January 3rd, 2011 / 6:12 am

Thoughts about a Televised Performance of John Cage’s 4’33”

If I were a person who coughed at such a performance, or held a screaming baby, or whose cell phone rang, or who owned the corporation that operated the train which whistled as it went past the concert hall, I’d probably be embarrassed. I noticed that between the movements, people coughed more than the whole room of people had probably coughed in the entire day, probably because all of them had been so intent on holding their bodies still and holding their coughs during the movements. But the coughs they coughed between movements and the laughter they laughed after they coughed certainly represented the most enjoyable part of the performance, other than perhaps the conductor’s ad lib between movements, when he theatrically took a rag and wiped his forehead as though he had been working up a sweat with his conducting. (Maybe he had, but not because of exertion, but rather because of the tension that attaches to publicly not doing anything, and that was part of the gag, too, when he wiped his forehead with the rag.)

If someone intentionally coughed, or caused their cell phone to ring, or sent a train, or pinched their baby so the baby would cry, that person would deserve to be embarrassed by their behavior, but they would probably be proud of themselves instead. It’s not the intentional disruption that enhances a performance, it’s the inadvertent disruption punctuating the performance that enhances the performance. That’s one of the reasons why a live performance is so much more freighted with tension for the viewer/listener/audience than a recorded performance — because anything could happen at anytime, and the performers or producers can’t control all the variables.

The inadvertent disruption can also enhance a recorded production (I think that literary texts are more like recorded productions than live productions, although I don’t think it’s necessary to compare everything to literary texts.) Some of my favorite moments on recordings are inadvertent — the dog barking halfway through a Vic Chesnutt track, the tape catching William Shatner telling Ben Folds he always has time for one more take, the guide vocal leak where somebody’s ghost shouts “All right!” before “He bag production” in the Abbey Road version of “Come Together.” (Completist list of Beatles anomalies here.)

Analog technologies seem generally better suited to these kinds of unplanned gifts than digital technologies. ProTools lets a music producer polish the grit out of everything, but if you got a good take down on 3/4″ analog tape, it’s tough to cut a little bit of fret squeak from the middle of the best acoustic guitar solo you ever voiced. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions that was printed cheaply, and the ink runs suggestively from the book’s iconic asterisk. Neither the author nor the printer intended it, but this copy is special because of it. It will never happen in any future print-on-demand run.

I’m typing these thoughts at 4:35 am. A couple of hours ago, I accidentally typed the word rooster in a passage of a story about a man planning to assassinate a Caribbean president. I meant to type roasted, but I’m sure my fingers were just listening to a different part of my brain than the part I thought was calling the shots, because as soon as I typed the word rooster, I recognized its usefulness. This particular president belonged to a political party whose symbol is the rooster, and in his country you can still see roosters painted on the sides of shanty houses, sometimes just beneath the scrap tin roofs. Of course this passage needed the rooster, even though the rooster’s emergence meant the end of the tidy shape I’d meant to impose. I didn’t scrub it away. The problem it caused me helped me make something better of what I had.

When I was in graduate school, sometimes someone would suggest that the key to fixing a thing was to cut everything that “didn’t belong.” Cut the fat and cut the sinew and cut the blemishes and the baggy skin. I watched people do that, and sometimes I did it, and what we were often left with was a thing that was hard to criticize, but it was equally hard to muster any enthusiasm. Everybody knew what a shapely object was supposed to look like, and every once in awhile somebody made one, but when that even rarer thing happened–somebody made something that took the top of everybody’s head off and rearranged our brains–inevitably there was so much “wrong” with it, and we could all articulate what was wrong with it, and, perhaps inevitably again, the thing that was wrong with it was part of what gave it power. By what high-wire act, we might say, were you able to get away with that? But what we knew–what all of us knew, even those who were pissed off about what it was we knew–was that the writer did get away with it, and in so doing traversed, if ever briefly, the abyss separating writing from artistry.

It’s not true that greatness is separable from work or effort or craft, but it might be true that greatness is more difficult to achieve without a willingness to let go control of every single thing that can be controlled, and to embrace the willingness to allow the act of artistry to truly operate at least from time to time as an act, a performance, a thing without net, and then to avoid the impulse to scrub clean the “imperfections” where the angels live.

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  1. andrewworthington

      Yeah, but “433” is so over nowadays, although I guess that is as ignorant as someone saying “The Fall” or “Revolutionary Road” was over.

  2. Anonymous

      yeah, but if “the point” of the piece is to force the audience to become the performer (in a way) — to sort of subvert that relationship — wouldn’t the introduction of intentional audience noise be not wholly disappointing or unenjoyable? like if someone were to start screaming wildly, embracing the role of performer that he/she has been thrust into, wouldn’t that kind of radically reinvent the piece? or would that destroy it? i guess i’ve just always had this fantasy in which an audience of this piece smuggles in like 500 french horns and plays ‘hey jude’ (or whatever) during the quiet.

  3. letters journal

      “Hey Jude” played on 500 french horns. Damn.

  4. andrewworthington

      Yeah, I mean I still think its a cool concept.

      For me, the piece has always had a vague democratic connotation, just that as an audience member I feel that I am on equal footing with the performer because we are both “doing nothing.”

      It would be cool to see such an audience play “hey jude” on french horns. but its kind of cool just experiencing other people trying hard to be polite and quiet and “do nothing”, especially since “doing nothing” is futile as long as one is alive.

      (Not sure if this made sense at all)

  5. Tummler

      This is a great post, Kyle. I like to fancy myself a bit of a Cage enthusiast, or at least, I consider him my favorite composer and 4’33” my favorite composition. I think that your observations here give new breath to the universality of the piece and I admire how you are able to connect that sort of universality to writing. Thanks for this.

  6. deadgod

      you should have had this meditation polished before you posted it

      you know: punched the dead spots up a bit

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  11. jackie wang

      i like to think of 4’33” as a frame that contains chaos, a demarcated space that opens up a number of possibilities, that invites us to listen rather than directing us to be silent…because silence is an impossibility and cage is trying to undermine the artist’s impulse to control the work, their silly ego. i agree with you about letting the sag be! i’ve never really been interested in slim jim tight texts, ha. when i was doing a performance art piece at an art show this old lady stormed in while i was performing and flicked the lights on and started yelling into the audience for her granddaughter (like, “allison, are you hiding in there??”). i couldn’t stop laughing and was like “uhhh… can somebody shut the lights off?” and then when i continued i realized that it happened right at a part about the lights getting flicked on and i made an aside, “haha! i did not plan that, i swear!”

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  15. Kyle Minor

      […] Translation with Elizabeth Harris Matt Bell’s Catalog of Structures Bernhard’s Shadow Thoughts About A Televised Performance of John Cage’s 4’33″ Kindle The What-If Game (Stephen Dixon) Literary Forebears of V.C. Andrews #1: The Book of Genesis […]