“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.