YouTube user AdamLore posted a video on his channel November 8, 2009 of an audio performance linked with a still image of John Cage’s seminal piece “4’ 33”” (1952), a piece of music in which the famed minimalist composer directed that a stopwatch be placed on the piano and nothing else done for the specified length of time of the composition. He framed the restless, shifting silence of the audience as music, rather than the musician’s performance. The twist to Lore’s YouTube version is that the audio has apparently been excised from the video, leaving John Cage’s performed “silence” as real, literal silence. The censorship is apparently courtesy of Warner Music Group, with a tagline below the video claiming “NOTICE This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by WMG. The audio has been disabled.” A red box on top of the video itself completes the picture — a sharing of art silenced by the Big Record Label. But is that the real story?
This internet art piece starting going viral today with the attention of one drewtoothpaste, a ’net and comic star himself. Looking into the video’s Youtube comment thread, it quickly becomes apparent that Lore meant the presence of the WMG censorship as an artistic joke, an appropriation of the composer’s music as well as YouTube norms and piracy hysteria into a composite piece that’s as much political commentary as it is conceptual art riffing. The audio, Lore responds in the thread, “wasn’t actually disabled” by WMG. But even though it’s not a real example of copyright tyranny, the political and artistic content still exists, and we can still look into this piece and ask what it means and how it engages Cage’s work.
Cage’s revolutionary piece was composed in 1952, and its premier performance was given in Woodstock, New York that same year by David Tudor. Cage’s interest was in pointing out the “nonexistence of silence,” the fact that even during the musical absence of the duration of the piece, the music that still persisted was formed by the sounds of the audience, the sound of rain on the roof, snippets of chatter and impatience. Lore’s YouTube video points to the same conceptual source. When we watch the YouTube video, sure, there’s silence from the speakers, but it forces us to be specifically aware of what’s not happening — there’s no literal music — and also what is happening … the sounds around us, the buzzing of a computer, the rustling of leaves outside.
When I listened to Lore’s Youtube performance of “4’33”,” I heard the music of a tumbling washing machine, birds out the window, and steps on a hardwood floor. Maybe you’ll hear the background music from your iTunes, and that’ll be your 4’33” of sound. Or maybe the cars outside, or a horn honking, or someone getting out of bed. It’s a beautiful, reflexive, real-world silence, but it’s defined by an online absence. That is what I think is important about Lore’s conceptual tweaking, not the fact that it’s a play on the RIAA, or a funny joke, but that it’s a continuation of the ideas of the art and the artist it takes up.
A few other art puns on John Cage are available on YouTube, plus some excellent thoughts and music from the man himself. I recommend the John Cage Vuvuzela cover of 4’33”, which features Cage pointedly not playing a vuvuzela (or soccer). An interview excerpt with the artist on his thoughts about silence can be found here, and some clips of his prepared piano pieces, played on pianos modified with screws, bolts and other detritus, are here and here. Plus, 27 Sounds Manufactured in a Kitchen!