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  • Writer's pictureTOM HENDY


Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Time for my mini-post and I'm going vastly off-topic from my usual theme but this really struck a chord with me (pun intended).

I am currently taking a short course in Philosophical Aesthetics and really enjoying the content so far but I have to say the most entertaining part is the characters on the course itself and their odd comments. Today was no exception. As a talking point we were discussing John Cage's 4'33'', now I'd imagine that most of you are familiar with this but for those who aren't it's basically a neo-dada piece which sits awkwardly in between music and art and is well known for provoking controversy along with Duchamp's "Fountain" and Rauschenburg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing", a piece that was likened to vandalism for having painstakingly erased the oil, charcoal and pencil of a De Kooning that was considered a masterpiece of the Abstract Expressionist movement (below I have embedded a short video of Rauschenberg discussing the story of how the whole thing came about which includes a rather amusing tale involving a bottle of Jack Daniels). Rather than being 'normatively' beautiful in itself, the piece is targeted more at challenge the conception of Art. This all sounds quite fancy but basically its 4'33'' of complete silence. Or so I thought.

Growing up before the internet, I have formed some very ill-founded assumptions based on the fact that I forget that modern technology hasn't been around forever and people actually couldn't dial up a friend for a chat, watch a YouTube video or even play on the 'Draw Something' app of their brand new iPhone. So I foolishly thought that the John Cage piece was just a track on a CD that lasted 4'33'' and there was clearly no point in experiencing this because it was completely conceptual.

It was quite the revelation when I saw 4'33'' being performed. Here it is, enjoy:

Whilst this video was being played in my aesthetics class, the other members couldn't help but laugh, scowl, guffaw and show their abject disapproval of this 'charade' and honestly, I was shocked. I thought it was amazing and I'll tell you why.

For me, the very idea that people turned up, sat through and participated in hearing the piece is interesting enough, did you notice how all the conventions of seeing a concert were adhered to, people still coughed in the intervals between the movements, gave a tremendous applause at the end and remained silent throughout. Their mutterings and coughs and the sounds of the movements became the piece that they were there to hear.

A fellow student, outraged that we were still discussing 4'33'' said "I just think it's absurd, we are talking about nothing, there is no object, no music to discuss". Yet we were discussing it, we were determining whether this is a serious piece, made slightly more troublesome by the false but charismatic antics of an overly theatrical conductor. Is this exactly what John Cage is trying to do, to spark a reaction and challenge what we consider to be an object, to be music. He claims that sounds, noises have pitch, rhythm, volume and tempo and that they, in themselves are music. John Cage tried to experience silence and said that he failed, despite going into a soundproof room and trying not to move, he could still hear his breath, his blood flow.

Here he is discussing silence (he does start talking to his cat at one point...):

I know that the atmosphere that would be created in go to see a concert playing 4'33'' would be electric, for some reason it just seems quite exciting to me. Others vehemently disagreed.

But what do you think, is silence golden? Or is this all just pretentious nonsense.

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