4′ 3″

by Chris Bertram on January 16, 2004

“Chris Brooke reports”:http://users.ox.ac.uk/~magd1368/weblog/2004_01_01_archive.html#10742438267620365 that “BBC Radio 3″:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/3401901.stm are to broadcast a performance of John Cage’s 4′ 33” this evening. At the time of the “Mike Batt copyright row”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2002/07/20/do2002.xml&sSheet=/opinion/2002/07/20/ixopinion.html I recounted on my old blog that I had attended a school performance of 4′ 33″. We all sat completely silent. No-one coughed, no-one shuffled. At the end of the 4 minutes and 33 seconds the pianist turned and berated us for giving such a poor rendition of the Cage’s work. He explained that “the point” of the work is to attend to the sounds produced by a restless and impatient audience and that, by sitting so quietly, we had sabotaged the “performance”. What he didn’t know was that a week earlier, rowdy behaviour by boys during a lecture from an explorer recently returned from the Hindu Kush had been savagely punished by the headmaster — several boys were caned — as a result, none of us had dared to make a sound for fear of further beatings.



Jeremy Osner 01.16.04 at 1:45 pm

That explanation makes a radio broadcast of the work seem utterly ridiculous.


James Surowiecki 01.16.04 at 2:42 pm

I think it’s the pianist who should have been berated. The “point” of 4’33” (though I think Cage would have been unhappy with the whole idea of a work having a “point”) was surely for people to hear whatever they heard in those 4 minutes and 33 seconds as “music.” You hear a silent room just as much as you hear a room in which people are coughing and shuffling. (Cage’s most famous collection of lectures and writings is called “Silence,” after all.) So the kids did fine. I wish you had booed the insufferable piano player off stage.


TomD 01.16.04 at 3:21 pm

Or do you mean piano non-player?

The funny thing is, if I were to listen in on the World Service all I would hear would be short wave interference.

Cage was an excellent self-publicist, if nothing else.


J. Ellenberg 01.16.04 at 3:44 pm

There was an interesting comment this morning from a technical person at the BBC who explained that the usual fail-safes had to be manually disabled; ordinarily more than a few seconds of silence on the BBC triggers an emergency recording.


Rv. Agnos 01.16.04 at 3:51 pm

“the usual fail-safes had to be manually disabled; ordinarily more than a few seconds of silence on the BBC triggers an emergency recording.”

But isn’t the emergency recording exactly what you SHOULD be hearing on the radio broadcast? Isn’t not allowing us to hear the emergency recording the same as yelling at kids for being too quiet?

If we can’t hear the emergency recording, what’s the advantage of listening over the radio, rather than being there live?


Ophelia Benson 01.16.04 at 5:24 pm

Yes this was discussed on Front Row the other day too, with the conductor. Quite amusing. Mark Lawson asked him if he was going to listen to recordings of the piece, the conductor said something like ‘Of course not, let’s not get silly.’

That piano player had a hell of a nerve! The audience didn’t even have a score, am I right? How are they supposed to know where to cough?


Kriston 01.16.04 at 5:39 pm

It seems that a room cowed to a creepy silence by situational anxiety, rather than a noisy silence for no reason, seems to contextualize Cage’s piece rather than limit it.


Ophelia Benson 01.16.04 at 7:24 pm

Ah, good point. Perhaps if one listened very hard, one could hear the faint background hum of the fear of a beating.


zizka 01.16.04 at 8:08 pm

I can’t find the link, but the Cage estate sued someone for royalties who inserted a minute of silence into a piece (crediting Cage). I believe that the defendant then wrote silent pieces entitled 4’32” and 4’34” and copyrighted them.


Matt 01.16.04 at 8:22 pm

‘Caned for rowdyness’… Ah, this sceptred isle..


Dan Simon 01.16.04 at 8:30 pm

Perhaps the pianist’s tirade was a cadenza?


John isbell 01.16.04 at 9:57 pm

Is the piece scored for piano or piano and audience? If the former, he doesn’t seem to have a leg to stand on, and he is (or was) a dick anyway, though it’s a cute musical lesson to tell the audience what you thought of their performance afterward, not how bad it was.
Beckett flew to Florida to prevent a performance of Godot starring Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) with Estragon as his straight man. Beckett just didn’t get it. He can have total control over his work by keeping it in his desk drawer. Nobody will mess with it. Plus, it’s vaudeville for God’s sake. There, I’ve just set Beckett straight about his most famous play. What else have we got?


Peter Murphy 01.17.04 at 7:23 am

4′ 3″ is ok, but I prefer the 12-inch remix: 7′ 24″.


msg 01.17.04 at 9:02 am

13 comments and nobody tangents on the caning.

How about a piece in two parts? First a cover of Cage’s piece, with a fresh and as-yet unbeaten and un-threatened classroom of “normal” and restive schoolboys. Fidgets and whispers, coughs and sighs.
Then four minutes thirty-three seconds of boys being caned. Or beaten. Whipped. Whatever it’s called.
That begging squeal the weaker ones give off, the stiff grunts of the stoic…


peter 01.17.04 at 11:45 am

What are the implications from a copyright perspective of the John Cage piece? Does this mean that any work that incoprporates silence into its presentation risks impinging upon Cage’s primary use of silence in a creative work?


Epacris 01.17.04 at 1:17 pm

The current ‘guardian’ of Beckett’s estate – I can’t remember if he is a grandson or nephew or what – was upset at last year’s Sydney Festival interpretation of Waiting for Godot, and nearly banned its being performed that way.
I think he objected to a short piece of background music. There was quite a discussion about legitimate interpretation of artistic works & so forth at the time.
We are in the middle of this year’s Sydney Festival at the moment, but nothing quite so exciting so far.


Dedman 01.18.04 at 4:12 am

Does any one remember hearing about a lawsuit over this work? I seem to remember something about another performance artist being sued for silence or something because Cage did it first? Or did I just imagine that?


Sean M. Burke 01.18.04 at 9:45 am

Greetings Internet friends! I regale you with this 39-byte long MIDI file of the Cage piece. (Click on my name here.) INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ISN’T ANY.

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