The Value of Nothing Part 1
By Gerard Janssen on April 4, 2012
On 16 of January 2004 the symfonic orchestra of the BBC played 4’33’’ by John Cage. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, in three parts for orchestra and clarinet.
View it on Youtube. It’s a rather odd video. You can see the conductor turning the pages of the music score in an orderly manner. The people in the audience are seated as if they are the pupils in the classroom of a stern geography teacher. The violinists look at an undefined point in space, to prevent them from bursting into uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. The conductor wipes the sweat of his forehead using a tissue and the camera zooms in on a beautiful blonde looking as if she’s immersed in deep thoughts. The breaks in between the three parts of silence are being enthousiastically used to cough, to hiccup and throat clearing. And once it’s all over, a thunderous applause follows in which the relief that it is indeed finally all over can clearly be felt.
Also at BBC radio the tension was rising, because it’s not that usual to broadcast silence on the radio. Special ‘silence detectors’ sharply monitor if there is sound on the radio. Reliable equipment is constantly on guard to prevent it from being silent longer than ten seconds. To make the BBC-broadcast of 4’33” run smoothly, a technician is needed to pull a special switch to turn off the surveillance system. If for instance a radio DJ faints or accidentally spills coffee in the mixing board, then after ten seconds a back-up disk will start buzzing, with mainstream music, such as Madonna and George Michael. If a minute of silence is being held to commemorate something a sound technician needs to turn off those silence detectors. Normally this will work okay. But all employees will be relieved when not suddenly after ten seconds a Madonna song will start blaring from the speakers. To prevent this kind of stress, some radio stations prefer to broadcast birdcalls of other ‘silence’. Lots of anecdotes circulate in radio land about commentators coughing every ten seconds into the microphone whenever there is an unexpected minute of silence due to another deceased soccer chairman. Also lovers of ambient silence music have been on occasion woken up out of their sound trip by some pounding music out of the surveillance system. It happened to John Peel when de band Low played live in his program and dropped a long silence in one of their songs to build up a subtle form of tension. Unfortunately to no result since the ‘dead air’ tape started to play. Suddenly “9PM (Till I Come)” sounded. But none of this happened on the 16th of January 2004, during the performance of 4’33″. What could be heard though, were people coughing and moving around. But mostly this just happened during the short breaks in between the three acts.
And that’s how it should be. Cage got the idea for 4’33’ when he visited a ‘dead room’ at Harvard University. A room which wouldn’t let any sounds in from the outside, and where all sounds being made inside the room went mute instantly. But Cage clearly heard two sounds. A low and a high tone. The acoustic scientist explained to Cage that the low-pitched sound was the hum of his blood circulation and the high-pitched sound tinnitus, from which a lot of musicians suffer. Silence doesn’t exist.
Cage had already for a longer time been a fan of non-musically intended sounds, the rustle of the wind, the buzzing of traffic and the lapping of water. But not only Cage. Among the drivers who never listen to the radio, but to the sounds of traffic, are an above-average amount of sound engineers and musicians. Among the people who rarely listen to music at home are many composers and producers. There are very few people who enjoy music less than music professionals. They won’t let the whole world know, but most composers won’t be very pleased with a CD as a birthday gift. You can better give them headphones with an anti-sound feature.
The combination of these two observations gave Cage the idea for his silent composition. He figured there wasn’t a better way to point his public to the sounds of their surroundings. And there were surrounding sounds during the first performance in 1952 by pianist David Tudor. People constantly rose to their feet to leave while shaking their head and grumbling.
(editors note: I guess Gerard Janssen could be considered to be an expert on nothing – after all he co-wrote the book ‘Holes and other things which are not there’ by the Easy Aloha’s)