#81: 4:33 ‘til Infinity

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John Cage’s 4'33" is available to stream on Spotify, which may strike you as immediately hilarious, but is nonetheless ironic for reasons I’ll get into shortly. While the piece is ostensibly just four and a half minutes of silence (a standard length for canned Muzak tracks), its true content is all the other sounds that listeners hear in their surrounding environment during the performance, which demonstrate Cage’s point that silence is impossible: “The piece is not actually silent…it is full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand.” The “version” of 4'33" that’s on Spotify doesn’t fulfill Cage’s promise — it’s a static-filled recording of a particular performance with its own specific background noises, an official, immutable version of something that is supposed to be different every time, as defined by its environmental context. The actual piece is all background and no foreground, in other words — a quality that Spotify is inherently unequipped to reproduce. Cage composed this, his most famous work, in 1952, and probably couldn’t have imagined the extent to which future listening technology would complicate his thesis. That, of course, is why 4'33" still matters.

The idea of listening to Cage’s (non-) silence on Spotify, ideally through noise-canceling headphones for maximum irony, illustrates a significant transformation of the sonic environments we all inhabit now: The auditory distinction between foreground and background, along with the distinction between signal and noise, have become entirely unambiguous. The evolution of recorded music and the hardware that helps us listen to that music have provided new tools for efficiently distilling and focusing the foreground/signal (the music itself) while filtering out the background/noise (everything else). That evolution was already underway in the 1950s, but with 2019 technology, the kind of silence that Cage considered impossible is now much more attainable. Again, headphones mark a step change in this progression: Not only can individuals suppress all the voices and traffic noise that otherwise infringe upon music listening in the most public of places, but they can also keep their own music from spilling out into the public realm and potentially annoying their neighbors. Cage had suggested that we all inhabit a continuous, shared auditory spectrum that comprised both foreground and background sound; headphones reposition us each within our own unique reality.

Reflecting on the Sony Walkman and the iPod in 2009, Kazys Varnelis wrote, “Portable cassette players and boomboxes flourished in the 1970s and if the latter served as means of building impromptu communities, they were also consciously thought of as sonic assault devices, marking out territory and creating tension in urban spaces. The Walkman was a counter against this, turning music inward toward a solitary experience.” This transition, he argues, corresponds to the end of urban decay and the gentrification/re-colonization of American cities like New York. Music has always had externalities: People in densely populated places have to hear music that other people are playing, whether they like it or not. My friend who moved away from New York told me one of the things he missed most about the city was all the great music you hear blasting out of cars. Someone else once observed that the suburbs recreate the urban environment within the home, but why do that when you can just recreate it within your own head?