Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 4 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I’m going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage’s 4’33” as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that ‘always renewed itself’. I don’t know if he’s right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

I can’t remember now if I found out after this or before it about a campaign to get 4’33” to Christmas number one in the UK. In a nod to ‘Killing in the Name’ having achieved the same feat last Christmas, in our era of musical downloading, the campaign is entitled ‘Cage Against the Machine’.

It is interesting to think about what it means for a piece originally experienced by a crowd gathered in the same room as the musicians to become a downloadable audio file, and what it would mean for that audio file to be number one at Christmas.

A huge amount of the music that we listen to is created and recorded in the knowledge and with the intention that it will be heard by individuals, or small groups thereof, on their radios, or stereos, or personal stereos (to use that slightly antiquated term), at home, at work, or on the move. The amount of attention given to and respect afforded the music will vary, but the fact will remain that it is a recording to be switched on and off at times convenient to the listener, and that it is received in spaces which do not have the sole purpose of housing musical performances. In this sense, even though recorded music is a record of a performance, it is more like a book – a personal object to be picked up and put down at will – than a theatrical performance – which one must attend and which has a set performance time and duration, and which cannot be stopped at will by any individual audience member.

It is a less unproblematic transition if the recording is of a piece of music originally written to be performed to a gathered and present audience. 4’33” highlights this troubled transition to an unusual degree. All music written before the age of mechanical reproduction was not written to be reproduced outside of the occasion of the original creation of the sounds we hear, so all the music composed by, let’s say, Vivaldi, undergoes a change when it is made available to us via the medium of the compact disc recording. However, when I listen to Vivaldi, I am not particularly troubled by this fact. What’s more, the recordings I have were performed to be recorded, much like contemporary popular music. That was the purpose of the performance, even if the piece was not originally composed with such a possibility in mind. We are not ‘overhearing’ a performance to a gathered audience (although of course there are recordings which fall into that category).

It is strange to put it in these terms (conceptual art will often lead us to strange formulations of our experience of less experimental material), but when I hear Vivaldi, or Springsteen, then the sound of strings on the one hand or an electric guitar on the other provides the evidence, if you like, that such instruments were present at the recording, and created the sounds that I hear. I was not present at the event, but its traces are preserved to some extent (even if I cannot be sure in some cases whether what I am hearing is a synthesised equivalent, or whether all the elements I am hearing were created simultaneously – sometimes, as when Marvin Gaye double tracks his own voice, to wonderful effect, on What’s Going On – I can be sure they were not).

But with 4’33″… the silence means that the instruments are not proving their presence in the same way. (Again, a strange formulation, though it does point towards the pleasure of anticipation when we know that there is a saxophone in the E Street line-up but haven’t heard it yet on this or that track, or that of surprise when an instrument we did not know would be contributing to this particular piece makes itself heard.) Indeed, one could create four minutes thirty three seconds of silence with no instruments whatsoever. In a performance space, the presence of a latent piano, or full orchestra, is an important part of the experience. What about during the production or reception of four minutes thirty three seconds of silence on a CD, or a digital audio file? (It is worth noting parenthetically that 4’33” consists of three movements, and some cd and digital versions honour these divisions, but the Christmas number one candidate is a single track.) (I hope it is unnecessary for me to explicitly state that I am not attempting to dismiss Cage’s work with one of the most common arguments levelled against ‘modern art’ – ‘I could do that myself’ – even if in this case it is partly true.)

The Christmas campaign is valuable in that it can help to remind us that not every artistic experience can be bought and taken home without destroying the original meaning of that experience. It is a challenge to the ‘platform neutrality’ of the contemporary consumer.

It is also something more. When I pay good money to play on a jukebox songs that I have on cd at home, I am partly paying for the pleasure of making other people listen to what I want them to listen to. ‘Cage Against the Machine’ and last year’s campaign represent this logic writ large. Those who download this piece will not just (and perhaps not chiefly) be buying the track itself and the experience it offers. They are, of course, casting a vote for what they want everyone who is going to listen to the Christmas number one on radio or television to hear (and also for what they don’t want everyone to hear: The X-Factor is the object being protested against by some who support the campaign).

This does not quite take us full circle, but it does reinscribe the situated social occasion of listening so crucial to the original meaning of 4’33”. We may not have the latent instruments in the same room as us, but on Christmas Day, the track will exist not just as an audio file for us to treat as we will, but as a broadcasting event, part of the meaning of which is the fact that we are all listening together.

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One thought on “Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

  1. Pingback: The weight of the past | Between Sympathy and Detachment

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