Recorded: November 2 2018 Place: Midtown, New York – Walking Performance Interview: January 29 2020, Lucky Strike, New York City
Everybody calls 4’33” the ‘silent piece’, but obviously that’s not what it’s about. Cage famously said that music to him was like opening the window and just listening to the sounds coming in. 4’33” was radical when it happened. Nobody understood it. But he was trying to say that whatever sounds you hear can be music. And in a way his music went further and further toward that aspect. You’d go to these concerts where somebody would be scratching a feather on a rock or something like that.
In 1999, Sonic Youth made a record called Goodbye 20th Century and we recorded two Cage pieces for that – Six from 1991 and Four6 from 1992. We got deeper and deeper into Cage’s music at that point, but even by then I knew that 4’33” piece was about environmental listening, so I wanted to use the environment of New York City in my performance. I went back and did so much research on the composition and the score before I went out and did it. I wanted to make sure that I was faithful to the score, with its three specific movements lasting certain amounts of time, because the score is all there is in a piece like that. If you’re not following the score, you’re making it up, in a way.
I recorded my performance in the rain, in Midtown Manhattan on a good little handheld tape recorder. I knew I wanted to use Midtown Manhattan traffic sounds. It just so happened that we were in Midtown one evening, and there was a lot of interesting sound around me.
I met Cage a couple of times. It was a big thrill. He was always around in New York in the early period of Sonic Youth. We’d see him at concerts all the time – dance concerts, or Merce Cunningham events or things like that. He lived in the East Village with Merce, and so he was readily accessible at that time, even though he was this towering figure. I remember when I first moved to New York, I’d occasionally be at a concert, and Cage would be in the audience, and that would be so amazing that this guy with this big grey beard was sat right behind me. To me that was unbelievable.
He was a very jovial, playful person. I love people like that where life is a big laugh to them, and yet they’re super significant and doing all this heavy work. That’s kind of amazing to me.
In my early days in New York, I played with Glenn Branca. There was a famous incident at this festival called New Music America. In ’82, it was in Chicago, and Cage was the festival’s emeritus that year – he performed and presented his work, and he was like a figurehead for the whole thing. Glenn’s ensemble played, which at this point was an orchestra, and Thurston Moore and I were part of it.
Cage hated Glenn’s performance. He called it narcissistic, because Glenn was at the front of an ensemble directing. This was everything Cage did not want out of music – the idea of the composer as Godhead. The next day, Cage gave this interview where he called Glenn’s music fascistic and it created this whole crazy contretemps about the festival, with Glenn having to answer all these questions and getting into this fight with Cage which lasted years. It was really crazy. At the time, and at that point in his life, John could not countenance music that was that specifically composed, where the composer was asking players to play under their will. Glenn was a wilful composer, like Toscanini or someone like that. So that was a really interesting moment.
Where do you go when you want silence?
I think we all need silence once in a while. For someone like me who plays a lot of very loud, raucous music, the idea of silence is very important.
The times when I experience silence the most are right before falling asleep and right after waking up. My most silent experiences happen in my bed, at the end of the day and at the beginning of the day.
I’ve had a couple of experiences in anechoic chambers. I was at the one at IRCAM in France a couple of different times, and you realise that even in the most silent environment possible, it’s not really silent. You’re either hearing your blood rushing through your ears, or your stomach gurgling. Maybe when you’re a young person, up to the age of 20 perhaps, you can really experience absolute silence, but I don’t think with older ears that it’s really possible.
In an anechoic chamber, you can literally hear the blood rushing through your ears. You hear all these different pitches. I remember hearing quite a low rumble and some quite high-pitched sounds, but I distinctly remember feeling like I could hear the blood rushing through the little capillaries in my ears for some reason. That’s how it appeared to me. It was almost like the whooshing sound when you put a seashell up to your ears.
I went into the anechoic chamber at IRCAM in Paris with a French artist. He wanted to record me in there while I was thinking about playing the guitar. It was a high concept. I remember we were recording and I could hear my stomach gurgling. It sounded so crazy loud. I was the only one in the room, but there were microphones everywhere and I guess it wasn’t just me hearing it. It was really loud! It was completely silent and then, every once in a while, we’d hear something going on in my stomach.
So the most silent moments for me, like I said, are when I’m in bed at night. We live in New York. It’s a noisy city so there’s always fucking noise outside the windows coming in, but every once in a while it is silent, and at the end of the day when your neighbour upstairs isn’t dancing on your ceiling or whatever the fuck it is, there are moments of silence. They’re rare and they’re very important.
I have meditated. If you’re doing zen meditation like John did, you’re not supposed to follow your thoughts. You’re just supposed to go, “Oh that girl looks pretty and I wonder what she’s doing tonight?” and then you’re supposed to bring it back to your breath. It’s super hard to do.
When I was in college, I studied with a guy that was a Buddhist and a philosopher. He was a philosophy teacher at the school but he’d give these extra classes at his house in the woods, and he taught us how to meditate. You’d start with a minute or two and then you’d build up to half an hour or forty-five minutes, and I learned how to do it, but it’s really hard to clear your mind. My mind is always racing from one thing to another. I return to it every once in a while, and I think it’s an amazing thing to try and do, but it’s very, very hard.
I’m a cyclist, so I’m out on my bike a lot. I cycle along the Hudson River where there’s a path completely clear of cars. You can go ten miles in each direction and it’s relatively calm. I always talk about my cycling as meditation because if I’m not riding with someone else, it’s just me. I mean, sometimes I’m thinking about stuff – song lyrics I’m working on or whatever – but sometimes your mind shuts off and you’re just making sure you stay on the road. In way that’s my meditation these days.
When Mute first suggested I start a written project based on the STUMM433 boxset, their suggestion was that I aim to interview everyone who contributed a piece, everyone who worked on the box, everyone who designed an image, current Mute employees, former Mute employees, and those Mute artists that didn’t contribute a version of John Cage’s 4’33”.
I hadn’t perhaps appreciated the audaciousness of the suggestion, which, as I now I reflect on its scale and almost certain impossibility, has a certain Cage-iness about it.
Alessandro Cortini released his first album for Mute, Volume Massimo, in 2019, long after STUMM433 had been completed, but, as the next artist to join the label after K Á R Y Y N, if he’d recorded a version, it could have been track number 59 on the album.
Recorded: n/a Place: n/a Interview: September 18 2019
I’m familiar with 4’33”, but I never really thought of it as a piece in itself. I always saw it as more of an exercise.
I love the philosophy behind it because it’s so open-ended. And while I think it’s very interesting to see everyone’s take on something like that, I haven’t spent too much time thinking what I would do if I performed it. It would probably require some research and some thinking about how the set of instructions would influence me, in a way where I feel like I’m following them, but at the same time where I’m not enslaved to them.
What I like is that it definitely puts the player in a situation of over-sensitive listening, almost an amplified listening to what you do. It’s somewhat unnatural when it comes to performing, and so I think, once you’ve encountered the piece, it brings out an approach to playing that’s unlike any other. It makes musicians realise the importance of silence and also how their instruments, when not played in a conventional way, could be part of that silence in one way or another.
Where do you go when you want silence?
I think that the silence that I look for, and that I struggle to find at times, is more of an internal silence.
It’s a silence that, to a certain extent, is independent from audio silence. It’s almost a mindstate that is actually sometimes aided by having a certain amount of sound to accompany you on that journey.
Sonic silence is interesting but it’s almost a by-product, in a way. What I’m looking for is my own internal silence where I can listen to myself and what I actually have to say – it’s a place where I can feel at ease with who I am, and feel excited about being on this planet and having a life to live, and finding a way to live it in a productive way.
Meditation is very helpful to me. It’s funny because the more I know it’s good for me, the less I do it. There’s almost a part of me that is fighting it. It’s kinda crazy when you think about it, because you almost have part of the solution in front of you, but you ignore it because you know that it’s going to change you. This is all subconscious – I don’t think about it, and that’s why I force myself to meditate twice a day, but it’s good. I love meditating. I’ve started it. It came from an audiobook by David Lynch called Catching The Big Fish, and that’s how I got into it.
The way that Lynch relates meditation to creativity really sparked an interest in me, and then I took a course in transcendental meditation. I think any kind of meditation that works for someone is the right kind of meditation, but for me, that’s what pulled me in, and that’s what I practice. And that, along with suggestions from Steve Vai, reading Eckhart Tolle books – those were very revelatory about the now, and and how past and future are just fabrications of our mind: they don’t exist. They’re just a way to worry about things that are not important, not in an irresponsible way, but everything is about what you’re doing right now and how you’re feeling right now. The past you can’t do anything about, and it shouldn’t be influencing your present in a negative way, and the future you’ll never know. The best way to manufacture your future is by living in the now. And to me silence is that. Silence is the ability of just living in the now, in a way, not having everyday life or your own emotional baggage to get in the way of every single step of your day.
Going to a specific place to get silence is beautiful. I love that, but what is silence doing to you if you, in the end reach a place of sonic silence but inside of you there’s a constant set of voices telling you to to fuck off? Silence, and what it might do to me, is a very personal thing. All that going to a particular place to find sonic silence might do to me is make it even more obvious to me that it’s an issue.
Recorded: September 8 2018, 1230 Place: Portmeirion Town Hall, Festival No. 6 Interview: November 8 2019
I think 4’33” is really interesting. It’s a great concept. It’s very Dada, very Duchamp. It could be interpreted as really deep or really pretentious. It depends on how you look at it. And that’s the beauty of it – the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or the listener.
Mute approached ShadowParty to perform a version of it and we did it very quickly. We were playing the No. Six Festival in Portmeirion, North Wales. And they said, ‘Oh by the way we’re doing this 4’33” thing,’ so we recorded it there. We were onboard, but at first it was like, ‘Ah jeez, this is pretentious.’ We were like, ‘Well, we’d rather have you release our next single…’ But Daniel Miller and those guys, they’re having fun with it, I think. I think it’s maybe not to be taken too seriously.
Nick McCabe wasn’t there when we recorded it, Jeff Friedl also wasn’t there and Denise Johnson was out with ACR at that time. We were very fidgety while we were performing it. We did it during soundcheck so we were like, ‘Oh we’ve got to get this over with. We’re short on time for soundcheck.’ It was one of those where we had the whole string section and Joe Duddell up on stage, and everybody was just kind of standing there trying not to fidget, you know. We couldn’t keep ourselves from giggling. That was the hardest part.
There’s someone coughing on our version. That was somebody who came in early and was sat in the audience. It might have been a friend of the manager or somebody. I can’t remember if they let him know what we were doing or not.
Doing nothing for four and a half minutes isn’t a long time if you’re used to meditating, or anything like that. I did a lot of teaching martial arts and stuff like that in the past, so for me patience is a virtue.
I work on ambient music with a guy in New Hampshire called Scott Dakota. We do a lot of brainwave entrainment ambient music, which involves a lot of mathematics. It’s a program that’s a model of the golden ratio, where you can pipe in mathematics to calculate, say, rhythm, melody, combinations that make certain timbres, length, and silence. They’re also binaural, that is they’re offset left ear to right ear so they trick your cerebral cortex a little, vibrating at, say, theta. So it induces trance states, just from putting the headphones on or listening to it. The pieces are usually forty, sometime one hundred and twenty minutes long, so for me four and a half minutes – I’m like, that’s the single edit.
I love experiments. I mean, Devo’s very much into the Dadaist movement. We just did a show out in California a couple of weeks ago where we needed the sun to go down so that our screens would work. So while the sun was setting they decided to show a half-hour mockumentary on the music business, and everybody was just freaking out, pissed off, like ‘What are they doing?’ And Jerry’s just sitting there laughing, ‘It’s so Dada.’ He’s like, ‘The beards are the new squares, man, and they’re getting all pissed off – that’s so weird.’
Where do you go when you want silence?
I would say in my car. Driving, you know. I mean, it’s not complete silence, but it’s close. I listen to a lot of ambient music while I’m driving, but not the stuff I make with Scott. You probably shouldn’t listen to that in that car. I listen to Brian Eno instead.
Music and silence can really change your whole perception of where you are, and your mood. I mean, you put on King Tubby and it’s a totally different vibe to listening to Joy Division. That changes the whole atmosphere.
It’s a funny story. I used to have this loft in Downtown LA, and I had just moved there and it was completely empty, with a bright blue floor, white ceiling, white walls and everything. I set up this little patch of fake grass, a tent and a fake log fire, and I had this one record called The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound, and on one side it was a field, an English meadow, and on the flip side were crickets. So during the day I would have it on the English meadow side – you know, with birds and things like that – and then at night I’d flip it over. I did that until I could afford furniture. I still put it on all the time. I always thought of those sorts of records as the music of the future, where the ego, the big rock star egos and guitar solos are kind of gone, and it’s more about the communal sound or mood.
One of the entrainment experiments Scott and I do is concerned with repetition as a form of change. We’ll do something that has, say, a drone that’s tuned to a pitch that probably isn’t a Western pitch. We’ll have that drone just roll over and over, and what happens over time is that it’s so boring that your brain finds ways to make it interesting. And it’ll start changing, and that’s why these pieces are so long – your brain is part of the thing that’s making the music, the way it’s interpreting the redundancy of it.
There’s a book I have called The Hidden Messages In Water by a Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto. He would project what are called cymatics, which is where you take a steel plate and you put salt on it, and you pump frequency through it – just pure frequency – and it’ll make these mandalas, these different shapes for different frequencies. Sound does that with water and of course you’re made up of 90% water, so the way that sound affects you on a molecular level can be healing, but it can also be used for sonic weapons like Americans do with crowd control.
The Hidden Messages In Water ties into ShadowParty, actually. There’s a song on the record called ‘The Valley’, that was the first song that Tom Chapman and I ever did, and in the middle you hear Tom talking. He went, ‘What do I say?’ and I go, ‘Here,’ and he just picked up that book, and he reads the title of it on the track. I only just remembered that.
Recorded: September 2018 Place: Los Angeles Interview: November 14 2019
How did you approach your performance of 4’33”?
In a way I wanted to go in the opposite direction from the original 4’33”. Rather than create silence I created as many notes as possible. And I made it in my studio in LA. It was just me and a bunch of instruments.
Had you ever thought about performing 4’33” before?
No, this was ‘written’ for the Mute project.
Did you know much about Cage?
I mainly knew of him as a mycologist, which I thought was interesting, as I’d never heard of a public figure mycologist before…
I know that you’re into meditation, as was Cage through his interest in Zen. How important is meditation to you in your life?
Meditation can be almost anything, from calm repose to focus. I guess, broadly speaking, meditation is putting your attention somewhere it might not otherwise go.
Eating a nice orange and really paying attention to it is a powerful form of meditation, for example.
Where do you go when you want silence?
Either my house or the mountains. My house has really good sound insulation, and the mountains are the mountains.
Recorded: August 9 2018, 11:21 Place: Studio Les Rossignols Interview: April 6 2019
I met John Cage maybe three or four times, but I never studied with him. He had a lot of humour. Meeting him was always a very joyful experience.
Even these few meetings had a big impact on me. I was performing his pieces quite a lot at that time, between say 1963, 1964 and the end of the Sixties – before Can, basically. I performed Cage’s work for prepared piano, but also other piano pieces of his, and I conducted with a symphony orchestra. I got quite deep into his work during that period. The prepared piano album I released last year, 5 Klavierstücke, is quite different from what I did in the sixties, but it’s influenced by the spirit and influence of Cage among lots of other things, of course.
I performed 4’33” several times in the Sixties. I would do these kind of piano recitals. Sometimes it would be with two grand pianos – one prepared and the other normal. Sometimes, after the intermission I would come on stage, sit down, and, well, do nothing. Every time that was an experience for the audience. That’s what the piece is actually about – it’s about the silence, and especially the silence in a concert hall, where there’s somebody sitting down on a piano, and then he doesn’t play. It creates this kind of tension. It’s not only silence – it’s a silence full of expectations, of tension, of consciousness about the fact there is nothing happening, and yet still there is lots happening. It’s about the vibration between these things, between nothing and the whole world of little micro sounds. If you are very conscious of that then you start hearing what you normally don’t in among that tension.
The piece needs live performance. It’s not really transformable into a recording. You can’t capture the actual sense of it on a reproduction. You can’t feel the real experience, and it loses its magic.
It’s just environmental recordings, which is another thing entirely. The key thing with 4’33” is, like I said, the vibration between you and all your attention being focussed on expecting something, and then this something doesn’t happen; all of a sudden you are confronted with everything which is normally nothing. There’s something in that experience which is much more than just acoustical.
Where do you go when you want silence?
I’m very into silence. But you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. For instance, right at this moment, I’m sitting in front of the window, and outside it’s raining. There is nothing else to see but the Mediterranean, which is grey, and the sky, which is grey. There’s more or less nothing to see, and nothing to hear apart from a very soft rain on the window screen. Nothing is happening in this room except that. That’s beautiful. That’s wonderful.
I live in the country most of the time, in the South of France. That’s where I am at the moment. In the country, especially at night, sometimes I sit for hours on the terrace listening. Sometimes you hear these little sounds of wind, owls, far away dogs, and then really nothing, and that’s wonderful.
Absolute silence doesn’t exist for us, because if you are put into a room – a soundproofed room – where there is nothing, then your ears hear your heart beating and also your nerves. You yourself are never completely silent. There’s never complete silence.
Maps version recorded: August 18 2018 Place: Maps HQ, Finedon, Northamptonshire onDeadWaves version recorded: August 16 2018 Place: ODW car, Beacon Hill lay-by, Herne Bay Interview: Maps HQ, April 8 2019
I was really honoured to be a part of it. I just thought it was such a cool idea. I recorded one version as Maps and then Polly Scattergood and I did one as onDeadWaves as well.
I recorded mine upstairs in my studio. I set up all my mics and then just sat there. It sounds weird but you do hear sounds that you just wouldn’t normally notice. And I guess, in a way, it made me think I should probably just sit and listen like that a bit more. I always feel like I should be doing something.
It was an interesting experience to just sit there for that amount of time. When you say, “four minutes and thirty-three seconds”, it doesn’t sound like a long time, but you don’t normally just sit for that long in silence. It’s a kind of meditation in a way. It’s a bit like if you do visualisations. It’s like the last thing I would want to do, but when I have done it, it’s really powerful. I love that.
On my version there’s a sort of clicking sound, which is the breeze coming through the blinds in the studio. At times it sounds like water, but it wasn’t raining that day. I mean, there’s all sorts of noises in my house. I heard things that I’ve never heard here before. I think the longer you sit in silence, the louder and louder those sounds become. It’s like the ticking of a clock that you might never notice but which seems to become really loud when you focus on it.
It’s interesting to listen to what people think they hear in these pieces. You’re creating a visual picture of where you think they were when they recorded it, and that could just be complete nonsense.
For the onDeadWaves version, I drove down to Herne Bay where Polly lives. We attempted to do it on the first day, but all of a sudden there was a massive thunderstorm. The idea was to go to the beach and record it there. We thought it would be lovely and that the sun would be shining, but the day we did it we literally couldn’t get out of the car because the wind and the rain was so bad.
So we waited and waited. Eventually we found a kind of lay-by and just sat in the car there. You can hear the odd car going by and seagulls and things like that because we were by the coast.
I tried to follow the instructions for the piece as best I could. For the Maps version, I held my guitar, which was was plugged in. Occasionally you can hear a little pinging sound from me holding that. Basically, I set everything up as if I was going to play something, and then just sat there. I guess it’s counterintuitive to what you’re used to doing but I think that’s part of it: you’re just sitting, maybe in a place you’re not comfortable with, and getting a different perspective on things. I could hear the hard-drive on my desk really clearly, which I don’t normally notice – it seemed so loud that day. I thought that was the only thing people were going to hear.
For onDeadWaves, Polly brought her Stylophone and I had a little dulcimer. I played the dulcimer on the new Maps album, Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. There’s quite a bit of dulcimer on the track ‘You Exist In Everything’.
Where do you go when you want silence?
Sometimes, even though my house itself is usually silent, my head can not be, so I go out for a walk. There’s lots of nice places quite close to me, and you can even get to fields if you try. I love going out for country walks. That’s the kind of silence I like.
I always used to be attached to my iPod – like properly attached. I literally couldn’t leave my house without headphones on, but nowadays I like leaving my music at home when I go out for a walk. I’m listening to music all day. I think sometimes you’ve got to tune out for a bit.
Recorded: During a performance of ‘Chess Game for Four’ at the HDLU’s Bačva Gallery Space in Zagreb Email interview: April 2019
MS: The visual to accompany your performance of 4’33” seems to isolate the humour that Cage brought to a lot of things by referencing his chess matches with Marcel Duchamp. That humour was almost unacknowledged in a very highbrow medium where Cage’s Zen / chance ideals seemed to ‘fit’ better. Some of his work – 4’33” on one level – is audacious and full of pranksterism. Has that aspect of Cage always been an influence to you?
Laibach: Cage probably did influence us to some extent, and to express our appreciation for his conceptualism we threw him instant mushroom soup in paper packets during his last concert appearance in Ljubljana back in the mid-1980s, due to his fungi obsession.
MS: Is humour in art something that’s important to Laibach?
L: In art we mostly appreciate the deadly serious humour that cannot take a joke.
MS: The instruments you chose for the performance was a turntable and a chess board. Why did you choose that?
L: A turntable is a music instrument on which the recording of a 4’33’’ performance was reproduced. The turntable used in our performance is a special one, with the drive at its core combined of coils and magnets that make the platter levitate. Since there are no moving parts inside the instrument, and no motors that spin the platter, this is truly the quietest mechanism that does not obstruct or infect the recorded material performed and it is thus brings the feeling of zero gravity into the reproduced sounds of silence.
The chessboard for four chess players was created by Laibach in the early 1980s as our homage to Marcel Duchamp, as well as Cage’s Duchamp-inspired Chess Pieces – especially The Reunion, a piece performed in Toronto by Cage and Duchamp as a composition written for two, playing chess on a specially constructed electronic chess board.
A chess game is very much like a music composition; it has its rhythm and its intervals of sounds and silence, its tenuto and staccato. We believe that Cage created his 4’33’’ composition under the direct influence of Marcel Duchamp and his philosophy on the art of chess. He once even stated that one way to study music is to study Duchamp.
MS: Where do you go when you want silence?
L: Six feet under.
Interview: Mat Smith
Documentary Evidence review: Laibach – Nova Akropola
Recorded: November 2018 Place: Los Angeles apartment Interview: April 3 2019
I recorded my piece in my living room and kitchen, which is one room. Actually – am I even supposed to give this away? Yeah, I should be saying it, right? Or should we do four minutes and thirty-seconds of a silent interview? Oh, that could be fun. Anyway, I was in my living room in my apartment in LA which is open to the kitchen. It’s this tiny little space. What I wasn’t playing was my Juno 60.
I knew I was doing something very special by performing 4’33”. For me this piece was really important because when I was at Mills College I saw this performed by someone – I forgot who it was, to be honest, but it was a talented student. It was a full concert hall and he was at a piano. He was playing the piano but not playing the piano – actually he was air-playing the piano, and it wasn’t pretend playing. It was so dramatic and so awesome, and I didn’t know what this was. I was so mesmerised by it. That was the first time I ever saw and heard this piece, back when I was sixteen in my first year at college.
So for me it was like, what am I going to do to perform this? I felt like I should make it this big thing, but I realised that my kitchen is such a beautiful sounding place, and I could just sit here where I have my synthesizers and just do it here. I don’t like anything contrived. I like things quite natural and intuitive, and this felt right. I discovered that the kitchen is very loud when nothing much is happening.
I recorded it all on my phone. I actually record a lot of ideas on it. I record the room that way when I’m writing and composing, because I do that through improvisation. I noticed that the refrigerator was really loud, and there’s also an oven that’s quite buzzy. I mean, listen to the oven right now… Can you hear that hissing sound? That’s a salmon cooking. It sounds like waves. It makes we want to go to the beach.
My girlfriend put on the kettle while I was recording, and then the kettle started to make a noise which sounded like a train. I couldn’t have prepared or set that up any better. It just made this whining sound and I was like, ‘Oh my god this is amazing!’ So I just sort of recorded the kitchen. I hate to say it, but it’s not that much more interesting! However, these sounds are very interesting to me – it’s the kind of music that I like to listen to.
I used to live in New York City, which is obviously a very loud city. You’ve got big trucks thundering past you. You’ve got someone’s car alarm going off. You’ve got an ambulance coming toward you. You’ve got the way it sounds far away, then gets closer, and then passes you. There’s just so much music everywhere – it’s just like an immense collage of sounds. When I did my version of 4’33”, I just thought, ‘Wow, there’s some amazing sounds that I don’t even notice.’ Later on I re-recorded the kettle sound and I put it in ‘Tilt’, the track I did with Actress.
Where do you go when you want silence?
I’m going to answer you in what probably seems like an obnoxious way. I’ve been training myself to be able to go into a silent place no matter where I am. I am a massive meditator, and I’ve been a huge believer in neuroplasticity, since the year before I started work on my album The Quanta Series. So I can always go into silence – I just close my eyes, slow my breath down and just really focus on my breathing.
Silence is so important to me. Because I’m unable to live in the woods away from technology and people, I have to find a way to accept the sounds and the constant, energetic noise in the world. But when I was out in the woods for as long as I was, and working on my album, I think that’s when I was finally able to shed all my hang-ups that I think I had – as a young person – about making art. And because I could hear myself, I could feel myself, and I think that’s why I need silence. I feel like I’m constantly accosted by the sound of the world.
When I write, and when I compose, I just close my eyes and I go somewhere. I become so present that in some ways I’m not here anymore. It’s kind of an interesting process, and I think that it’s a sort of meditation. I have to go to a place like that to create. The collaging of sound is being able to control my sound environment, because it’s not something I can usually control. Your ears are always open. You can’t shut it out unless you put earplugs in, and I think it’s a really fascinating feature of our anatomy that we’re constantly hearing things.
That said, I don’t know that we were made to be surrounded by so many sounds, like electricity and beeps and buzzing. I really wonder how that affects our nervous system, and our health. So for me, when I compose, it really is vibrational, and it really is like I’m trying to make sounds that can be pleasing instead of accosting.
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” – John Cage, Experimental Music (1957)
Of all the many pieces that John Cage composed, one in particular has become his signature gesture – 4’33” from 1952. The silent performance piece. The piece with no score. A piece seen, first and foremost, as emblematic of Cage’s frequent pranksterism and his nod to the absurdism of Marcel Duchamp.
Provocative it may well be, but it would be naïve to call 4’33” little more than a joke. Like all of Cage’s work, 4’33” was carefully and intricately considered. It embraced his following of Zen Buddhist principles, the chance operations of the I Ching and the omnipresent drama of nature. It’s also incorrect to say that it has no score – it does, and that score has relatively exacting parameters in the form of a specified duration (four minutes and thirty-three seconds; no more, no less) and that it is scored “for any instrument or combination of instruments”. There are no notes for the musician or musicians to play, but silent it is not, for true silence does not, and cannot, exist – least of all in a concert-hall full of people.
It is its strict parameters that makes 4’33” a composition and a performance piece. Any one us probably could, and probably do, sit in silence for that specified amount of time during the day, but it does not mean we are performing 4’33”. “It takes a bit of thought,” says Derek Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher Turner. “And a little bit of preparation. You can’t suddenly and spontaneously do it. Someone needs to time you. There’s effort involved.”
“Is music just sounds? Is a truck passing by music? Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” – John Cage, Composition As Process (1958)
It was a conversation between Simon Fisher Turner and Daniel Miller that led the Mute label to consider a proposition that most would consider utterly audacious – STUMM433, a boxset containing fifty-eight unique performances of 4’33” by artists and groups that have been part of Mute’s roster since it was founded by Miller in 1978, named for Cage’s piece and the signifier of an album in the label’s catalogue. It is the most extreme form of minimalism presented in perhaps the most maximalist fashion imaginable, clocking in at just under four and a half hours. And of course, it is not – at least not for the most part – silent.
Net proceeds from the project are split between tinnitus and mental health charities, both causes specifically chosen following the 2016 death of Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill, who took his own life following years of struggling with tinnitus and its associated impact on his mental wellbeing.
Cage conceived of the piece that would become 4’33” after a visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951. Despite expecting the room to contain complete silence, he was struck by two sounds that, like tinnitus, he could not block out – an upper register sound (the body’s nervous system) and a low throbbing pulse (his heartbeat). Even complete silence, it transpired, was not silent.
Cage’s insistence that the piece last four minutes and thirty-three seconds exactly is also proof of the thought that went into its creation. It is not simply a random amount of time – that duration amounts to 273 seconds; the temperature -273° Celsius is the universally-agreed absolute zero, a temperature that is possible only in theory, just like absolute darkness in a city of a million streetlamps, or an entirely empty canvas – or absolute silence.
4’33” was premiered at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY on 29 August 1952 by David Tudor, with whom Cage had worked on a number of pieces, including his Music Of Changes from the year before. Music Of Changes was one of Cage’s earliest pieces to make use of chance and indeterminacy in its composition, with the composer using the I Ching to make decisions about how the work would be written and delivered. Tudor’s performance of 4’33”, for piano, was presented as three discrete movements – lasting 33”, 2’40” and 1’20” respectively – with Tudor closing the lid of the keyboard to signify the start of a movement and opening it again to indicate its end. Though literally the antithesis of Music Of Changes, 4’33” is nonetheless just as much an indeterminate piece as its predecessor, given it is impossible to predict what sounds might reveal themselves during its silent delivery.
“It’s a silence full of expectations, of tension, of a consciousness that there is nothing happening – but still there is lots happening,” says Can’s Irmin Schmidt, who performed 4’33” several times in the 1960s at piano recitals. “All your attention is focussed on expecting something, but then this something isn’t happening. There’s something in the experience which is more than acoustical. It’s the vibration between nothing and the whole world of little micro-sounds. And if you’re very conscious, you start hearing what you normally don’t within that tension.” In that sense, through elevating and forcing your concentration, you begin to see the connection to Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, especially its encouragement of meditation and being aware of what’s happening at a very precise moment.
Schmidt provides a direct link between STUMM433 and Cage. “I met him maybe three or four times after performances of his that I attended,” he recalls. “These meetings had a big impact on me. He had a lot of humour. Meeting him was always a very joyful experience.”
It was a different connection to Cage that set Daniel Miller’s mind racing, however. “I’d started a site-specific project in Los Angeles in the spring of last year with a ceramicist and author called Edmund de Waal,” says Simon Fisher Turner. “I thought it was worth telling Daniel about it for various reasons: Edmund’s family came from Vienna and Daniel’s parents came from Vienna. Daniel has always been interested in John Cage, and Edmund also shares that interest. But the big thing was that the project we were doing was about the Schindler House in Los Angeles, and John Cage used to live there.
“So it felt like there was this extraordinary connection,” he continues. “During the meeting where Daniel and I were talking about it, I mentioned that I was putting lots of silences in between the sounds I was working on, and Daniel said, ‘Oh you can never get enough silence.’ I literally just responded ‘Why don’t you just get everybody on Mute to do 4’33”?’ It was as simple as that. It wasn’t thought about, but it was a very Cageian thought, I suppose. It literally just popped out of my brain in that moment.” Miller and the Mute team set about writing out to all of the artists who had called the label home, inviting them to participate by capturing a performance of the piece.
“We got an amazing response,” says Daniel Miller. “I mean, it sounds like it was a lot of work to make it all happen, but it actually all came together very quickly from when Simon and I spoke a year ago. People were really into the idea, and some bands even reformed – bands that haven’t seen each other for years like Pink Grease or Mountaineers. I was really happy, and it made me feel very good that everybody participated with full vigour and heart.”
The result is a tribute to both the significance of Cage’s work and the sorely-missed Craig Gill, a worthy endeavour supporting two important causes, and a brilliant survey of the artists that have made Mute the label it is over the past forty years. Miller often talks about the label he started as a ‘family’ and the gathering on STUMM433 covers more or less every band or artist that has been a part of the roster, from Miller’s own Normal and Silicon Teens aliases, through Depeche Mode, Erasure, Wire, Moby, Goldfrapp, Liars and onward toward newer signings like Lost Under Heaven and K À R Y Y N.
“Bands break up and they leave Mute, but we still stay in touch,” says Miller. “Most of the bands we’ve worked with for years, and so we got to know each other well over that time. Mountaineers and Pink Grease were examples of bands where we didn’t work together for years because they split up. For those bands, maybe there was a nostalgic element to them reforming for this.”
“We were honoured that Daniel asked us, and tickled by the challenge,” says Pink Grease’s Rory Lewarne. “We love Mute as fans, and feel proud to have contributed to its history in our small way. We were essentially an art school band anyway, so this sort of thing was right up our alley.”
True to Miller’s way of running the label, each artist was free to record whatever they felt like for STUMM433. That included Swans’ Michael Gira characteristically breaking ranks and counting his way through a piece that he has much disdain for. His interpretation is so fundamentally contrarian that one imagines Cage would have fully approved of it, each and every second providing a Zen-like reminder of our inevitable mortality.
Listening to multiple interpretations of this piece, one after another, means you become painfully aware of just how long four and a half minutes is. Unless you are like K À R Y Y N and can freely meditate wherever and whenever you feel like it, we are perhaps just not used to spending that length of time today just listening, just being entirely in that moment. That creates huge levels of that tension that Schmidt talks about when referring to performances of the piece, a stressfulness and a sense that the location you chose to listen to STUMM433 is frustratingly never, ever quiet enough.
There is one track of complete, and intentional, silence in the collection – a ‘tribute’ to Fad Gadget (Frank Tovey), Miller’s first signing to Mute, who passed away in 2001. “We definitely wanted to do something for Frank,” says Miller, “and we had a few ideas, but we felt like that was the most appropriate.” It effectively acts as an empty place setting at the Mute family reunion, and is probably the eeriest and most thought-provoking (non-)piece here.
“A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. A recording of such a work has no more value than a postcard; it provides a knowledge of something that happened, whereas the action was a non-knowledge of something that has not yet happened.” – John Cage, Composition As Process (1958)
True to the premeditated manner in which a performer approaches a rendition of 4’33”, each piece here has its own specific setting and story. James Chapman (Maps) set up his guitar in his home studio and didn’t play it, a breeze blowing through the blinds creating a sound like running water; K À R Y Y N set up a Roland Juno 6 in her LA kitchen, the recording picking up the hum of her fridge and a boiling kettle; Pink Grease set up synths and a mic in a back garden as if they were “performing for the squirrels”; Depeche Mode recorded the backstage ambience at the final concert on their last tour; Simon Fisher Turner and Edmund de Waal held two mandolas that Derek Jarman had given his friend. Some pieces, like Pink Grease’s, Cold Specks’ and Goldfrapp’s hold true to the three-movement concept of David Tudor’s original performance, albeit in uniquely-executed ways, while others don’t.
Daniel Miller’s three pieces – as The Normal, as Silicon Teens and with Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis as Duet Emmo – are among the most storied. For The Normal he recorded the street sounds outside the site of his parents’ old house on Decoy Avenue in Golder’s Green, where he set up Mute in 1978. For Silicon Teens, he paid a visit to site of the old offices that Mute resided in at 429 Harrow Road in West London – now redeveloped as two apartment buildings named Miller House and Orpheus House, the latter after a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds LP.
“For the Duet Emmo one we decided to go to the old church where Blackwing Studios used to be situated and where a lot of our early Mute albums were recorded,” says Miller. “They have a little garden and I thought we’d record it there. But then we had a wander around the building and saw that there was actually some kind of an exhibition in one part of the building, and so we did it there, in one of the old studios. I haven’t been in the building for thirty five years, so that was a nice thing to do.”
Cage never conceived of 4’33” as a piece to be recorded. “It’s sort of a paradox,” muses Irmin Schmidt. “The piece needs live performance. It’s not really transformable into a recording. You can’t feel the experience – it loses its magic.” To counter that, Miller asked each artist to create a visual to go along with the piece they’d recorded, either a video or an image, or whatever they felt like making.
Among the most elaborate and considered of these is a video by Laibach, deploying a specially-designed electronic chess board and a turntable playing a recording of 4’33”. “The turntable used in our performance uses a combination of coils and magnets that make the platter levitate,” explain Laibach. “Since there are no moving parts inside the instrument and no motors to spin the platter, the mechanism is quiet, and so it does not obstruct or infect the recorded material. The chessboard was created by Laibach in the early 80s as our homage to Marcel Duchamp, as well as Cage’s Duchamp-inspired Chess Pieces.”
Lurking in the shadows of STUMM433 is the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Mute Records. Miller doesn’t do anniversaries himself, and so the recent slew of events and celebratory re-releases have been dubbed part of an ‘anti-versary’. “A lot of the artists and people who’ve worked with Mute over the years really wanted to do something,” he admits. “I’ve managed to put my personal feelings about celebrations aside and was really happy to do this. A lot of labels celebrate anniversaries in ways that I wouldn’t want to. I can be nostalgic and I can easily veer into nostalgia, but I’m very conscious of that when deciding to do things like STUMM433.
“I’m very proud of the project,” he reflects, “and I’m very proud that we’re able to do things like this these days. In this fairly conformist way of doing things today, we’re still able to do the kinds of things we really want.” One suspects that John Cage would have appreciated that.
The lengths of the three sections of this article correspond to the durations of the three movements proposed in John Cage’s score, converted and expressed as percentages of the total word count.
I: 33” = 12.1% ~ 302 words II: 2’40” = 58.6% ~ 1465 words III: 1’20” = 29.3% ~ 732 words
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence
The original version of this feature first appeared in issue 42 of Electronic Sound and is used with the kind permission of the publishers. Buy Electronic Sound at electronicsound.co.uk. Sincere thanks to Neil Mason.