Lecture @ NYU February 20th, 2021

Silence revisited: framing and re-framing John Cage’s 4’33” on YouTube

Just as John Cage was influenced by diverse and non-musical sources from Zen to Thoreau so did his creation of the silence piece (4’33”) have effects far beyond the world of classical music. Amateurs, pranksters, death-metal bands, architects, and students have embraced it, each finding their own meaning. Hundreds of these versions are available on YouTube, and have been a rich source in my recent research.

As part of my artistic practice, I have been attempting to unpack the ‘black box’ of Cage’s composition. In addition to performing the piece many times myself, I’ve analyzed many YouTube versions of Cage’s conceptual piece. Here are some of my favorites:

Thus I am exploring the markers for silence encoded within this subgenre: YouTube covers of 4’33”. The covers are recorded by professionals, amateurs, rock bands, rappers, individuals, groups, orchestras, and also non-human actors (cats, machines, ‘nature’). Each video contains overt or unconscious markers that represent boundaries for silence, and sometimes develop a visual or embodied importance which may seem unexpected in the context of silence’s ‘absence’. Spontaneous, controlled, or ritualized audience response can enforce, perpetrate or undermine the silence, but most interestingly, it can also frame it.

This confinement situations of the pandemic are extremely relevant to the videos of Cage’s silence piece. The aloneness of watching an online video, the restrictions imposed by the composer, the enforced silence/solitude, all speak to the isolation with which we are all struggling now. Plus they present situations of framing and re-framing which are rich in possibility.

For the purposes of this talk, I will define silence as a perceived absence in musical performance which nonetheless communicates additional information. My research draws on a re-examination of the frame (parergon) (Derrida); and also references Cage, LaBelle, Schafer, Voegelin, Gann, and Jankélévitch.

a classical performance by William Marx
John Cage talking about silence and music and noise
a funny parody – how to play it
David Tudor, who premiered the piece in 1952. This is a performance he gave later in Japan
“death metal” version

Dead Territory plays my favorite cover
Nola the cat
another cat, and a fridge
  • Questions we could ask about silence:
    • is there a performative stillness
    • are there colors?
    • are there signs?
    • are there symbols?
    • how do you show the absence of something?
    • can we SEE silence?
    • or do we HEAR silence?
    • are there markers or frames?
    • are there gestures or bodily poses?
    • how noisy/quiet is the silence?
  • about John Cage’s silence piece (four minutes and thirty three seconds)
    • 4’33”  is also called ‘tacet’, meaning ‘make no sound’
    • For four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist makes no sounds at all
    • Cage was trying to remove the composer’s ego from the process of composing
      • was he successful?
      • what about the performer’s ego?
    • what influenced the piece?
      • Rauschenberg white paintings, 
      • Marcel Duchamp, 
      • Dadaism, 
      • Zen
      • Japanese gardens
  • what’s the possible meaning of the piece?
    • No such thing as silence
    • Sounds are all around us
    • We should listen to them, appreciate them
    • Cage said: open your mind
    • new ways of experiencing music/sound/silence
    • elimination of the fourth wall
    • can we know what the piece’s meaning is?
    • does it change per performance?
  • Suggested reading list on silence
    • John Cage: Silence (this is the bible of John Cage fans – full of insight and anecdotes)
    • Kyle Gann: No Such Thing as Silence (Gann was head music critic for the Village Voice)
    • Salomé Voegelin: Silence and Noise (a modern take on sound art)
    • Douglas Kahn: Noise Water Meat (a controversial rebuttal of many preconceived ideas)
    • Film: Die große Stille (a mystical documentary about a french monastery)
    • Movie: The Sound of Noise (Swedish alternative detective movie, hilarious, cult)
  • Suggested listening list
    • Arvo Pärt
    • Meredith Monk
    • Hildegaard Westerkamp
    • Pauline Oliveros
    • medieval music of the école de Notre Dame: especially Leonin and Pérotin

Powerpoint slides from the zoom seminar