4' 33" Revisited

John Cage’s 4’ 33" is the kind of work that pretty much defines a composer to the general public, who have, for the most part, never heard the piece performed.

Today, L pointed me at this cool televised BBC Symphony performance of 4’ 33". The editing and camera work is just what I hoped for; most of the shots are standard symphonic close-ups of the different sections, and medium shots of the conductor, but the camera takes in just enough of the audience to help make sense of what Cage was really trying to achieve with the piece (contrary to how it is typically described, as “four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence”, 4’ 33" is really about the audience’s experience of sound in the absence of performance). I think it’s great documentation, and a great performance; if you’ve kind of skipped over 4’ 33", take some time to watch the video. The piece is more enjoyable than you might think.

The week I started college at Bard was the week John Cage died; as a result of that lucky chance (which would have delighted Cage, I imagine), the first week or so of my orientation to college life was filled with performances, readings, and quotes by John Cage. My professor in those first few days, Catherine Schieve, was part of Bard’s controversial Music Program Zero, and really took Cage’s death as a starting point for our Language and Thinking class. One of the first things she did was type out his quotes onto a sheaf of notecards and leave them on a music stand in front of MPZ’s cottage in the woods. We were all asked to go to the woods to pick up a quote after class one day and meditate on it (mine was “Refuse value judgments”, which is a great quote. Har, har).

All that exposure to Cage in my impressionable college-in-the-woods years has made me pretty tolerant to minimalism. Take with you this famous quote, and live by it (along with my value judgment mantra):

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” — John Cage, 1912-1992

tangentialism is David Yee!