Performed by Anyone on Anything


What would be a philosophical equivalent of John Cage’s 4’33”?

12 thoughts on “Performed by Anyone on Anything

  1. I’ve thought about this before, but nothing could come to mind. If I had to go with a few obvious ones…

    Kant -> Mozart
    Hegel -> Beethoven
    Nietzsche -> Wagner
    Adorno -> Schoenberg

    My stupid first impression for John Cage (and more particularly, 4’3”) would be Derrida, but I’m too lazy to explain why.

    Now, who woud be the philosophical Mahler?

    • I don’t know Mahler that well (just the symphonies, more or less, as everyone else), but Heidegger needs a home, doesn’t he?

      I think Kant would be more Bach than lively Mozart, and Hegel’s probably only early on a Romantic Beethoven, and later more of a symphonic Shostakovich (or Mahler)?

  2. Isn’t it philosophical?

    Maybe the question is, could it be preformed in the form of a talk or a paper? But then, does 4’33 have a form at all?

    In my opinion, it contains two thoughts: Subjectively, there is always *something* you hear (and it has a structure too!); but at the same time it has nothing to do with the work, so the work has no content. Objectively, it is the total rejection of form; music always made people appreciate *how* it is expressed (tonal. twelve-tone, serial, etc.); 4’33 cannot be understood in a certain form, but then, there is no content.

    Because there is no form, it cannot be adapted. One could think about a literary work that would have the same function or create the same emotions. 4’33 was performed (I guess) for people who expected something “experimental”. Is there are philosophical audience for this?

    Maybe my interpretation is completly wrong. The act of opening and closing the keyboard lid is disturbing, suggestive of a joke.

    You could start a talk with giving questions or publish a paper with 34 empty pages — but this will be perceived as a performance. This will negate its purpose. Did it?

    • It could be a great talk/presentation – you get up there and quietly turn pages after page (at about the speed of reading), and then some friends (planted in the audience in advance) would occasionally make sounds of approval, gasping noises, all interspersed with occasional nodding here and there!

  3. If we are talking about *who* would be Cage’s philosophical equivalent then I would suggest D.T. Suzuki or Meister Eckhart.

    If we are talking about *what* would be the philosophical equivalent of 4′33” then I would suggest Plato’s Khôra. Cage based 4’33” in part off of Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings,” a virgin surface that received its form from the combination of shadows and lights that fell upon it.

  4. Is 4’33” really formless? I would think it be suspected of being contentless, but form is definitely there – as for content, I think it’s there as well, just not in a traditional sense – audience’s unease (originally, of course) is part of the piece as much as shadows are part of the painting (thanks for this bit of knowledge, Thomas)…

    • I agree with this–contentless rather than formless. The way I understand it is that it’s essentially “pure form,” that music is generated through the act of framing, and Cage frames the silence in order to capture that which we don’t ordinarily consider to be music in the technical sense (the noise of everyday life). This is sort of what I was thinking with picking Derrida (particularly in his more Kantian moments), but maybe that still requires further elaboration.

  5. Mikhail, I think you are right that 4’33” has to have form, but the key is that 4’33” passively receives this form from elsewhere, it doesn’t have any intrinsic form of its own. The audience usually is uneasy, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. You could preform 4’33” at a bus stop without anyone else knowing about it and it would have honking cars and oblivious passersby. It can only take on both of these forms because it doesn’t have form of its own.

    As more evidence for the reading of 4’33” as Khôra I forgot to mention that Cage didn’t just like the zen-like aspects of Eckhart’s thought, he also liked the Eckhart’s heretical theology of the immaculate conception. According to Eckhart we are all the Holy Virgin, every single one of us. When we receive Christ we conceive him ourselves. Eckhart liked to play on the word enpfagen and used it to mean both reception and conception:

    “It must necessarily be that the person by whom Jesus was received was a virgin. ‘Virgin’ is as much as to say a person who is free of all alien images, as free as he was wen he was not. Observe that people may ask how a man who has been born and has advanced to the age of reason could be as free of all images as when he was nothing; he who knows so many things that are all images: How then can he be free? Keep in mind this distinction, which I want to make clear for you. If I were so rational that there were present in my reason all the images that all men had ever received (enpfagen), and those that are present in God himself, and if I could be without possessiveness in their regard, so that I had not seized possessively upon any one of them, not in what I did or what I left undone, not looking to past or to future, but I stood in this present moment free and empty according to God’s dearest will, performing it without ceasing, then truly I should be a virgin, as truly unimpeded by any images as I was when I was not.”

    Cage liked this idea of womb-like reception a lot. Rather than casting himself in the role the genius creator, Cage wanted to create a blank space, a womb-space, and let the sounds come from elsewhere.

    Cage used chance operations to determine the length of time 4’33”, but I suppose you could argue that any duration is still a form. This is why I think he included in the score (which I hadn’t ever actually seen before) that even the length of time could be determined by the performer.

  6. “Because there is no form, it cannot be adapted. One could think about a literary work that would have the same function or create the same emotions. 4′33 was performed (I guess) for people who expected something “experimental”. Is there are philosophical audience for this?

    Maybe my interpretation is completly wrong. The act of opening and closing the keyboard lid is disturbing, suggestive of a joke. ”

    That is why it like Zizek. Definitely not Derrida, who is much too fastidious in a different way from Cage’s fastidiousness (when applicable, isn’t it?).

    Most of the examples given by commenters sound all right, but not that convincing, if only because I’ve never really thought of it before, except Nietzsche/Wagner, of course.

    Adorno does seem a pretty good parallel to Schoenberg. We all want to read and listen to both as much as we can stand and as little as we think we can get by with!

    • I disagree with this, but am having a difficult time articulating why. For one, I think it’s more interesting or productive to read Cage’s piece as Dadaist, rather than as a ‘joke’, precisely because Dadaism was focuses on the act of framing art, and hence reducing it to pure form. For Zizek it’s the other way around: his preoccupation focuses on moving from the realm
      of pure form (the contentless frame) to that bit of content/residue which escapes or surpasses form. Then again, I suppose one could read Cage’s work as similar to that (espescially the prepared piano), but I see Cage as far more postmodern avant la lettre, whereas Zizek is more of a postmodern return to high modernism.

      Perhaps for kitch humor and Stalinism, Zizek would match better with Prokofiev (whom I think he’s expresses interest in, against Shostakovitch)

  7. It can’t be adapted, but can it be plagiarized?

    “Adorno does seem a pretty good parallel to Schoenberg. We all want to read and listen to both as much as we can stand and as little as we think we can get by with!”

    -That sounds about right.

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