close your eyes
[music, thoughts]


I have always taken for granted that John Cage's 4'33'' was a joke. The idea of a piece of music without any music just seemed like avantgarde arriving at its final point where it abolishes itself. After having read most of this longish essay on 4'33'' (discovered at popshots) I must admit that I was wrong. In the essay it says on the first performance of 4'33'' at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952 by David Tudor, a young pianist:

Tudor placed the hand-written score, which was in conventional notation with blank measures, on the piano and sat motionless as he used a stopwatch to measure the time of each movement. The score indicated three silent movements, each of a different length, but when added together totalled four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Tudor signaled its commencement by lowering the keyboard lid of the piano. The sound of the wind in the trees entered the first movement. After thirty seconds of no action, he raised the lid to signal the end of the first movement. It was then lowered for the second movement, during which raindrops pattered on the roof. The score was in several pages, so he turned the pages as time passed, yet playing nothing at all. The keyboard lid was raised and lowered again for the final movement, during which the audience whispered and muttered.

This account already shows what 4'33'' is about. It is not about silence at all but about its opposite. About noises. The roles of composer/performer and audience are kind of reversed. The audience (plus outside environment) make the "music". 4'33'' is the only piece of music which hands over the performance to the audience. That means of course that 4'33'' is totally different every time it is "played". It is unforeseeable which sounds the listeners will make. In a way it is the most democratic of all compositions. Cage says it better:

I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements and in all of the movements there are no (intentional) sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.

But there is another more profound experience behind this piece:

4'33", pronounced "four minutes, thirty-three seconds", (Cage himself referred to it as "four, thirty-three") is often mistakenly referred to as Cage's "silent piece". He made it clear that he believed there is no such thing as silence, defined as a total absence of sound. In 1951, he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in order to hear silence. "I literally expected to hear nothing," he said. Instead, he heard two sounds, one high and one low. He was told that the first was his nervous system and the other his blood circulating. This was a major revelation that was to affect his compositional philosophy from that time on. It was from this experience that he decided that silence defined as a total absence of sound did not exist. "Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot," he wrote. "One need not fear for the future of music."

Now this is fascinating. We cannot hear silence (even if it existed) as to be able to listen we have to live and to live our heart has to beat and beat is sound. We enter philosophical territory here. I'd like to quote an extreme point of view. Berkeley's subjective idealism says : "To be is to be perceived." From this follows that not to be perceived is not to be. What we cannot perceive simply does not exist according to Berkeley (he is a kind of doubting Thomas). Ok there are many things our senses cannot perceive but they are there. High frequencies for example. Our ears are not precise enough to hear those frequencies. But this seems to be a completely different problem. Which could be solved by widening the range of frequencies we can hear using transformation (or measuring) devices like radios for example. Not being able to hear silence as we always hear our pulse and nervous system is more like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which states (in layman's words) that you cannot observe something without changing that which you are observing. This is a fundamental dilemma.

Scientists tell us that there is silence in the space between the stars but this silence is meaningless if we cannot hear it. As meaningless as a God stuck in a black hole, a God whose existence or non-existence wouldn't have any effect on our lives.

People say that silence is unbearable. That it can be used as a torture. But that's rubbish. We can't hear silence. We always hear the rhythm of our body. Maybe this kind of feedback is unsupportable and kills us in the end. Maybe real silence would be wonderful, would be paradise. The torture actually consists in making us approach silence very closely without ever making us reach it. People subjected to this false promise of silence are driven crazy. By themselves.

Thanks to John Cage I now know an answer to the famous koan "What is the sound of one hand?". In the morning it would be the birds singing. In a stormy autumn night the wind blowing etc.

P.S. An afterthought which makes these ramblings rather dubious. What about deaf people? They should "hear" silence, shouldn't they?


The map is not the territory is Korsybsky´s statement.
The description of a tasting experience is not the experience itself.
Awareness is the key, but there´s nothing to be unlocked.

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writing about music is like dancing about architecture?
funny what stephen merritt (correct spelling?) of the magnetic fields said tonight on schwarzweiss. he thinks writing music (i think he meant the lyrics) and reviewing music is more or less the same thing. i am not sure if he was just referring to the simple truth that both sorts of writing are reactions to something which you experienced in your life.

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deaf people do "hear". at least, that's what some of them told me, and, spending some jolly good time with them, I happen to believe them.

have a look at

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that reminds me of blind people who can see colours. jacques lusseyran wrote about it.

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Two 4'33'' links

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last updated: 2/26/20 6:46 AM
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