Sunday Night Journal — June 27, 2004
Great IDea

20' 00", More Or Less

Sunday Night Journal — July 4, 2004

John Cage’s famous “composition” 4' 33" consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I’m told that he resented the people (of whom I am one) who assumed he intended it as a joke, and that he had in mind a perfectly serious exercise in listening. His intention was to provide an opportunity for people to attend actively to all the ambient sounds of their environment.

Insofar as I know anything of Cage’s ideas, which isn’t very far, I don’t much agree with them. I gather that he was concerned with breaking down what he viewed as an arbitrary line dividing music from all other sound, and that 4' 33" was part of that effort. But the invitation posed by 4' 33" is nevertheless very much worth accepting.

Last Saturday I had planned to wash the cars, but began hearing thunder, and went outside to check on the situation. The sky was indeed looking pretty dark over in the west. I would have gone back in, not at all displeased to have a reason to postpone the car-washing, but I heard the sound of something that sounded like a recorder or a penny-whistle—more woody than metallic, so I think it was the former. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the south, but that seemed impossible, as the nearest houses in that direction are too far away. Although our house is in a small town, it’s in an odd location, with a lot of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) swampy and wooded land around. It fronts on a little creek, beyond which is a stretch of woods that climbs a bluff-side for a couple of hundred yards, with the nearest house in that direction at the top of the bluff.

Wherever it came from, the sound of the flute was as sweet as it was unexpected. It was too distant for me to hear it clearly or to follow the tune it was playing, although I thought it might be something more or less Celtic. I sat down in the wooden swing in the front yard and for the next twenty minutes or so engaged in a Cagean exercise of placing my attention as completely as I could on the sounds and sights of the coming storm. Mobile Bay is a hundred and fifty yards or so to the west, beyond a line of trees, and the sound of wind and waves rose together, soon overcoming the small and distant sound of the flute. The thunder became louder and more frequent, the clouds black overhead. The temperature dropped several degrees within a few minutes. The tops of the trees swayed wildly and noisily. I expected at any moment to be drenched by rain, but the rushing sound just kept getting louder. At last a few large drops began to fall. Looking through the line of trees toward the bay, across the lot which my wealthy neighbor has converted into a playground for his children, I could see rain falling, but the wind was so strong and I was so sheltered by the trees that little of it reached me. I expected to be driven inside by the deluge which the storm must have borne, but it never came. We had only caught the edge of the storm as it drove past in a northeasterly direction.

Mr. Cage did have a point; on some mystical level the difference between music and mere sound may indeed become arbitrary, or at least indistinct. For some years now I have not been able to experience silence. I have tinnitis, generally described as a persistent ringing in the ears but more accurately a constant colorless tone that might be one of the overtones of the ringing of a small bell, somewhere around the 5000hz range. Sometimes it’s worse than others, and in general I haven’t found it terribly hard to live with, although I’m sometimes anxious that it may be a harbinger of worse hearing problems to come. At any rate the more quiet is my environment, the more noticeable is the tinnitis, and so it has had the effect of making me appreciate sound, almost any sound that is not actively unpleasant, even more than I always have. Someone (and if anyone knows who it was, please let me know) has said that in heaven all that is not silence is music. Or is it the other way around? No matter. I look forward to it eagerly, and will perhaps appreciate more than many the silence, which I imagine to be the aural equivalent of the perfect blackness we see between the stars.

Thunderstorm monitoring station


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I thought I had read all the old SNJs but apparently not. Your description of the incoming storm is wonderful. I love to sit on our porch swing (like yours but without the little table dividing it) when a storm is coming in.


That little table has cup holders in it. Seems like everything has to have a cup holder these days.

Glad you liked it.

The trees on the other side of the fence in that picture are gone now, thanks to the new house next door. But you wouldn't see the house, either, if you took a picture of that same view now--it's further back, and the space in front is just open, with a handful of cypresses. Which I have to admit is sort of nice.

My car (1992 model) does not have cup holders, and sometimes I really wonder how I find the strength to carry on. I guess it's only because I don't drink stuff in the car that often.

When we were in California, we could not find cupholders in the rental car. It drove me crazy. When we took the car back to the rental place, they showed us where they were.


Now that Felix is partly on bottles, I am really appreciating cupholders!

This was a great post, Maclin.

Thanks, Louise.

At one point I spent a fair amount of time with Cage's ideas & I think you've got 4'33" pretty much correct. He certainly did not intend for it to be a joke -- I think he did intend for it to be a kind of wake-up call for the notion that all sound is admissible as music. (I actually agree with that in principle, but in practice my definition of music is pretty the same as everyone else's.)

There's some nuance (and even contradiction) in Cage's own view, I think. I don't recall his exact position on recording, for example, but I know that he was pretty involved with managing recordings of his music, something you might not expect of someone with his aesthetic views. Also, a lot of people take 4'33" and Cage's ideas in general as saying "anything goes" which is definitely something he did not want. For example, just because all sound is admissible as music doesn't mean you can make funny balloon sounds during a performance of his music.

There's a video of a Q&A between Cage and some students at some college somewhere, not too long before his death. A student asks what Cage thinks the legacy of 4'33" was/is and how does Cage view the impact of the piece some 40 years after its premiere. In what I thought was a pretty poignant reply, Cage wondered whether "we might've ruined the silence."

Anyway, I think your experience with the thunderstorm was something he would've loved.

Actually, it was you who was doing the telling referred to in "I'm told..." in my second sentence, so I'm not surprised you think it's accurate.:-)

I'm fascinated by pure sound for its own sake, but (I'm sure we've discussed this before) I would reserve the word music for something that involves conscious organization of sound.

Ah, well. It's nice to find that I agree with something I said. :)

I had a couple of follow-up thoughts that touch on your last comment.

One -- I agree with the idea of music being the conscious organization of sound. Where Cage's influence comes in for me is in the idea that it's the listener doing the organizing. I think Cage himself would eschew the idea of "organizing" as being too ego-motivated (part of his aesthetic involved trying to take the ego out of composition), but I think it's useful.

[And of course that's not to say that the composer does not organize -- just that most of the time the composer & listener agree on key points regarding what's going on in the music.]

Another thing I thought was that it's actually not that much of a leap for a certain type of aurally sensitive person to begin to consider "noise" as music. This type of person -- who Cage actually talked about in general terms at one point -- notices lots of small sounds, and is at all (or most) times aware of what is happening aurally in the environment. Someone who is NOT this way would have a much more difficult time considering something that isn't a violin, or a guitar, or whatever, as producing music. I think perhaps Cage's message is more useful (and more revolutionary) for this latter type of person than the former.

I see the question of organization in a more philosophically realist way, although I'm not enough of a philosopher to use the terminology. I'd say that in a certain sense the composer discovers the organization, and the listener recognizes it. Not that I think every composition is a reflection of some archetype, but that it makes use of real though infinitely variable properties of sound.

My only disagreement with the point about considering "noise" as music is, again, that I don't think music is the right word for it. Worth listening to and meaningful, yes.

I had a terrible time finding this because I had forgotten that it was an old post.

My assignment for speech class this week is to go outside for 20 minutes and write down everything I hear.


Where will you be sitting?

On the chimney side of the house there is a nice spot in the middle of 3 trees.


That'll be fun.

Some of Takemitsu's music reminds me of this Cagian/Hortonian aesthetic: it is as though one is sitting somewhere - on a tree swing, maybe - and simply listening to the various sounds that drift by on the breeze. There's lots of colour, occasional rhythm, but little overarching, or undergirding, structure. I like Takemitsu very much. (More than I like Cage.)

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