Where Cage Failed…

Whether this is on the level I can’t vouch, but inevitable it surely was. A press release making the rounds on the web (here and here, for instance) claims that a conceptual artist named Jonathon Keats has made Cage’s 4’33” into a ringtone. (After all the goddamned ringtone advertisements that internet robots have tried to post on this blog as comments, I can’t even believe I’m mentioning this.) I consider cellphones an evil technology, and won’t have one: no one answers them, they go off at inappropriate times, they’re a sonic nuisance, their batteries run down and when they don’t you’re out of range anyway, if you hang somebody people use them to photograph it, they’re easy to lose and losing them’s a tragedy – and most of all, I’m already easier to contact than I like being. But, a silent ringtone? What’s funny is the claims trumpeted for the device, which, even in this modest context, can only be called grandiose:

Since the beginning of time, pure silence has been available only in the vacuum of space. [???] Now conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has digitally generated a span of silence, four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length, portable enough to be carried on a cellphone. His silent ringtone… is expected to bring quiet to the lives of millions of cellphone users, as well as those close to them.

“When major artists such as 50 Cent and Chamillionaire started making ringtones, I realized that anything was possible in this new medium,” says Mr. Keats, whose previous art projects include attempting to genetically engineer God. “I also knew that another artist, John Cage, had formerly tried, and failed, to create a silent interlude.”

Mr. Cage once famously composed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which was performed on a piano, in front of a live audience, back in 1952. By all accounts, though, his silence was imperfect, owing to the limitations of the technology available at the time. “John Cage can’t be blamed,” says Mr. Keats. “He lived in an analog age.” [emphasis added]

This kind of reminds me of Monty Burns about to engulf Springfield in perpetual darkness: “Since the beginning of time, mankind has yearned to destroy the sun!” There are many other comments one could make, but the reader can supply them as well as I. (Thanks to Brian McLaren.)


  1. brent says

    Thank god! Someone has finally accomplished where Cage failed (it wasn’t his fault, living in an analog world after-all). M. keats will be remembered forever for this.
    Let’s just cross our fingers and hope he gets sued ala Mike Batt from a few years ago.

  2. Paul H. Muller says

    I agree about cell phones: why be more available than absolutely necessary? My kids, however, seem have their cell phones hardwired into their brain and I envy their mastery of them.
    This ringtone news release reminds me of a story I once heard: Just before performing Cage’s 4’33”, a famous British conductor was said to remark “I wonder who gets the royalties on this one?”

  3. says

    If you don’t like cellphones, isn’t it a good thing if they contributed no extra sound to the environment? People wouldn’t know their phones were ringing, would not answer them and you wouldn’t have to overhear inane conversation.

    I hope the artist licensed the rights from the estate.

    What if I only wanted the second movement of 4’33” on my phone? That’s my favorite.

  4. says

    This promo is hopefully, unintentionally hilarious on so many levels, that Thomas Pynchon would be stretched to arrive at such nonsensical, goof-ball profundity.

  5. xavier vandenberghe says

    if i had a cell phone, i could like to hear it calling me with Sitting Bull singing :
    “do you know who i am …” (pause where i have to guess)… “yes, but, do you know, etc…)”
    well, is that tool good or not ? it’s price (in France at least) is no good, that’s the thing i know. and money is spent to say a lot of un-necessary things (“which is the pizza i should buy darling ?” (oh sorry this question could be interesting…))
    i heard one time, that some artists have done special music for ringtone. a Laurie Anderson’s ringtone exists (though, i made no verification). and i think it’s really coherent with her music, as she deals with technology, communication… example : in “O Superman” when her voice invites to let a message on the phonerecorder (i don’t know the us name for this machine).
    a cellphone is a strange place to hear music but why not : you know that you’re able to hear some sounds you like but you don’t know when.
    a concert proposal : don’t invite the audience to shut down their cellphones during the concert ?
    best hearings.

  6. says

    David, that’s right, the whole three movement structure – hardly something for a cell phone. But also, the duration of any cell phone signal will be indeterminate and I’m certainly not going to wait 4’33” before answering. Now of course, in the later editions of 4’33” a change of the time structure was permitted, but IIRC the title should change as well. All in all this seems to me to present an unsurmountable problem in adapting Cage to the cell phone. At best, you could call the cell phone signal something like Theme From 4’33”. But I don’t feel the concept is well enough thought through really – a problem, in conceptual art.

  7. David Cavlovic says

    “By all accounts, though, his silence was imperfect, owing to the limitations of the technology available at the time. ”
    Boy, is Keats an idiot.
    The whole point of 4’33” is what you hear IN and DURING the silence.
    KG replies: Or else he’s got a really wry sense of humor.

  8. says

    Galen Brown deconstructs this issue nicely at Sequenza 21

    Samuel, the idea of Theme from 4’33” is wonderful – maybe we could all write a variation and combine them Diabelli-like.

    But you never know what the theme is (er, was) until the performance is over. So it would be best to work just with the chord changes.

    This ring-tone defies logic marvelously. Another example of how John Cage the great philosopher makes us think while masquerading as a composer.

    Maybe in the future, phones can be outfitted with sophisticated noise canceling devices. One would know to answer the phone because the ambient sound level drops. Then cell phones could be a solution to noise pollution rather than a contributor. Think “Virtual Cone of Silence”.

  9. says

    Did the Cage people really sign off on this crap? If not, I hope they sue, as they have in the past when people have taken 4’33” as a joke.

  10. John Graham says

    Now if only we could get the mannerist 12-toners and serialists to shut up for forty decades and thirty-three years.

  11. says

    David, just a brief note – I can’t agree with the cliché that Cage was a philosopher and only masquerading as a composer. If you actually look at his work, you’ll hardly find much writing that might qualify as philosophy among the texts – but a staggering amount of scores in a staggering amount of genres, a lot of very beautiful pieces among them.

  12. says

    Alex —
    I don’t like it when people treat 4’33” as a joke any more than you do, but I don’t think that’s quite what Keats is doing. Certainly his press release _sounds_ sort of like he’s making fun of 4’33”, but I’m actually inclined to think of the press release as a sort of false-flag operation. The business about “‘John Cage can’t be blamed,’ says Mr. Keats. ‘He lived in an analog age.'” is what gives it away — suggesting that the new digital technology of the cell phone can provide more complete silence than Cage was able to acchieve is so absurdly over-the-top that it has to be posturing. And at the same time, it’s analogous to the kind of naive fetishization of technology that the advertising industry thrives on. “Digital” has been co-opted by the advertising industry away from its original meaning so that today it chiefly means “good” or “better.”
    Based on the Wikipedia article on Keats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathon_Keats) he seems to specialize in deliberately “misunderstanding” some concept and then coming up with an absurd application for it — on the surface it seems stupid, but on further reflection the implication of the “stupid” idea ends up fascinating and multifaceted.
    This particular project seems the most analogous to me to his recent String Theory / Real Estate project. In California he bought and then sold off real estate in the extra dimensions implied by String Theory. It’s an absurd application of string theory, but the target of the joke is really the real estate market and our conception of the legal system.

  13. Peter says

    Galen H Brown wrote: “It’s an absurd application of string theory”
    On the contrary, this application is only absurd if string theory is false. If the theory is true, and there are indeed another 5 or 7 dimensions (depending on which version turns out to be true), then it would seem perfectly sensible to buy and sell parts of these dimensions. We already buy and sell the radio frequency spectrum, and the rights to fly over buildings, for example, neither of which we can see.
    As another example, the sea-border between Australia and Papua New Guinea, instead of being vertical underwater, slopes downwards from sea-level to sea floor, so that certain islands are in Australia, but the oil beneath them is in PNG.

  14. says

    Funny, because cell phones already have a silent function built into it.
    I guess someone felt the need to attach their name onto something that’s already in public space…which is pretty typical for artists doing that type of work.

  15. Wayne Reimer says

    Sam, somewhere in my piles of junk are some notes towards making a “concert paraphrase” of 4″33″, alluding to the old Strauss waltz transcriptions for piano that were popular a century and more ago. It involved various things, but included a full performance of 4’33” over which was superimposed a performance (by people other than the Cage pianist) of a slightly larger-scaled piece of my own devising, which wasn’t silent. At the time I thought of it, it seemed like a lot of fun, and was (I hoped) respectful of Cage.

  16. says

    Do people really need to be paying homage to Cage every time they utilize anything with silence in a musical context?
    Personally I think it’s bizarre that people think there’s some need to pay him tribute every time its brought up. It’s like he commodified the idea of silence into product made for individual ownership and has been reaping its benefits since.

  17. Samuel Vriezen says

    Ryan, there is a whole tradition of silent pieces (I recall pieces and movements by Allais, Schulhoff, Gubaidulina, Ligeti) and Cage’s is only one of them. However, it’s the one most often referred to, and the one that sparks most debate. Keats for example is clearly referring to Cage’s silent piece, not to Allais.

  18. says

    Regardless if it’s Cage or whomever else, the issue is largely about the commodification of a concept that really should not be “owned” by any individual. I think that it’s absurd that some artists think that they can own something by the mere act of attaching their name on it. (Dadaists are guilty of this too.) This is largely why a lot of people find pieces done in that sort of manner as being imperialistic.

  19. says

    Samuel wrote: “I can’t agree with the cliché that Cage was a philosopher and only masquerading as a composer.”

    Cage has engaged our minds for over fifty years like no other composer. But (In My Ears) his actual compositions are pretty dull and uninteresting. Fun to perform, not fun to listen to. Some recent performances have been just plain silly. (I’m thinking of this or this.)

    On Ubuweb there’s fascinating recording of Cage and Morton Feldman in rather intimate conversation (from WBAI in 1967 – http://www.ubu.com/sound/cage_feldman.html ) Somewhere in there, Cage tells how, when he’s invited to dinner, his hosts don’t know what music to play because whatever they pick (I’m paraphrasing) “They know that I think I wrote it”.

    Once you accept that all music ever written is by John Cage, it’s easy to realize that all sound ever heard is also Cage. Wherever and whenever you are, in order to hear Cage you only have to think “This is Cage”. How can that not be a philosophy?

    For some reason this discussion prompted me to dig out my old Cage records. Here’s a quote from the introduction to the 1970 Everest recording of Variations IV. “As John Cage has said, music is all around us if only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could only learn to enjoy the sounds which envelope him, for example at Seventh and Broadway at four p.m. on a rainy day.”
    KG replies: For the record, except for the Vriezen quote at the beginning and the Cage quote at the end, I strongly disagree.

  20. Julian Day says

    Didn’t Robert Schumann patent the idea of silent music in the piece Sphinx from his album Carnaval? Interestingly, it’s also got three ‘movements’. And of course written only 115 or so years before 4’33.

  21. Julian Day says

    Oh yeah, and in reference to royalties – as far as I know it’s true that Edition Peters receives royalties from the piece. That’s why Mike Batt got sued for writing a ‘silent’ piece under the name Clint Cage, or something. Apparently it’s fine to use silence, just don’t mention the ‘C’ word anywhere nearby.

  22. says

    I’d say that Cage was more of a composer than a philosopher if anything. At least in musical circles he has some amount of respect by some people. I haven’t seen any contemporary philosophers reference him in a serious manner. (Hofstander references him in his Eternal Golden Braid, but he tends to treat him like a reactionary that had nothing to say.)
    Cage is useful as a musical exemplification of the existential movement that peaked around the same time as Heidegger and Derrida and the like (1950s). But it’s a specific philosophy with a specific agenda largely revolving around the concept of giving comfort to the individual. For all the talk of eliminating the ego, Cage really couldn’t resist sticking his name on everything he did, which is why people tend to treat his works like a joke.

  23. says

    This is all so retarded, ring-tones are only crap in general because people refuse to see the possibilities they present – I think everyone who has commented on this article should be forced to make their own ring-tone – come on! it’s a compositional challenge… In Japan it is practically an honour to compose a piece to preface public announcements at trains stations and airports. This is equally true in France, where you are quite often alerted to an announcement by what can only be described as scaled down piece of 1960’s electronic idealism. If done with a sincere level of enthusiasm for the possibilities, these things can actually work in the favour of highlighting interesting compositional ideas… look at the possibilities – sure, the Cage rip-off is lame, but I don’t see anyone here doing anything better, face it, you ain’t going to change the world by moaning about copyright and ideological imperatives… I would say ‘get with the 21st century’, but in fact I should say ‘get with the 20th century’! – oh and P.S. anyone heard of creative commons?

  24. says

    Ryan, Cage wasn’t an existentialist; Derrida wasn’t an existentialist; neither of the two, nor Heidegger, had an agenda revolving around “comfort”; Derrida (b. 1930) had hardly written important work in the 50s; Dadaists didn’t mostly do ready-mades; and 4’33” is a piece, not just silence.
    David: how much of Cage’s music do you know? Tastes vary, but I would say that if you have a good performance of works such as 6 melodies or 74 or the seasons or atlas eclipticalis, it’s tremendously attractive.
    I think that 4’33” performance is quite good, though I wouldn’t just judge it on how it works on you-tube – it was part of a big festival, remember, and it’s so much about being present at a performance that you should try to imagine being there. I’m not so sure about the conductor wiping his head, that’s perhaps going too much in the farcical direction.
    I have great doubts about the ASLSP-performance as a Cage performance. Cage was a very practical person and had a great understanding of performance (which is, in fact, one of the reasons why he is among the strongest orchestrators in the 20th century). I find the Germans made it into a piece about “history” rather than about performance – a very German thing to do, and interesting as such, but not a very interesting answer to Cage’s complex performance question What does it mean to play an organ or piano piece as slowly as possible? (Remember the piece was written for a piano competition!).
    As to 4’33”, here‘s just about everything you’ll ever want to know about it.

  25. says

    Samuel —

    The correlations between the New York school and the Continentals are obvious. I made a bit of a mistake in lumping Heidegger and Derrida into the same time period, but Heidegger’s influence on Derrida is pretty clear. Cage later got into playing word games and deconstruction exercises as Derrida began to publish his works. They’re all parallel to each other.

    The two schools can be correlated because of their autonomous approach towards their work. They are both also ultra-individualistic, because the connections and interpretive aspects of the works are extremely personal, but without any public consensus. Both schools also didn’t consider logic as much of an importance in doing their compositions. These stand in contrast to the 20th century analytics, whom the serialists are representative of.

    Cage himself mentions that yes, there is a connection, right here (scroll down to SEITE: TM 3, 14) but since he was largely had no real knowledge in the western philosophical tradition, he wasn’t able to clearly articulate his relationship with it.

    The fact of the matter is that in philosophical circles, nobody cites him for his ideas. (Unless you can show me some citations.) He is, though, often cited as a musical exemplification of existential philosophy, whos influence peaked around the same time 4’33” was performed. And largely the need for existentialism (at least in the States) came from the post-WW2 going into the Cold War era which necessitated something to erase both past and future in order to just focus on the present, which is accomplished through the meditative aspects of Cage’s works. There’s too many connections to just dismiss its relationship with each other.

  26. says

    Samuel asked “David: how much of Cage’s music do you know?”

    I’m old enough to know that hearing yet another piece by Cage, even in a “good performance”, and suggestions of my inexperience have no chance of changing my opinion. Maybe if I had been present at the BBC 4’33” performance, caught up in the emotion of a “festival” and able to read the essential program notes, I would have been swayed. (No, not really, I’m kidding.) A concert hall engineered to exclude outside sound with an audience straining to make no noise seems the wrong place for such an event.

    BTW, your 4’33” link linked to nothing when it got to my browsers – maybe that was an intentional comment of some sort?

    Here’s a link to a flyer announcing a concert which included Atlas Eclipticalis – given in 1982 when you were about 9 years old. I co-produced and performed in this event. It’ll give you some idea of what independent new musical life was like in Southern California at the time. I’ll spare you the story of the malfunctioning piano sostenuto pedal.

    After several decades of pursuing Cage’s music and then giving up my own performing and composing, I made a list for myself of composers who I felt had been positive influences of me. It was a short list. Cage’s thought and ideas made the list, but his music did not. Calling him “among the strongest orchestrators in the 20th century” is hysterical.

    BTW2, I had heard your own music online well before this conversation began, and I enjoyed it. Thank you. Also, thank you Kyle for putting up with my little side-discussion with Samuel.

  27. Samuel Vriezen says

    Sorry Ryan, I totally can’t accept your Cage-Derrida link. Cage was using chance as a modernist device which you might indeed call autonomous. Most of Derrida’s work, as I know it, involves critical reading of other texts and therefore it doesn’t make the least bit of sense to call his work autonomous and merely personal.
    Logic is very important in both, but in very different ways. Cage’s approaches to composition were always extremely reasoned and structured and in that sense totally logical – much more so than most post-serial music, which you would have as a representative of analytical approaches, from which I conclude that it’s american serialism and not european serialism you’re talking about.
    As to Derrida, I think his reasoning is always very logical; the only difference with the analytical logics is that he has given up the quest for, let’s say, the axioms.
    In Cage, of course, the unified and logical approach (method is his word) leads to sound structures that have no “logical” connection between consecutive events. By contrast, Derrida’s “method” of deconstruction is not really a method, something you “use” or “apply”, but the surface structures of his texts are always logical – you can follow the traces of his arguments. I don’t think this constrast is in any way superficial.
    Your quote where Cage supposedly claims a connection to Derrida really has him saying he knows nothing about it. I guess he read something somewhere implying that there is some kind of quest for freedom going on in Derrida or perhaps he met Joan Retallack or Marjorie Perloff some day and they were all crazy about deconstructivism and he probably felt, like, hey, this Derrida is my kind of guy. It doesn’t really go very deep to say “I’m not a student of them”, does it?
    And inversely, I don’t think I would easily be persuaded about Cage’s link to existential philosophy. (which, btw, Derrida has very little to do with).
    The best bet for a link you have is probably Cage’s use of fragments and quotes from other musics – a relatively minor aspect of his work – with Derrida’s reading of other texts.

  28. Samuel Vriezen says

    Hi David, well, thanks for the compliment! And the 4’33” link worked on my machine, it should lead to Larry Solomon’s article on the piece.
    I stand by my hysterical idea of Cage as a great orchestrator. Good performances of his music tend to be incredibly clear and every sound is well-placed; also his orchestral concepts are extraordinarily inventive. For me, his instrumentation and orchestration always make it completely clear that he was thinking about sound first when composing (and the chance part was only method). This in contrast to someone like Boulez, who is thinking of counterpoint first – and as a result his music for larger forces tends to sound good only on IRCAM produced CDs. Similarly, I feel Carter, whose orchestral work is of course full of impressive gestures, is a whole lot muddier than Cage.
    For example, Carter’s concerto for orchestra and Cage’s atlas eclipticalis are both instances of the idea of an orchestra of soloists, but in Cage you actually get a chance to hear it as such.
    And then there are amazing inventions such as Sixty-eight, Seventy-four – or the beautifully brittle chords in the Dances/4 orchestras – or …

  29. says

    Thanks for your response Samuel — it’s good to get some feedback.
    The idea sort of came to me after reading Derrida’s “Post Card” which was a work containing bizzare interplays between philosophical concepts…he would have fictional love letters written between Plato and Socrates, or even like concepts like fido and “fido”. Combine that with the weird formatting techniques that both he and the experimental school likes to utilize in their works, I think the connection was a little bit too close to be dismissed as something casual.
    Although we’ll probably disagree, I’m fairly sure on this idea and I’m going to get around to backing up my assertions with more research. I’ve been having a block in terms of writing music lately, so I’ve been doing a lot of papers instead.

  30. Samuel Vriezen says

    Ryan: both certainly have been experimental figures and as such heroes of some sort of larger avantgarde/counterculture movement, if you will, which has existed for some centuries. Literary experimentation has many centuries of tradition. I guess you could point to figures like Joyce, who both Cage and Derrida have written quite a bit about. But that’s a very broad line that goes much further back than Joyce and that keeps going.

  31. Samuel Vriezen says

    Also, BTW – I would not quite think of Heidegger as part of the experimental tendency…

  32. says

    The problem is that in musical circles even though people refer to Cage as a “philosopher” his relationship with the philosophical developments of his time remain largely unarticulated. I see Cage fitting in just nicely with the idea of Heidegger’s autonomy combined with Derrida’s deconstruction, which is a specific link beyond the general idea of literary experimentation. Foucault’s anti-establishment attitudes also fits right in with Cage’s political anarchism, and he is also part of the continental school of thought.

    I don’t particularly believe that anybody, even Cage, stands out as being an exception to historical developments of their time. He needs to be put into perspective. I do think that I have enough evidence to make a case. I’ll organize my thoughts on paper and see where it goes from there, after I get some feedback from others.

  33. Samuel Vriezen says

    Ryan, why not start out from Cage’s own (semi-)philosophical references? Zen (Suzuki), transcendentalism (Thoreau), technological positivism (Fuller), theory of media (McLuhan). Go from the Duchamp link perhaps to the philosophy of art in Danto. And what about Deleuze’s idea of the non-hierarchical rhizome in connection to Cage? (but I’m getting into full bluff mode here – hardly read any Deleuze so far)
    A Derrida connection will in so far remain very superficial in that Derrida was way more of a traditionalist (although by no means conventional) than Cage.

  34. says

    i just came here by way of the Language Log, and was held transfixed as i read your hilarious rant about cellphones. “…if you hang somebody people use them to photograph it…” etc. You sounded remarkably like the murderer in Ray Bradbury’s story “The Murderer”–about a man who was “never a technology fanatic, unlike most people in his life…Rest assured, though that if you were caught destroying the accursed things the way he went after the “wrist radios” (Bradbury, 1950s), i would gladly offer my services as your defense lawyer :)

  35. says

    David Ocker wrote:
    “A concert hall engineered to exclude outside sound with an audience straining to make no noise seems the wrong place for such an event.”

    Actually, wouldn’t it be the ideal place? Such an environment is the nearest equivalent to that of the anechoic chamber, which inspired Cage to compose 4’33” in the first place.

  36. Joe Cota says

    Cage didn’t fail by not producing pure silence with 4’33”. The point of the piece was that the music would be the sounds of the hall and the audience shuffling. It was never intended to produce actual silence.
    KG replies: I think that’s part of the joke.