The Sidereal Silence of John Cage

I want to continue the unraveling of avant-garde and experimental music by analyzing some of its most iconic compositions. In this case, it is the famous (famous and, in a way, even “infamous,” considering certain critics) piece by John Cage entitled 4′ 33”. For those unfamiliar, there is no need to provide for listening this time. The score comprises a series of pause bars with a set time for the performance to end precisely after 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

It would be more evident if anyone did not fully grasp the concept. The piece is pure silence. There are no notes, no recitatives. Just silence. At this point, it seems evident that Cage intended some joke, but, betraying all evidence, we can say this is not his purpose. Indeed, the semantics of the composition are pregnant, and without the need for too much verbal instruction, it can guide the listener to a unique and unrepeatable musical experience.

Throughout his career, John Cage tried various forms of experimentation and, like Stockhausen, never felt limited by circumstances. Famous are his sound experiments inside anechoic chambers-small rooms completely soundproofed and wallpapered with sound-reflecting panels, capable of absorbing pressure waves while reflecting only a tiny part of them. In that absolute silence (so driven that it could even lead to mental disturbances if the stay were excessively prolonged), Cage, sitting in the center of the room, listened to his heartbeat, the air flowing into his windpipe, his diaphragm moving rhythmically, his tendons producing small pops and any other sound that would not usually cross the threshold of attention.

The idea for the 4′ 33” piece must certainly have been a consequence of that experience. Indeed, he probably “observed” the world around him in a state of profound stillness and implicitly created a dividing line between a listening subject (himself) and a universe absorbed in “religious” silence. This, strange as it may be, has its physical logic (which, however, cannot be categorized, i.e., limited to sub-systems; too easily – that’s why we would have to make an imaginative effort) that is expressed by the concept of absolute zero.

The temperature of -273.15 °C is a physical limit theorized by thermodynamics. Although not attainable in any one way (infinite energy would be required to cool even a small molecule), it represents the limit at which most physical and chemical processes reach a state of arrest or “minimum survival” (residual energy remains, as demonstrated by quantum physics). In more philosophical terms, we can say that absolute zero represents total stasis, a condition of immobility that invests every object, rendering it incapable of producing any reaction. In one word: death.

Fascinated by this concept, John Cage decided to compose a piece lasting 273 seconds (the 15 cents would have been too complicated to replicate), or 4 minutes (60 × 4 = 240 seconds) plus 33 seconds (240 + 33 = 273). This is the most reasonable explanation of the title and duration of the work. But what about the silence? We mentioned the dichotomy between the listener (microcosmic) and the universe in stable equilibrium (macrocosmic). Metaphorically, the above relationship can represent the structure of a theater or concert area, separated into the stage (where the music originates) and the stalls (where the audience enjoys the music).

Therefore, the semantics of 4′ 33” is a reversal of the musician-audience relationship. Those who should emit pressure waves according to the composer’s order and dynamics are silent. Those who should receive them get excited and enjoy them, limiting extraneous noise as much as possible, instead becoming the primary source of all audible sound. Unknowingly (especially the first time), the audience, better if undisciplined, becomes an orchestra without a conductor or score. In this sense, 4′ 33” is pure performing music, as it exists solely and exclusively in its interpretations.

In addition, each interpretation is unique, unrepeatable, and never subject to patterns or schools of thought. Once the performer “frozen at absolute zero” sits in front of the piano, the real orchestra can donate to the musical life every cough, sneeze, whisper, movement in the chairs, scratching, etc. And, in extreme cases, such as in a stadium, the crowd may perform in the production of even more varied and consistent noise. Any sound/noise produced by bystanders is welcome (as opposed to the performer, whose stasis is an unavoidable factor). There could very well be someone who plays more music on their smartphone, those who shout, and why not, even those who decide to throw objects on stage to liven up the atmosphere.

The main reason behind this freedom is inherent in the “musical prison” in which the performer is voluntarily confined. Just as a man in an anechoic chamber, or, in the extreme case, a system at absolute zero, there is no escape from passivity. Written music must be silent, but this does not imply that those who still enjoy freedom (i.e., who have energy and vitality) should be subject to this rule. Indeed, it is the latter who have the burden and honor of completing the meaning of the composition.

Just as in front of a monochrome by Mario Schifano and a cut by Lucio Fontana, it is up to the observer to fill in the gaps. The listeners of 4′ 33” are also called upon to participate. Even an unsuspecting polite audience waiting in “silence” for the performance to begin would be found to be unwitting performers, as the only system at “absolute zero” is located on the stage. Everything else is living matter and, therefore, also noisy. The only difference between a coughing fit during an Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli concert and a 4′ 33” performance is that, in the former case, it would be an annoying disturbance. At the same time, the latter would be a structural and purely improvisational part of the work.

At this point, I only want to invite you to listen to the composition with commitment and without distractions. Your role is no longer what you are used to. From the universe to absolute zero, where a crystallized orchestra watches with glassy eyes, one expects to enjoy an unparalleledly unique work of art: one of the infinite 4′ 33” completions. Do not disappoint those who have boundless confidence in your countless expressive possibilities!


Share this page:

Some philosophy for a philosophical question!

What is the greatest gift someone could give you?

The greatest gift doesn’t exist. Once received, there are no more possibilities to desire, which means we are dead or, maybe, in a state of perfection. Hence, my answer is quite apparent. The greatest gift is not to need any other gift whatsoever. Anything else is reachable, therefore, less than something else. When I get the “more,” the process restarts in a neverending loop. Breaking this loop is way more fulfilling than anything else.


Share this page:

Technological Humanism

man standing infront signage during daytimeWe are assisting a new kind of humanism. In a period characterized by a continuous “wave” of technological improvements, the oldest idea of a person is again ready to be considered a concrete focal point. Even the most orthodox “tech-fun” can easily understand the importance of putting each natural, direct relation inside a world often made up of silicon and intangible information atoms.

I’m an engineer and certainly won’t try to hide my “love” for any technology. However, I’m also looking at the impressive growth of social networks, and the only plausible reason that comes to my mind is that of a different approach to technology’s widespread. It is not a product to study, customize, and eventually use, but rather a service “forged” on actual needs and, above all, wholly human-oriented.

Several authors (like J. Rifkin) wrote books and papers about this phenomenon, but it’s pretty challenging to feel its enormous strength without a stop… Yes, an actual life-stream stop: think about your life twenty years ago without any reference to your current way of facing each situation, then compare these two realities, and the strangest paradox is that a “feared” trend towards a machine-controlled world is instead getting into a new human “revolution” driven by the technology itself!

Photo by Transly Translation Agency


Share this page:

Time for Emergence

spider web in close up photographyWhen Sir Tim Berners-Lee had his stroke of genius and invented the World Wide Web, he didn’t surely think about its extraordinary present developments, just like a father usually hopes for his children’s wellbeing. Still, he seldom can figure out every particular detail of their future. Such behavior strikes everybody as a strange kind of myopia, like a bewitched gold-digger who stops before a slight glow and forgets its source. Even if there could be a strong temptation to believe it, several studies showed that its profound nature is quite different, and probably no suitable attitude may avoid it.

The first time I studied the concept of emergent, I was attending a complex systems course at university. My first thought was that of a pure “scientific skepticism”: a sparkling description for an idea that had soon gone up in smoke… Many of its new and pervasive implications had already flourished when I realized its immense strength. There is a moment during the life of concept when a crossroads appears above the horizon: on the one hand, a radical change to keep living in a renewed fashion. On the other is its stagnation and, inevitably, a decay towards its death. That’s the right time for emergence: as the whole is greater than its parts, a brand new system state assumes the role of “point of equilibrium far from the only real stable equilibrium.”

According to I. Prigogine’s theory is that this reality takes and dissipates external energy to maintain a vital, productive condition. The World Wide Web was born as an information-sharing tool, and nowadays, we all are experimenting with its natural evolution. It was called Web 2.0, and the main difference from its “ancestor” is the meaning of each link, which represented only the possibility of associating several hyper-textual documents. It’s now a road between two microcosms of people with knowledge and experiences, services, utilities, and much more. Such a phenomenon is hard to imagine during a design phase because we’re used to getting effects by summing up every single contribution as the inverse logical operation of the same reductionism adopted for the analysis.

It’s not astonishing at all if a similar “technique,” often chosen in Neurosciences, has been ousted after many scientists have accepted emergence as the most plausible explanation of consciousness; in fact, even a brain is a massive network with an enormous connection density, and its nodes don’t seem to be able to bring about anything which can be compared to what we call “consciousness.” Only some sort of non-linear interaction may be concerned as its creative possibilities are (now) theoretically unlimited. The only thing we can do (at the most significant scale) is wait for new, impressive evolution.

An excellent introductory book about Emergence is Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson.

Photo by Shannon Potter


Share this page: