App Inspired by John Cage's 4'33" Invites Us to Discover the Music of the Present Moment
The John Cage Trust has presented an app that allows us to reflect through practice on the central ideas of 4’33’’, the American’s best known piece.
I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I needed it.
4’33’’ is probably John Cage’s best known score. Whether this is fair or not, is irrelevant: it simply is. Cervantes used to think his best work was Persiles, but he is most praised by Quixote. Freud’s greatest work according to himself was Three Essays on Sexual Theory, which seems to lag behind The Interpretation of Dreams.
Perhaps Cage faced a similar situation. Perhaps his catalogue has more ambitious pieces (Concert for piano and orchestra, or Variations I-IV), however the world will remember him for his adventurous explorations into the impossibility of silence in music. In a way, that is what is being recognized: the vanguard effort, the synthesis of concepts (from Buddhism to compositional tradition of the West), the subtle irreverence, intellectual stimuli of those who prefer to ask questions instead if offering answers.
In a new approach to 4’33’’, the John Cage Trust recently launched an app for iPhone and IPod inspired less on the piece itself and more on the idea it bears, its meaning, and the fortuitous sound that is the star of the musical “composition”. For a period in his career (around 1950), Cage experimented with randomness as a tool for creation. His proximity to Zen Buddhism, his aspiration to create a piece where the “I” was non-existent, his study and practice of I-Ching and the inclusion of computers in compositional work, among other circumstances, led him to find that randomness was a resource that enabled him to achieve what he wanted, but also it means that every time a piece is executed, in a way it is also freed from its author and his control.
4’33’’ is a piece about silence, yes, but which eventually unveils the impossibility of the absence of noise as an absolute reality. In this video, for example, where David Tudor, one of Cage’s closest friends, pianist and composer, interprets the piece, we can hear the mumbling of the audience and coughs. In a different interpretation we can even hear laughter.
According to an anecdote, before he composed 4’33’’, Cage entered the anechoic chamber that is still at Harvard University. The composer had recently returned to the United States after having spent a season in Japan, where he frequented the magisterial of a Zen monk. Within this place —which absorbs all sounds because of its structure, avoiding any propagation of sound waves and reducing their frequency to an average -9 decibels—, there was a moment when Cage realized that even there he could hear a couple of sounds, a high pitched one and a low one; when he exited, he asked one of the engineers about the sounds, which were simply the usual functions of the nervous system and their blood flow, irrefutable proof that he was alive. Cage realized that silence was impossible and, perhaps what is more important, that the sounds of the world and of life are another form of music.
This is the intention of the aforementioned app. For starters, it allows the user to listen to babies crying on a street in Tokyo, or the chaotic noises of a Parisian kitchen where dinner is being prepared. In turn, there is a second option that enables the user to take more personal approach to 4’33’’, by recording sounds that coincide with this lapse and sharing them later through the johncage.org site. As you can see, this last alternative can be more interesting, since almost as a Zen exercise, we are encouraged to pay attention to the present moment in order to understand its fleeting nature, but especially, its randomness.
In the first conversation he had with Daniel Charles, originally published in French under the title Pour les oiseaux (For the Birds), Cage made a statement that would define 4’33’’ and other pieces like 0’00”, from a wide perspective, as the artist’s personal project, a glimpse into the search he embarked on while seeking the absolute as a form of transformation.
Yes, we must stop being inflexible in the face of change. That is my experience: it is sufficient to listen to the sounds around me. They change. If I hear those sounds wherever I am and if among them there is one which I do not like or if it is not good for me —if this is a sound that I would have preferred didn’t exist, didn’t survive—, this concept of preference, as you may see, is illicit to a certain degree, because the truth is that the sound did emerge.
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