Thursday, December 16, 2010

Silent night (4'33" version)

This year's Christmas-music sensation may turn out to be "4'33"," John Cage's 1952 composition/contrived episode in which one or more performers make no intentional sound for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is to induce the listener to focus on ambient or environmental sounds that ordinarily go unnoticed.

In Britain, a "Cage Against the Machine" campaign may make a "4'33" " session by leading pop musicians into the country's No. 1 Christmas single, and the movement is going viral online, the Los Angles Times' Mark Swed reports:,0,1948849.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/entertainment/news/arts+(Los+Angeles+Times+-+The+Arts)

Sign me up.

The longer I've spent listening to music professionally, the more I've valued silence, both within a piece of music – as Artur Schnabel famously observed, "the spaces between the notes" are essential components in a piece of music – and in lieu of music. If musical sound is constant, music ceases to be special; it's no longer a work of art to be appreciated, but a background noise to be tolerated (or not).

A few years ago, I stumbled into an experiment in music deprivation. During a weekend of household chores, I spent 48 hours without exposure to music. After this unintentional fast, the first music I heard – keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, as it happened – absorbed and delighted me as no music had for a long time.

I subsequently tried to repeat the experiment with a music-appreciation class at the University of Richmond. It failed: None of us could escape musical sound for more than a few hours. Doing so, we concluded, would require sequestration in a soundproof room.

Still, even an unsuccessful effort to avoid exposure to music can enhance subsequent musical experience. You find yourself listening, rather than just hearing.

Four minutes and 33 seconds isn't a long enough stretch. But it's a start.

POSTSCRIPT: Composer and new-music maven Reinbert de Leeuw performs "4'33" " on a prime-time (!) Dutch telecast:

(via Norman Lebrecht)