Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is 4'33'' music?

Well, this is something that I have debated many times with many different people. The one thing that surprises me is that there seems to be an even number of people with differing opinions when talking to musicians and non-musicians. My belief is that we have evolved to a state where any sound can be music. If Varese's "Hyperprism" or Babbit's "Philomel" are music, then we should most certainly be able to view ambient noise as music. Think of the lesson from the hyperbaric chamber - there is no silence. I have often started riffing off the sound made by my turn signal or windshield wipers. Are they music? What about when both are running at the same time, and they phase in and out of each other. Wouldn't Reich be so pleased to listen to that? Also, what about when you are humming or whistling a tune and a truck backs up near by. Sometimes the harmony produced becomes new and exciting. It is this type of background noise that can serve as the ultimate inspiration in reevaluating our concept of what we deem to be 'music'.


Leah said...
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Leah said...

Though I've thought about this question before, I've never really come to a definitive conclusion. Or, maybe I have, but then I've just as quickly disregarded it the next day. Upon thinking about it tonight, I decided that my answer would all depend on the definition of music I was using. If I defined music by the way I thought about it when I first started playing, then 4'33" definitely does not qualify. Luckily, I have evolved since the blissfully ignorant age of eight, as has my palette for sound. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure that, in reality, I am no more equipped to define music than I was then.

So, I decided to do what I always do when I don't know exactly how to define something; I looked it up in the Oxford English dictionary.

*I know that this dictionary is not meant to be prescriptive, so this argument lacks a great deal of validity, but I found it interesting to think about anyway...*

For the word "music" as a noun, the dictionary has nine different usuages, most with mulitple subdivisions. The very first usage begins in this manner:

"The art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, expressive content, etc."

After thinking about the definition for a couple of minutes, I decided (at least for today) that 4'33" is, in fact, music. My reasoning is as follows:

First, music can be an art or a science. Usually, one of the problems in calling this piece music is that it has practically no parameters. For most people, this takes the "art" out of it. But the OED says that this is okay--so I'm in.

Second, music requires the production of vocal or intstrumental sounds. In a concert hall, when this piece is performed, I have no question but that there would be vocal sounds occuring. Additionally, depending on your definition of instrument, (I'm not consulting Oxford on this), I would bet that instrumental sounds were also taking place.

Third, and possibily most integral to my hypothesis, there is a list of things that these sounds can create. At the end of that list is the abbreviation of possibility, "etc.". Literally, from the latin, "all the rest".

If the OED is going to be so accepting of "all" the things sounds produce and call them music, so can I. Sounds can produce beauty of form and melodies, yes, but they can also produce noise, disjunction, and clashes. These may not be the most popular by-products of sounds, but they certainly fall into the cagegory of "all" and therefore, they count as music. By the same token, in this case, so does John Cage, even if the logic does appear to be slightly askew.

Cesar Leal said...
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Cesar Leal said...

The power (or dark side) of these type questions is that one feels the need to take a radical position. Categorical assumptions at this point would probably make us fall in the trap of making unreliable generalizations when judging music.

Regarding this piece and its validity as 'music', I will certainly restrain myself of giving a yes/no answer or perhaps an answer at all.

What I think is most important to identify is the criteria of analysis on which we based our judgments. Joseph Kerman in his article "A Profile for American Musicology" states the need and the problem of music criticism: “The insight I am referring to, critical insight, has never been easy to define, and it has always been as urgent as it is problematic. Urgent, because criticism is the way of looking at art that tries to take into account the meaning it conveys, the pleasure it initiates, and the value it assumes, for us today.” (63)

Dr. Brunner said...

Good comments! I came up with a definition of music while a graduate student that has served me well, lo these many years, and is inclusive enough to embrace 4'33" as music:

Music is sound organized in time by a composer, performer, OR A LISTENER. The implication being that any sounds, when heard in an aesthetic or inquisitive way, can be perceived or considered music.

Added to this early definition of mine has been my study and practice of mindfulness meditation, which seeks to train bare or pure attention. When one drops judgement and engages any of the senses fully, i.e., without the distraction of a discursive or judgemental mind, life can be experienced as a mystery and/or a work of art. I have always thought that Cage's aesthetics late in his life (as Kyle Gann says in his Chapter 6) were in large part shaped through his encounter with Zen Buddhism, which teachers pure attention and seeks in ways to undermine the rational mind so that we can open to mystery, to freedom. But perhaps this is a separate thread.

Anyway, good discussion. Thank you.

Paul Deatherage said...

In staying with Cage's container-type form, 4'33" is indeed music. It is music which has a disproportionate number of rests. The part is tacet. In this case the container is empty, but time has still been divided up into three sections withing the 4'33" boundary. Time has been set aside for a performance and an audience is present to observe.

By Cage's definition, this is music. As a composer, Cage has the power to define music, within his terms. 4'33" is music: It is Cage's music.

It may be useful to practice 4'33" on a daily basis for sanity's sake.

Bryan Winningham said...

This is a difficult question to answer. The question itself could be expanded beyond the boundaries of music, and apply to all art forms. I used to believe that 4'33", and pieces like it, were not music; not even close. However, I have come to believe that the question itself is the issue. It is not broad enough to encompass much of the "music" of the 20th century and beyond. A more fitting question, I believe, would be to ask, "Is it art?". When the word "music" is used in place of art, the question carries with it an air of judgment, wherein you must define the quality of the work, and this would not be fair of me (or perhaps I am just playing it safe). So, in response to the question "Is it art?", 4'33" is art of the highest caliber, encouraging us as "listeners" to explore a concept often unfamiliar and uncomfortable, which I think was the goal of John Cage all along.