Sometimes it does seem nowadays that the most popular composer of the 20th century is John Cage – and  specifically his iconic composition 4’33 ». Every so often you see references to that work, especially as a code or symbol for everything which might have to do with nothingness, silence, emptiness, arbitrariness, zen, the degree zero of composing or plain charlatanism. That’s a pity, because 4’33” is a well-considered composition, and the concept of silence that it stands for can be an interesting metaphor to think about societal or problematic situations.

John Cage (1912-1992) was a US American writer, visual artist, performer, mycophile. He also called himself an anarchist, but above all he was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, due to his ideas and practices of diversity and non-hierarchy in music. A major part of his work has to do with the destruction of established definitions of ‘music’. In 1955 he wrote: “Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” So, from then on he would decide upon the form of a composition, but what the audience would hear in the end would be predominantly dependent on contingencies, such as the number of executors, the instruments chosen or the personal interpretation by the musician of graphic scores – and, of course, the characteristics of the listeners themselves. As a composer, Cage shaped procedures that excluded the possibility to define beforehand what would be heard or what would be music. Any sound could become music, if an audience listened to it as such. Any sound was worth to be heard, and silence was then not only a musical element, but pre-eminently a means to leave the contents of music open. To do this, he wanted to exclude as much as possible human intentions from his – and the listener’s – music. Since the 1950’s, most of his composer’s work consisted of the finding, through methods based on contingency, of procedures to produce or accept the sounds of a composition.

Nothing of ‘art as the deepest expression of the artist’s deepest emotions’. Within the substantively empty form Cage composed, everything could happen. This realisation came to him in 1951, when he entered an anechoic room in order to experience real, absolute silence. « It was after I got to Boston, that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story, I’m constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds: one high and one low. Afterwards I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds? He said: describe them. I did. He said: the high one was your nervous system in operation, the low one was your blood in circulation. » It was then he realized silence is not nothing; it is the totality of non-intended sounds.

His most emblematic piece in this sense is 4’33”. According to the note John Cage hand-wrote in the score published by music publisher Peters: “The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance at Woodstock, N.Y., August 29. 1952, the title was 4’33” and the three parts were 33’, 2’40”, and 1’20”. It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, who indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening the keyboard lid. After the Woodstock performance, a copy in proportional notation was made for Irwin Kremer. In it the timelengths of the movements were 30”, 2’23”, and 1’40”. However, the work may be performed by any instrumentalist(s) and the three movements may last any lengths of time.” For each movement, the instruction is: tacet.

Since the instruction to the instrumentalists is to remain silent, the audible result of the composition consists of the amalgam of sounds each individual listener experiences during those four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The tacet of 4’33” and the simultaneous acknowledgement of all audible sounds within that period of time do not equal pure or absolute arbitrariness. Indeed, only the sounds that occur between the beginning and the end of the performance are constitutive for the composition. The content is what happens between the procedural contours, and only that; there is no free improvisation either, since the contours of the composition have been rigidly worked out.

Cage recalls the origins of the composition in his own edition of a discussion in 1988 (for the benefit of the reader I have put slashes between Cage’s words and the audience’s remarks):

“when i wrote 4’33 » i was in the process of writing the music of changes that was done in an elaborate way there are many tables for pitches for durations for amplitudes all the work was done with chance operations in the case of 4’33 » i actually used the same method of working and i built up the silence of each movement and the three movements add up to 4’33 » i built up each movement by means of short silences put together it seems idiotic but that’s what i did i didn’t have to bother with the pitch tables or the amplitude tables all i had to do was work with the durations / then it was a very spontaneous creation / i don’t think that in this kind of work that spontaneous is the word i didn’t know i was writing 4’33 » i built it up very gradually and it came out to be 4’33 » i just might have made a mistake in addition / i was thinking of like whimsical or something maybe rather than spontaneous / what were you thinking about / kind of whimsical i mean in other words / oh was it a joke you mean / yeah i mean like at six o’clock that evening of the night that you created it were you thinking that tonight i’m going to create a new piece or did suddenly / no no it took several days to write and it took me several years to come to the decision to make it and i’ve lost friends over it ».

Silence is an element in Cage’s continuous exploration of indeterminacy and non-intention and the refusal of hierarchy in sounds. “Now, an indeterminate piece, even though it might sound like a totally determined one, is made essentially without intention, so that, in opposition to music of results, two performances of it will be different.” If there is an intention at all in non-intentional music, then it is situated on a meta-level: to make clear to the listeners that the hearing of the piece is their own action, that the music is theirs, rather than the composer’s or even the performers’. The paradox of intention and non-intention is what makes Cage’s silence fit as a metaphor for an anarchist or abolitionist way of dealing with problematic situations. It is a metaphor that acknowledges or even stimulates complexity, diversity, self-regulation … because of course there is an intention to give the final responsibility to the parties involved (the listener), but there is no intention to prescribe what these parties should do (hear). It emphasizes procedure and not content, it is a movement in composition away from structure and into process. And he used to refer to Thoreau: “That government is the best, which governs not at all.”

All this doesn’t mean that processes in one situation or the outcome of actions cannot be laid down as ‘good practices’. Cage described how sometimes he wrote the score of a piece a posteriori, after it was performed. “…, that changes our idea of what a score is. We always thought that it was a priori and that the performance was the performance of a score. I switched it completely around so that the score is a report on a performance.” A specific procedure that has been chosen and followed by parties at one time in one situation and its outcome can be reported as a ‘score’ fit for interpretation in another context.

It is not unusual in legal literature to relate to the arts, or specifically music. The common ground of these two fields is hermeneutic: application or presentation is fundamental for the interpretation and understanding of what law, resp. music is. The sense of as well law as music is determined by the process of executing the original ‘text’ (be it a legal rule of a musical score). And so, there is good reason to think that the artistic model of music might be profitable for juridical interpretation, and vice versa.

John Cage himself was aware of the metaphorical potencies of (his) music. In 1958, talking about ‘the future of music’, he referred to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg and his method of composing, which is “analogous to modern society, in which the emphasis is on the group and the integration of the individual in the group”. And some thirty years later, he said/wrote:

“i think one of the things that distinguishes music from the other arts is that music often requires other people the performance of music is a public occasion or a social occasion this brings it about that the performance of a piece of music can be a metaphor of society of how we want society to be though we are not now living in a society which we consider good we could make a piece of music in which we would be willing to live i don’t mean that literally i mean it metaphorically you can think of the piece of music as a representation of a society in which you would be willing to live and i would prefer to live in a society without a president (…) i have just finished my piece for the boston symphony seiji ozawa asked me if i would write a 12 to 15 minute piece but as he asked me to do it i said there won’t be any conductor he very beautifully said it’s not important whether there’s a conductor or not the important thing is the music i was delighted to hear him say that and i’ve written into the work that it shall not be conducted but that the conductor shall coach the musicians during rehearsals”.

Of course there are problems and pitfalls if one wants to use Cage’s concept of silence as a metaphor to deal with societal situations. The first and most obvious is the question who will be the composer, i.e. who will define the limits of the temporary system and the procedures to follow within these contours (the composition)? And not less important, the critique expressed by Deleuze and Guattari, but even so by Cage’s friend and colleague  Christian Wolff, about risking the loss of distinctiveness or discernability of events, if one allows all kinds of material and interruptions to happen within the contours one has set.

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