After posting last week about Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, I find myself Jonesing to hear the piece. I’m at the office and my CD’s are resting quietly at home, as CD’s are wont to do. Nothing matches live spatial music concert hall performances of The Unanswered Question, in which the various instrumental voices are scattered around through the performance space in balconies and wings and such, making a call-and-response effect that can’t be caught on two-channel stereo. But still. I hanker.
Google brings me soon enough to the Smooth Channel in the listening room of American Mavericks, a wonderful radio series on modern music (hosted by Suzanne Vega). The Smooth Channel won’t cough up my Ives — I think it had just gone past in rotation — but there’s plenty of stuff that’s either invisibly ambient or done in the kind of twisty sonics that bleach cubicle walls whiter and make the computer clench its teeth. This is just fine for an afternoon in the middle of One Of Those Days At The Office™.
So I’m reading and typing along, not paying much attention to the music, when I notice that the speakers have gone silent and I’m typing without accompaniment. A quick click over to the playlist, and … yep. They’re playing 4’33″ by John Cage.
4’33″ is Cage’s “silent piece,” in which a pianist opens the piano and sits in front of it without playing. It’s a tremendous subversive thought experiment in some ways, and in others it’s a delightful lesson in listening; the piece famously shifts the focus of the performance from the notes set down by the composer to the layers and rhythms and natural flow of ambient noise we don’t usually hear, until someone does something as pointed as sitting in front of a piano and not playing it.
I’ve never actually seen 4’33″ (the piece runs precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds, thus the title), and of course the funny thing is you really can’t just do it yourself at home; it’s as much about power structures and cultural dicta as it is about preordained sound. On the radio, it’s strange and ballsy and as foolish as it is strong.
I zap out emails to Pierre and to my friends Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart of Polygraph Lounge (and most recently of the Simon & Garfunkel band as well — some pop act, so I hear). Mark and Rob are brilliant musicians, and of a po-mo classical bent when they bend that way. Hilarity ensues.
Pierre: How was the sound quality, then?
Linus: Well, you know, it was an mp3 stream, so it sounded all compressed and brittle.
Rob: Was it up to tempo? Is there an extended play version?
Linus: Perish forbid. This was the radio edit…
Mark: So, if 4’33″ is performed in the forest and no one is there to hear it——does it make a sound?
Linus: I think you’d have to ask the forest…
- Here’s a web-based performance of 4’33″, though you will have to time it yourself.
- Here are several other 4’33″ performances which solve the mp3 compression problem by not giving you sound in MIDI, Ogg Vorbis, Sun .au and WAV formats.
- The Wikipedia entry on Cage has much to contribute.
- Josh Ronsen has a vast set of recently-updated John Cage links.