and the fact is, a musical object is an imaginary construct, and idea whose genesis and history in western culture can be traced. So I'm a little baffled how you can so certainly assert that music is bounded to its object-ness when as a temporal art there isn't a thing there in the first place.

I think the work-concept unnecessarily boxes in the idea of music, and the "entire apparatus" around music in (at least American) universities and conservatories is actually quite in flux and has been asking some seismic sorts of questions recently. For a comprehensive history and dismantling of the work-concept in music, I (as always, I think this is like the fifth time I've linked to it) recommend Lydia Goehr's fascinating book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, and for a very thoroughly articulated view against the aesthetic (or pure, or object-oriented) concept of music and music education, I recommend David Elliott's Music Matters.
posted by LooseFilter at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do want to apologize to anyone who previously posted on this topic. For whatever reason, Metafilter posts about 4'33" don't show up as such on Google. That includes this post, which normally would be the first result of that search by this time. It looks like Google confuses 4'33" with 4:33, which gets lost in all the timestamps.

It's been an interesting discussion though. Thanks!

I was wondering how well 4'33" would work on the web, where the settings and contexts and expectations are quite different than those of a concert hall. Perhaps this site or this site would give you some idea, but then again, maybe not.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:45 PM on April 27, 2010


4'33" : Lost in the timestamps!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:52 PM on April 27, 2010


In the converse, is it possible to take 4:33 of high-fidelity silence and crunch it down with nasty mp3 compression to the point where all you have is artifacts?

A while back I was imagining a musical piece that was based on a continuous stream of white noise. Then I would have a reverse piano that, instead of creating tones, masked frequencies out of the white noise as I played. I wonder how much you would have to mask to make it very subtle, but still noticeable. Would you be able to discern a difference between which key on the reverse piano was played? Would chords (or something analogous) work?

MGMTs "time to pretend" and the Vines' "Ride" have sections that remind me of "reverse" rhythm, where the non-sound amidst the noise is the important part.

Been done already? I'd like to hear it.
posted by ctmf at 3:54 PM on April 27, 2010


I wonder, when John Cage looks down from heaven at all this to and fro and tumble and hoopla about his little piece, still going on, NOW, in the year of 2010, is he laughing or crying?

I like to think that he's laughing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:55 PM on April 27, 2010


Which is a compelling thought but I think not true for music, which has no objects to begin with.

I think music is closest we get in the arts to pure process or pure form: at its best it seems to mirror the very sense of what it means simply to be. Nevertheless, putting aside the question of absolute music and the familiar Pateresque question of music-as-the-art-to-which-all-other-arts-aspire, I meant only in my analysis that music, for better or worse, presupposes sound. Now it's true that so does 4'33", but it does so conceptually. That is the singular historical importance of the piece, quite apart from the question of whether it is effective. But my question was even more rudimentary: how can all music do away with all preconceived sound in as radical fashion as 4'33" attempts to? The short answer is that it can't. As an experiment, 4'33" confirms that to collapse all music-making into soundless gesture is no more conceivable than it is desirable. Thus by an "object" of music, I merely mean the non-referential and non-representational fact of sound.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:06 PM on April 27, 2010


flapjax, he did say that he finds laughter preferable to tears.
posted by speicus at 4:08 PM on April 27, 2010


As an experiment, 4'33" confirms that to collapse all music-making into soundless gesture is no more conceivable than it is desirable.

Listening to 4'33" in order to hear all music as sound (or vice versa) is like reading a book on Buddhism in order to achieve enlightenment. That is, there are better ways to achieve enlightenment, and there are other reasons to read books on Buddhism.

You'll note that Cage continued to write music after 4'33".
posted by speicus at 4:13 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


A while back I was imagining a musical piece that was based on a continuous stream of white noise. Then I would have a reverse piano that, instead of creating tones, masked frequencies out of the white noise as I played. I wonder how much you would have to mask to make it very subtle, but still noticeable. Would you be able to discern a difference between which key on the reverse piano was played? Would chords (or something analogous) work?

Yes, it's called a notch filter (if you're filtering out a specific frequency) or band-pass if you're filtering out everything but.

Give me a few minutes and I'll try your idea out in ableton and post it.
posted by empath at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2010


Listening to 4'33" in order to hear all music as sound (or vice versa) is like reading a book on Buddhism in order to achieve enlightenment. That is, there are better ways to achieve enlightenment, and there are other reasons to read books on Buddhism.

Perhaps, and there are some familair koans in here, but I'm not making a point about listening to 4'33", I'm making a point about the the inescapable fact of sound to music. Perhaps music does live in the silences, as Miles insisted, or perhaps there are no silences, strictly speaking (as Cage seems to suggest). Either way, I've never once been attempting in my comments here to make a judgement about 4'33" as a work of art (since, frankly, I don't have a strong opinion either way). It's simply a vehicle for my larger point about the impossibility of getting around certain givens, in this case the givenness of sound to music. And in a larger sense the givenness of "object-hood" (loosely defined) to any work of art. Put another way: the more one attempts to erase the object-hood of art, the more that object-hood becomes present through its supposed absence. Usually this is evident through the interpretive apparatus that allows radical works of artistic negation to be recognized as works at all.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2010


ctmf: "a reverse piano that, instead of creating tones, masked frequencies out of the white noise as I played"

This would be a novel interface to subtractive synthesis, which is one of the four or five most basic synthesis techniques (though white noise is not the most common waveform used).
posted by idiopath at 4:46 PM on April 27, 2010


Since were talking avant garde – not Cage but Cale (although Cage was involved) and another interesting piece of music on I've got a secret. [previously].
posted by tellurian at 5:16 PM on April 27, 2010


Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese: "What's truly fucked up is that Cage's estate claims copyright to four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, so if you create a track that has silence in it you will be sued and forced to pay royalties. This is not a joke. Don't sample the silence."

Silence! I KEEL YOU!
posted by bwg at 5:23 PM on April 27, 2010


Didn't get to read the whole comments, but reading half of them made me think of the artists that I like who used this concept or were marginally influenced by them.

SNOG/Black Lung
Haujobb
Covenant
Sheep On Drugs
Josh Whedon
Contempes
Me

In fact, this concept made me attempt to make null-space music (holes in pink or white noise creating the "melody" and then noise cancelation and frequency cancellation to create "melody").

Sure, it was, and has been and will again be thought of and experimented with by other artists. However, John Cage is the artist I can point to and say "that's where I saw it done first, which led me to think about music differently". Mozart wasn't the first compser, nor anyone you can name because the first composers names are lost to us all, but this is the most prominent work catalogued and disseminated to the mass audience of humanity. Thus, it has it's merit, and it has it's place in the pantheon for those of us who "get it" or want to.

Also, also, I think it's great that there are haters/whiners. This means those of us have to justify our love of this concept and this incarnation. I for one, will be searching out any performances of this work that I can attend and I will drag as many of my friends along with me.
posted by daq at 5:29 PM on April 27, 2010


tellurian: "Since were talking avant garde"

John Cage also was a guest for "I've got a Secret".
posted by idiopath at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2010


Ha! that was great. I think the radios were swell as they were in this version.
posted by tellurian at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2010


The jokes people make about 4"33" (here and elsewhere) don't seem to me to be biting snarks. They're much more like light pleasantries. ("How long is it if you take all the repeats?") It's really hard to imagine anyone but a mannerly upper-middlebrow classical music audience finding the piece either revelatory or enraging. The premiere is supposed to have ended with the audience "bursting into an uproar" but it is not recorded that it was followed by even a small classical music riot, let alone one of the great ones. (There were fistfights in the aisles at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps and before long a full-scale mob fight to which the police had to be called to restore order [N.b. they failed]. The riot following the premiere of a largely forgotten opera, Auber's Masaniello, ou La muette de Portici, is credited with precipitating the Belgian revolution in 1830.)

I frankly find the... um, music... pleasant and amusing (and short! like a Percy Grainger miniature) and the notions to which it gives rise amusing also. Most of these concern the fact that the performance venue is not specified in the score (there is indeed a score, you can buy a printed copy from here so that, even without doing any of the whimsical "reorchestration" (for, e.g., alto, tenor and bass tricycle) it is quite legitimate to have the surrounding and interpenetrating noise be something other than the coughs and chair squeeks one gets before and after some lady sings Die Forelle. One imagines performances of 4"33" in the middle of other people's concerts (Amon Amarth; Garth Brooks; *NSYNC; Zamfir). In the monkey house at the zoo, or the aviary. At a three-alarm fire. Baroque style, with harpsichord continuo. In a box. With a fox.

Cage's stuff is certainly worth listening to in moderation and repays attention, but a great deal of his content is what one might call meta-musical rather than musical per se, and (IMHO of course) his career output has a much higher proportion of art-gamesmanship than one finds in the music of more genuinely gifted composers of Cage's century.(This comment has footnotes. See note 1. below) Cage even more or less admitted as much when he quit studying harmony with Schonberg, saying "I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. [Schonberg] then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall." He would certainly not be the first 20th century artist to compensate for certain lack of traditional talent with a bit of extra art-gamesmanship.


>> The problem with 4'33" is that his point is well made, but it is only useful once. The
>> audience once exposed to his original idea can no longer sit listening as intently with
>> the same exact purpose that they did the first time 4'33" was ever played. This is why
>> it makes no sense, to me, for it to ever be played live again.
>
> Like LH said, you could say the exact same thing about, say, Beethoven's 9th symphony,
> and it'd be just as true (or not).
> posted by ludwig_van at 10:49 AM on April 27 [+] [!]

Several comments have underlined the difference in impact between actually attending a performance and just playing a recording--or just reading a description of the piece and thinking about the implications. (2.) There are always new audiences who haven't ever been present at a performance. One born every minute I could say, meaning that as a pleasantry and not a snark. Cage and Barnum are not at all incompatible, especially from the p.o.v. of Mcluhan's apercu ("Art is anything you can get away with.") So there will remain a certain place for new performances for new audiences.

But how many eager repeat audiences are there? It may be hard to convey to another why I like a particular piece. But there's a good, clean, easy metric for how much I like it, and that is how much do I want to hear it again. And again, and again. I'm not just talking obvious play-it-again-Sam stuff like Beethoven's 9th here, I also wore out a full set (vinyl) of the Bartok string quartets. By contrast, about that same time I picked up a copy of the composition HPSCHD (for 1 to 7 amplified harpsichords and 1 to 51 tapes) by Cage and Lejarn Hiller, which comes with a "program" (i.e. a set of instructions, though one with a name of its own, KNOBS) for the listener for playing back the recording. (The KNOBS in question would be bass, treble, and volume. Every purchaser of this particular recording got a uniquely generated version of KNOBS.) I listened to HPSCHD once and put it back on the shelf. Happened across HPSCHD again just the other day after a lapse of thirty-ish years and played it again, same outcome. Cleaned out ears with some Flaming Lips, also with multiple tapes and audience participation and all that but a FUCK of a lot more fun to listen to. At that rate I expect to play HPSCHD again in, oh 2040 if I'm still around (unlikely). In the interval between first and latest auditions of HPSCHD how many times have I listened to and bought tickets to performances of B's 9th? Of course I've way lost count. So, in sum (IMHO again) you can say "It makes no sense to me ever to play 4'33" again" and you can "it makes no sense to me ever to play Beethoven's 9th symphony again," but as for the two being just as true (or false) the wanna-hear-again metric disputes that.


> You're proud of having an opinion on a par with "my five-year-old daughter could paint better than that"?

Distinguo. It's philistinism only when the claim is false. But often enough the claim is true, in which case it's philistinism of a different but no more respectable sort to shout "philistine," knee-jerk style. Remember snapshot-aesthetic photography? Winogrand? Friedlander? Szarkowski? When one can say not just "My five-year-old could do that" but "My five-year-old has done that" I don't think we need to hear anything from the artsy crowd (which includes me) except embarrassed silence and foot-shuffling, as when the little girl shouted "Mama, the emperor is nekkid!. A bit of silent shoegazing (at least 4 min 33 sec of it, maybe even a bit more) might do 'em (us) a world of good.


(1.) For compulsive scorecard-keepers here's mine. In no particupar order but all ahead of Cage, with the first four and Eliott Carter "ahead" as Jupiter is "large" compared to Io. Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Ives, Varese, Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, Carl Ruggles, Samuel Barber, Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Frank Martin [does anybody anywhere have a recording of the oratorio Gilgamesh? We wants it!], Hans Werner Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ned Rorem, Charles Wuorinen, Terry Riley, George crumb, Elliott Carter, Frank Zappa. That's the short list. I do have Cage coming in ahead of Philip Glass and Lenny Bernstein)

(2.) I have had the good fortune both to attand a performance and to play in one (nothing impressive there, string quartet version, audience of maybe 20.) And I totally aggree with this. Oh man, the podium lag you get. How very much it seems like it's been 45 minutes going on two hours since you started. How you must resist the impulse to, uh, play faster! I got through my performance with a small semi-cheat. In the relative quiet I was able to hear my own heartbeat and, knowing what my resting heart rate is, was able to tick off minutes by counting beats. I call it only a semi-cheat because there's nothing that says which of all the extraneous noises you have to listen to while the instruments aren't playing
posted by jfuller at 6:59 PM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I believe it was in the Lennon/McCartney episode of Howard Goodall's 20th Century Greats where he expounds on his opinion that mid-20th century avant guard music (much to western culture's detriment) abandoned the traditions and building blocks of European music.

Just as an aside: if you are going to use foreign terms, it is de rigor to spell them correctly.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:21 AM on April 28, 2010


In response to everyone complaining about the haters.

Art requires artistry and an artist. Simply speaking semantically. This piece requires no artist, therefore it is not art. It has no music therefore it it is not a musical piece, it has notes therefore it is not by definition a composition. What it is is a celebrity statement.

Saying, my five year old could do better is actually a perfectly valid criticism. Uniqueness increases the value of art, he is saying your 'art' is valueless.

I love cage and I think that everyone who tries to elevate this defensively into art is missing the point he was trying to make completely. Sounds are interesting in and of themselves. We should listen to the environment around us and appreciate it as much as we do music. Music is just a set of frequency combinations we happen to find particularly pleasing.

Also I hate deconstructionism :)
posted by darkfred at 4:31 PM on April 28, 2010


darkfred: "Music is just a set of frequency combinations we happen to find particularly pleasing."

Absolutely not. And for that same reason, 4'33" does require a performer.

Music is a social ritual built around hearing sounds. The time, place, and manner of conveyance are extremely important.

And furthermore there is much more to be found music than just finding it pleasing.
posted by idiopath at 4:52 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry, where I said "music is", I would have been better off saying "music is also". I cannot rule out that there may be some kind of abstract music separate from place time and performance, but am not ready to concede that performance and place cannot be part of what music is.
posted by idiopath at 5:36 PM on April 28, 2010


LooseFilter wrote anyone can do what Cage did after he did it. Once the conceptual space is cleared, once someone is smart enough to conceive of just the right translation of ideas into composition, and brave enough to put it out there, then sure, the rest of us can follow. I can head right on over to the west coast if I want to, too, but somebody had to go first and blaze the trail, show it could be done and one way to do it.

Yeah, but no one seems much interested in occupying and expanding in the conceptual space cleared by 4:33.

Take, to choose another example of music I don't like, rap. Someone pioneered that conceptual space, I'm sure there's experts on contemporary music who have written dissertations on the origins of rap and could give us the details of the difficulties involved etc.

After the conceptual space was opened up other, non-pioneering, people moved in and began expanding and refining that conceptual space.

I note that there was no similar explosion of people moving into the conceptual space of "not playing instruments so as to get the audience to listen to ambient noise". This doesn't make Cage less of a pioneer, but it does seem to imply to me that he pioneered a place no one much wanted to go. Nevermind us lowbrow types who just want music because we want to listen to enjoyable stuff, I'm unaware of any highbrow pieces composed in the conceptual space of 4:33 either.

Like I said before, better educated people than I say 4:33 is important, and I accept their judgment. But it seems like a very strange judgment to me, among other things because unlike every other important, pioneering, step taken in music no one else has followed in Cage's footsteps. Which is why I keep thinking that 4:33 is more an example of conceptual art rather than an example of a worthy piece of music.

Reading through the written for the layman explanations of 4:33, it appears that the main importance of 4:33 was it freed people to apply the same post-modern "everything is X" definition to music that already existed in the visual arts world. Not that it particularly opened doors to people creating new works in its genre. Again, please correct me if I'm wrong, but leaving aside jokes and homages, no other composers have written silences, yes? It appears to be an empty and forlorn conceptual space he pioneered, there remains after all these years only one compositional silence.

dirtdirt wrote This can be rewarding, fascinating shit. It really can. But if you plug your ears to this very basic point you won't level-up to the good stuff. Granted, you can live a very full, happy life without that particular good stuff, but it really is worth exploring. There are certainly charlatans and frauds in the history of art, but no more than anywhere else.

Let me bring up, though I assure you in a different manner than you might think, the parable of the Emperor's New Clothes.

What if the New Clothes were real? The weavers weren't frauds, but really had a way of weaving cloth that only superior people (however you choose to define that) can see. Some people, simply by virtue of genetic accident or what have you, are born able to see the New Clothes, others can only learn to see the New Clothes by dint of long years of study, effort, and work.

Do you imagine that anyone who wanted to fit in to upper crust society in such a situation would ever admit to being unable to see the clothes?

Worse, what if there were even greater refinements? People with some virtue could see the Level 1 New Clothes, but people of greater virtue could see Level 4 or Level 5 New Clothes?

Would anyone ever admit to failing to see the New Clothes of whatever level?

In such an environment would not fraud be rife? There are real New Clothes, of course, but there are also frauds and no one will ever admit to being unable to see the fraudulent New Clothes.

The world of art has taught me that there is absolutely nothing, no matter how ludicrous, no matter how preposterous, no matter how outright silly, that people will not praise as groundbreaking, amazing, and worthy of great praise as long as it's accompanied by the proper shibboleths and High Art words of explanation. Quite literally piles of rotting garbage have gotten such praise. And perhaps that pile of rotting garbage is Real New Clothes, perhaps people can truly, genuinely, see great art there.

But how can I tell? How can the rich people who want to show off their exquisite taste tell? To fail to appreciate the Real New Clothes proves you're a lowbrow poser, therefore if one wishes to be seen as highbrow the only course of action is to lavish praise for all New Clothes regardless of whether you personally see art there or not.

I've never, not once, seen a connoisseur of High Art, state that anything isn't amazing and wonderful art. Not one single time. Maybe I'm just not paying attention, but I've never seen art critics say "this is not Real New Clothes, this is a fraud, the so-called 'artist' is not producing art but rather is trying to rip people off."

Also, if fame and celebrity aren't factors, how is it that only the accepted High Artists have the ability to transform rotting garbage into million dollar art installations? Why can't a kid with an inborn talent do the same?

My art history professor friend defined art, in a very post-modern way, as "what people make", and while I don't like that sort of non-definition I've not yet been able to improve on it.

But if that's the case then isn't taste really the only thing that matters? If everything is art, from the Mona Lisa to a pile of rotting garbage, then on what grounds beyond your own personal taste can you say that you think there's art in 4:33? I say I don't like it, you say you do, and beyond that what else can be said?
posted by sotonohito at 7:48 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, everything is art except video games. Ebert has decreed that. But everything else is art.
posted by sotonohito at 7:49 AM on April 29, 2010


sotonohito:

4'33" was followed up on.

People took the sonic consequences (hearing everyday sounds in a heightened state of attention) and applied that to composition. This takes various forms: environmental recordings, pseudo environmental recordings (creating soundscapes of the mundane sounds of imaginary or impossible places), industrial and noise where everyday nonmusical sounds take the place of pitched instruments, deep listening music, which is designed to facilitate the activity of having a long attention span and paying close attention to the sound around you. Each of these things has other predecessors as well, but the definitely have 4'33" as an important part of their frame of reference.

On the other hand, others took the performative consequences: the way that the piece was about the theater of the musician coming up on stage to perform. This led to happenings, performance art, the comedy experiments of Andy Kauffman (yes, really - Andy collaborated with the Fluxus folks, Cage was the godfather of Fluxus and his works were the canon on which Fluxus elaborated).
posted by idiopath at 8:12 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are real New Clothes, of course, but there are also frauds and no one will ever admit to being unable to see the fraudulent New Clothes.

There really are fewer frauds than you think. It is true what you say, that there are probably people with more money than taste/experience/whevs who are going to throw money at things without understanding them. But to be defrauded? It's not a big issue. Because those people you are talking about, they aren't anonymously buying avant-garde performance pieces from people they meet on the street. The 'piece' itself isn't important to them in that case - the culture and notoriety is what's important to them, as it has been important to patrons of the arts (both the well-informed and the, uh, less-well informed) from time immemorial. The culture and notoriety are very well understood and guarded by a different group of people, people who spend every minute of their lives thinking about, looking at, writing and reading about art, and those people are not going to be fooled. It is a weird, complicated system, but it works pretty well.

No doubt there are a few whales who overpay for lousy art, or who support people who aren't producing interesting thing, but that's more an issue of good/bad art, not an issue of art/not art. And, I think we can agree, there's no accounting for taste.

I guess it's possible that someone could spend a lifetime trying to defraud the art world from within, but that would be indistinguishable from art. It would be like building a functioning car from scratch only to say it wasn't actually a car. Well, fooled me?

I know many artists, some of whom make work that could easily be described as new clothesy and I guarantee you - they are absolutely sincere, are not trying to fool anyone, and they are not (HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!) getting rich.

Maybe I'm just not paying attention, but I've never seen art critics say "this is not Real New Clothes, this is a fraud, the so-called 'artist' is not producing art but rather is trying to rip people off."

Again, that's because it's very rare, and easily ferreted out.

Also, if fame and celebrity aren't factors, how is it that only the accepted High Artists have the ability to transform rotting garbage into million dollar art installations?

Fame and celebrity are certainly factors, but, you are really overestimating fame. Can you name ten famous, living artists? Maybe you can, but ask a person on the street, can they do it? There is an extremely shallow layer of 'fame' and fortune on the top of a deep pool of artists. Even mature, well-respected, successful artists (Rirkrit Tiravanija, say (who I mention only because he is a perfect example of the new clothes (in the sense that one could easily say 'that ain't art!', but it really is. Scout's honor))) are not at all household names. And surely, he is richer than me, but he isn't rich like any other type of celebrity.

The kid with innate talent - he really can play along and do OK, if by "do OK" you mean work really hard because you love doing it, and not make much money. That's what 99% of artists do. Your hypothetical million dollar garbage installation doesn't exist unless the artist has built up enough weight to be able to pull it off. It probably doesn't exist anyway, but for the sake of argument.

Of course, people do skate by on their laurels. I remember watching some older society looking women work their way through a print show, stop on a fugly print of a skunk and say, looking at the title tag: "Oooh look! It's Kiki Smith -- how fun!" which is markedly different than, "How fun! Oooh look - it's a Kiki Smith" but that happens with everything.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:49 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I note that there was no similar explosion of people moving into the conceptual space of "not playing instruments so as to get the audience to listen to ambient noise".

As idiopath mentioned, there actually has been HUGE conceptual influence. I just wanted to add that the conceptual space as you cast it above is not the conceptual space Cage was opening up. You are reading the work too literally and disregarding that it was created mid-20th century (which is enormously important in understanding its conceptual impact). Here is a little more of John Adams speaking on both the possibilities that Cage's work opened up for other composers (conceptually) as well as the limits of his influence:
Adams: Well, John Cage was an absolute original. He had a huge effect on me as a student partly because he was a renegade and a maverick. He questioned everything. That was like a tonic for me, because I was going to leave the East Coast and live with the Beatniks in San Francisco. Cage was an American contrarian like Thoreau or an abolitionist. In the end, I had to leave his aesthetic behind because I realized that Cage had no interest in music as a cultural form. He was interested in sound and in creating works that organized sound in certain ways. But he had no interest in culture as an ongoing organism. Cage couldn’t listen to jazz. He couldn’t listen to Mahler. His ear didn’t function that way or if it did he purposely pushed it out, because he didn’t want to have anything to do with that.

In a sense, I love some of his early pieces. His sonatas and interludes are beautiful pieces. I really love the crazy 60s assemblages, but he had no link to the past like Schoenberg did to Mahler and Wagner.
We can get stuck talking about 4' 33" specifically, but I find it ironic that many who hate that piece so strongly probably love music that is tonal, and has melodies and stuff like that (as most of us do); American composers very likely would not be writing primarily consonant, tonal(ish) music today if it were not for the pioneering, anti-establishment, windmill-tilting of a very brave John Cage (and a few others of course) in the 1940s and 1950s. If you hate 4' 33", again, fine. But I think it's important to at least understand and respect what that piece, and all of Cage's work, made possible--because it probably made possible some of the music you love today.

My art history professor friend defined art, in a very post-modern way, as "what people make", and while I don't like that sort of non-definition I've not yet been able to improve on it.

My favorite definition of music is Martin Mailman's: music is sound and silence, in time, with intent. (Even if the intent--as with some Cage--is non-intent. The absence of intention has to be as carefully cultivated as specific intention.) I don't mess around with the concept of "art" much (as in, what is or isn't), that concept hasn't had much currency in my day-to-day work so I rarely think about it. (It's hard enough making good music that will engage listeners without having to worry about whether I'm making Art or not.)

I say I don't like it, you say you do, and beyond that what else can be said?

Well, OK, I'll bite: I could say those are some compelling ideas in that piece, I'd never thought about music that way before; this piece has really changed the way I think about what listening means and what a concert space is; I'm so offended by this mis-definition of musical art that I'm going out to create something to assert what I think is important; I'm so inspired by this re-definition of musical art that I'm taking this idea and moving it in a new direction; wow, that piece was weird and confusing but somehow I feel different and sort of calmer after listening to it; and etc. etc. I could go on, but my god there certainly are loads more reactions and dimensions to a listening experience than mere liking or not liking. In fact, some of my favorite and most valued artistic experiences have been with works I actually disliked a great deal. I just think you're casting things too literally and one-dimensionally.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:49 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


LooseFilter: "I could go on, but my god there certainly are loads more reactions and dimensions to a listening experience than mere liking or not liking."

This.

As I have alluded before, we are too concerned with the question of liking or not liking things in the popular discourse around the arts. I could almost swear that some critics can't separate the concept of art from successful pandering any more. Yes you can pander to an audience and try to be as likable as possible and that can still be brilliant art. But please do remember that things that I don't like, even things that are fundamentally unlikable, can have meaning, for me, as art.

I have related this elsewhere but it seems relevant for this discussion: I had a friend who asserted that he was uninterested in music he liked. He had no need to make the music he liked because that music had already been made - how could he like it if it hadn't already been perfected? He already had records of the music he liked and he could put those records on whenever he wanted. He was interested in hearing and making the music he didn't like yet. That piece of music that could help him change the way he heard other music, that could teach him a new way to listen, that could surprise him.
posted by idiopath at 9:12 AM on April 29, 2010


sotonohito: Why are you so invested in trying to tear down the piece? You don't like it, fine, nobody expects you to. You don't think it's art, well, everyone's entitled to an opinion. But what's the point of the elaborate parables? You don't have to justify your lack of interest—you're part of the vast majority. I personally don't think any the less of you for not liking it or being interested in it (though you certainly seem interested in discussing it), and I'm pretty sure anyone who does think less of you isn't going to be persuaded to think otherwise by your parables. So why all the huffing and puffing? (N.b.: Not an attack, an honest question.)
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on April 29, 2010


idiopath & LooseFilter By "like" I meant "derive value from", or "appreciate in some way", not "found pleasurable".

languagehat Despite the appearnace that I'm trying to tear it down, honestly I'm trying to understand. I don't get it, and I'd like to.

No explanations for its importance or appeal that I've yet read make any sense whatsoever to me. Every guess I make as to its appeal ("its conceptual art?", "it's because music geeks are so filled with thoughts of sound all the time that being forced to listen to 'silence' is a revelation?") is wrong.

You, and the others, see music and more important you see significant, seminal, music worth listening too several times. I see a bunch of people sitting around hearing coughing and ventilation noise and getting excited about it.

No music I've ever listened to has involved anything even vaguely like 4:33, yet I'm told that all music I've listened to from the 1950's on is deeply indebted to 4:33.

My understanding of what it's even about is apparently dead wrong, according to LooseFilter, my understanding of the conceptual space Cage opened up is not even close to what the apparent reality is.

I don't get it, and that frustrates me, which I suppose is why I seem so hostile.

Since the first thread on 4:33 I participated in I've read about it, talked about it, and it still doesn't seem like I have even the faintest glimmering of understanding. Worse, it seems as if I understand less now than I did before.

I am interested in discussing it because I'm interested in the "what is art" type questions I suppose. As I said earlier, I've accepted the post-modern non-definition of art as "absolutely anything anyone anywhere anytime calls art", but I find it tremendously unsatisfactory and I suppose on one level I keep poking at it in hopes that I'll find something better.

Every now and then someone will publish a book titled "The Wit and Wisdom of X", where X is a celebrity, usually a politician. All the pages are, of course, blank. That I can get, it's a joke, not particularly funny but there is no mystery.

If someone published a novel, call it 400 Pages, and all the pages were blank, I could see it as art (bad art, stupid art, but art), but not a novel. If other people raved about it, said it was the most important novel of our modern era, explained how you couldn't understand it unless you gazed at each page for a minute or so before turning it, and went through all the pages that way, explained that it was seminal, that all novels after its publication were heavily influenced by 400 Pages, I could not be more confused than I am about 4:33.

If 4:33 is conceptual art, I get it. I'd think it was silly, but I'd get it. But no, I'm told that this isn't the case, that it really is music, and more important that it is the supremely important piece of music from the 20th century. And I don't get that at all. Everything I read about it makes no sense, and I'd really like it to make sense even if I don't like it.
posted by sotonohito at 12:57 PM on April 29, 2010


Everything I read about it makes no sense, and I'd really like it to make sense even if I don't like it.

I've always thought it was a kind of mild version of Gurdjieff's "Stop Exercise". His pupils would be laboring away on a construction or art project and he would suddenly yell "Stop!". Everyone would then immediately pause in mid-stream and try to become aware of themselves and the habituated postures they were in. It was a way to gain a kind of inner separation from the momentum that makes up every moment of daily life in order to understand one's internal mechanisms better. It certainly could be called extreme, and really shouldn't be undertaken. But, I think 4'33" is kind of like that. There's an absence of sound and activity where there is an expectation of something, and that can create a discomfort and tension. Rather than trying to resolve that tension with stimulation to follow, one can use that to have a look at one's own situation in a new way.

Now, 4'33" can represent something like the above, but all too often it is brought out as an avant garde stunt or something. It's probably not very useful to "perform" it in public anymore. But, I think that being aware of its implications can help artists look for ways to create situations that cause spectators to inhabit themselves in a different way than the trance-like consumption of most linear performances.

If someone published a novel, call it 400 Pages, and all the pages were blank, I could see it as art


A popular "sufi" from the previous generation already did something like that (I won't spoil it too much more by naming names). It was both seen as a sham and as a work of genius to liberate people from slavish reliance on books rather than personal experience. I saw it as a gimmick that conveniently achieved a bit of the latter.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2010


> honestly I'm trying to understand. I don't get it, and I'd like to.

OK, that's fair enough. And I don't mean to come across as a passionate defender of the piece; experiencing it once or twice is enough for me, and I doubt my life would be significantly lessened if I'd never even heard of it. To me it's a relatively minor but interesting bit of musical history. But I have no problem seeing why it's considered important, and it's interesting to me that you have such difficulty with that. For what it's worth, I don't think it's at all comparable to a book of 400 blank pages; for one thing, the essence of 4'33" is that it has duration, it takes up four minutes and thirty-three seconds of your life, whereas you can just flip through the book and toss it aside with a grunt in about two seconds. But music and literature are very different beasts and require different approaches to... whatever you want to call it... deconstruct them? Anyway, thanks for explaining; I see better where you're coming from now.
posted by languagehat at 2:58 PM on April 29, 2010


languagehat: "For what it's worth, I don't think it's at all comparable to a book of 400 blank pages; for one thing, the essence of 4'33" is that it has duration, it takes up four minutes and thirty-three seconds of your life, whereas you can just flip through the book and toss it aside with a grunt in about two seconds."

This is something I find interesting about a lot of conceptual writing. When you look at a book like this or this or even this, you can't read it the way you'd read a traditional book. But you also can't just treat it as a piece of visual art. It's somewhere inbetween, and that discomfort over how to actually read the thing becomes a central part of the book itself.
posted by roll truck roll at 6:32 PM on April 29, 2010


roll truck roll: Heinz Von Foerster once said "objects are tokens for eigen-behaviors". The short version of what I understand that to mean is that the significance of what an object is (in other words what we mean when we refer to the object) is oriented by the behaviors that we understand to accompany it.

Applying this idea to art leads to an anthropological idea of art that I think relates to what you are talking about: the important question is the kind of behavior, the kind of interaction with a reader, that the book facilitates. Rather than asking "is this art" "what this means" etc., you can ask "what relationship does this invite with an audience".
posted by idiopath at 8:47 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


And now I wake up in the middle of the night with an excruciating sinus headache and what I think might be a good explanation for the Von Foerster formulation I cite above:

You can look at the relationship between, for example, a human being and books, or a human being and music, as a flow of information over time.

The process involves a cycle:
  1. human engages in behavior which engages content
  2. human perceives content (aka senses)
  3. human registers content (aka assigns meaning)
  4. human adjusts the rules for steps 1-4
  5. jump to step 1
When one is young, step 4 is huge. It is the most significant step in the process.

If you chart the significance of step 4 over a human's lifetime, you would see a fluctuation with very high spikes of adjustment in the beginning, followed by longer and longer periods of smaller or no adjustment in step 4.

And at the same time you would see, each time the value of the changes in step 4 go through an increase / decrease cycle, an increase in the ratio of steps 3/2. That is to say that overall depending on the choices made in exposing oneself to new materials within the medium, the amount that is there to perceive eventually becomes fairly constant, and the the amount registered increments in a way that follows the spikes in level of activity in step 4.

What Von Foerster means when he says "eigen-behavior" is the stability (decrease in activity in step 4, decrease in the shannon measure of information provided in step transition 2->3) that arises from the recursion of that process. Eventually the process for taking in a piece of music abstracts itself and we say we "know what music is", because we have no more need of adjusting the process, and take in minimal information (ie. there is minimum information value in step 3 and near zero activity in step 4). The pleasure one finds in art can be attributed to experiencing this tension (not yet understanding) and adjustment (now understanding) over time, and a meta level in the increasing ease of that transition.

So, given this framework, we could say that the success of a given musical piece requires to varying degrees, a set of mutual understandings between the audience and the artist:
  1. how content is presented (including meta-information "the content has started")
  2. what is and is not part of the performance (what elements of the performance are meant to be "seen", and which "invisible")
  3. the presumed existing lexicon (other works that are presumed known, the conventions regarding the significance of an artist's choices)
  4. the presumed openness or closedness of this category of art objects.
There are a huge number of opportunities for a failure of communication to occur here, and it is a testimony to the immense processing power of human minds and the strength of our desire to engage one another that we put in the work needed to make this process work, both as artists and audience members.

So, to compare 4'33" to other things we also call music, we could generalize that it is much more reliant on agreement 1 (as others have pointed out, without that agreement being formalized and explicit, it is not accidentally discoverable like most music is). It intentionally fucks with agreement 2 (thus its power relies on a fairly solid understanding of that agreement, enough for a flexibility and fluency in it, and the listeners creativity to recognize and integrate a previously unknown mode of presentation). Agreement 3 is where pretty much all the content is with most music - and here 4'33" provides nearly none. As mentioned before as a human engages repeatedly in the cycle of engaging an artwork, step 3 gets amplified. So 4'33" relies here on having carefully listened to a large number and a large variety of previous performances. It also relies on first listening on a relatively very liberal openness in agreement 4, and if one counts on step 4 for its own sake (the "puzzle solving" model of enjoying avant garde art, where you would complain about a spoiler for a particular piece the way a lost fan would complain about hearing about plot twists in an unseen episode) - then the piece is ruined in terms of enjoyment value after the first experience.

And given that we find pleasure in that process of going from not understanding to understanding, 4'33" walks a much more dangerous tightrope than most works of art. First it runs the risk of not being perceived properly (threatening to not create the thing that would not yet be understood). Next it runs the risk of not being registered coherently (ie. finding no way of assigning meaning to the content). Finally it typically requires a huge output of energy for step 4. In a sense one could call it by analogy to the art of video games a "boss level" for music - something which takes immense amounts of preparation and work in order to be enjoyed, which is undertaken more for the future consequences (ie. the change of rules 1-3 that will heighten future appreciation of music) than for its own sake.

And, on a meta level it is extremely valuable because it is one of those few pieces of music that tells us a framework like the one I am laying out now might be necessary. One can have a simplified model of music where there is a strict identity between composer intention, and listener reception, one that ignores historical or cultural circumstances of reception. This is the standard model for describing and understanding music. But I would contend that a systems view like the one I roughly sketch out here is much more resilient, offers deeper insight into what music is and how it is enjoyed, and is capable of being a full superset of traditional music theory.
posted by idiopath at 2:09 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


It was an encounter with an anechoic chamber that was the genesis for 4'33":
From Rhode Island I went on to Cambridge and in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University heard that silence was not the absence of sound but was the unintended operation of my nervous system and the circulation of my blood. It was this experience and the white paintings of Rauschenberg that led me to compose 4'33", which I had described in a lecture at Vassar College some years before when I was in the flush of my studies with Suzuki (A Composer's Confessions, 1948), my silent piece.
Interesting read. I wasn't aware of the Buddhist connection before, but it makes sense.
posted by tellurian at 4:44 AM on April 30, 2010


Thanks a lot, idiopath. I enjoyed your comments a lot, and I clearly need to become more familiar with Von Foerster.

One thing I'd add - and this might be interesting to sotonohito and others looking for actual examples of how a piece like 4'33" informs work that comes later - is that now that the box has been opened, your step 4 plays a much more crucial role in absorbing many pieces of art than it did before the 20th century. (I might have said "all art," but I hesitate to use the word "all.") The way that you listen to and think about a piece like this is significantly different because of Cage, specifically in making the audience recognize duration as an artistic choice. Another piece of music of Feldman's - a 90-minute piano piece - has one rest that lasts nearly two minutes.

Robert Ashley is probably my favorite contemporary composer, and what I like about his work is that the "how you're supposed to listen to this" line is constantly moving. Is this experimental? Is this conceptual? Is this melodic? Is it aleatoric? Listening to his music is an act of continually renogotiating how you listen to and think about music.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:48 AM on April 30, 2010


I have had some trouble getting into Ashley's stuff myself - his use of narrating voices makes me feel like I am listening to a radio play or a movie soundtrack much of the time (I generally am not a huge fan of mixing music with language).

That description, that the "how you are supposed to be listening to this" line is moving, seems like it may be a key to better appreciating his music.

Now I am imagining a series of exercises for listeners - a postmodern analog for Bach's Piano Exercises, perhaps with a series of preparatory texts or images and music to accompany them, that would develop flexibility and attentiveness in listening.
posted by idiopath at 10:59 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


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