So Much to Listen to

Pick up a camera. Close your eyes. Spin around, and point the camera somewhere at random. Open your eyes and look through the viewfinder. Just as a thought exercise, think of the image you’re seeing as a work of art. Consider its composition, its shapes, how the things in the image relate to each other, however randomly placed.

Sometimes I will begin a new class by having the students be quiet and listen for four and a half minutes. I have them note down, quietly, a thumbnail description of every sound they hear. They hear stairs creaking, pianos playing in the music building, the scratching of pens, heaters humming. After the four and a half minutes is up, I tell them that they’ve just heard a performance of a famous piece of music, John Cage’s 4’33″. Sometimes they get very excited, and once a girl exclaimed, “I never realized there was so much to listen to!” The only negative comments I’ve ever gotten are along the lines of, “You mean, Cage got paid for doing that!?” I assure them he didn’t.

Contrary to some popular belief, 4’33″ is not four minutes of silence, nor four minutes of outraged audience protest: it is four minutes of unintended, accidental sound considered as music, a frame placed around a random set of noises. It shows the arbitrariness of how we decide to perceive something as art. It begins to attune us to our sonic environment, to disable the filters we keep in place to ignore our daily life. It is such a whimsical, wise, harmless, cheerful, edifying, non-commercial gesture. So I’m thrilled the BBC broadcast the piece over the radio (see the story here), and shocked that, 51 years after it became part of music history, there are still people who can think Cage was trying to pull something over on the world. What he was trying to pull over on you, mate, was your own damn life. Take a listen to it sometime.

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