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Thursday, 8 September 2011

4' 33"

Listened to John Cage's famous piece, 4' 33", today on Spotify.

When I first heard about this piece, I thought it had a certain mathematical interest, for if you think of compositions as being ordered sets of notes, then this would be an empty set. The visual equivalent might be a TV program that showed a blank screen for its whole duration. That was when I assumed that 4' 33" would be four minutes 33 seconds of total silence. Far from it.

In fact, the subtlety of 4' 33" is that it has to be performed by a real life performer. Frank Zappa once covered it, for instance. Thus if you listen carefully, you can hear the creaks of the performer's chair, and maybe the odd clearing of the performer's throat. Presumably on live recordings there is audience noise to add to the interest.

I said I listened to it, but actually I gave up at 0' 28", faced with the prospect of wasting another 4' 05" of my life. I've just seen the piece referred to as 4' 33" - 3 parts: 30" / 2' 23" / 1' 40", so perhaps I should have soldiered on into part 2. However, I think I got the rough gist.

E F Schumacher's book "A Guide for the Perplexed" introduced me to the idea of "adequatio", meaning that sometimes you're simply not adequate to the task of appreciating something. It's a good concept to take to heart, and I can think of many examples of art that I initially couldn't see the point of, but now really enjoy; Jazz and Opera spring to mind. They didn't change: instead I became adequate to the job of listening to them.

In the case of 4' 33" though, I'm not sure if I will ever find myself adequate. Like the artists who works consist of piles of rubbish or unmade beds, I kind of feel that the only talent Cage needed to produce 4' 33" was the ability to keep a straight face.

Oddly, Spotify claimed the running time was 4' 39".