Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Sounds of Silence -- and the Meaning of Nothing

Feb 9, 2004 6:10 am


The Sounds of Silence -- and the Meaning of Nothing



Well, it's official now. We're truly crazy:

Yesterday we mentioned in passing that faithful viewer djsteve had purchased a track that cost him the"best 99 cents [he'd] ever spent." The joke, of course, was that it was the second track from The Whitey Album by Ciccone Youth, which consists of a minute and three seconds' worth of silence. To tell you the truth, while we're amused by the fact that Apple is charging 99 cents for a song full o' nothing, we're even more amused by the fact that said track contains the usual digital rights management code to prevent you from playing it on any unauthorized systems. And the most amusing thing of all, of course, is that the song has a thirty-second preview.

Well, as it turns out, the Ciccone Youth track is by no means the only all-silent untune for sale at the iTMS; faithful viewers ben, Scott Levin, and Michael Wyszomierski contributed their own suggestions, too. And you know how Apple recently added a bunch of"iTunes Essentials" playlists to the store, such as"Cover Songs" and"'70s AM Radio Classics"? Well, we've compiled all the silent tracks we managed to scrape together into the first AtAT Essentials playlist,"To Be Played At Maximum Volume." Since we lack the power to add playlists directly to the iTMS, you'll have to buy each of these tracks separately, but here ya go...

Note that three of those tracks, the ones by Slum Village, are labeled EXPLICIT. We've listened to them, and we have to agree: combined, that's the dirtiest fifteen seconds of utter silence we've ever not heard. It's so dirty, it's like Handel's Messiah, only, you know, quiet.

My only consolation from these developments is the knowledge that it's not only the classical music world that's insane -- what with John Cage's infamous composition 4'33" (which is four minutes and 33 seconds of...silence).

With regard to Cage's" composition," take a look at this introduction to a lengthy discussion of this piece and its meaning -- and note that this is offered in complete and utter seriousness:

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this essay is to examine the aesthetic behind Cage's"silent" composition, 4'33", to trace its history, and to show that it marked a significant change in John Cage's musical thought -- specifically how it forms a point-of-no-return from the conventional communicative, self-expressive and intentional purpose of music to a radical new aesthetic that informs the field of unintentional sound, interpenetration, chance, and indeterminacy. The compositional process is described, both the writing of 4'33" and its evolution from past thought. Implications for performance are examined, and recommendations are made.
I can hardly wait to read the entire essay. No, really. What do you think I am, a philistine?

Some of you people just aren't serious. Not deeply serious, like me. Read the conclusion of the essay:

4'33" continues to baffle and confound people today. It has become an icon of the modern era, at once synonymous with Cage in the popular imagination, and Cage with it. This probably would have pleased him. It is music that is completely free of intentional sounds, and, in this sense, it is like a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which the world of unintended sounds writes its music. But, it is a tabula rasa in which not everything is permitted. Intentional sounds and egocentric actions have no place here. 4'33" requires a serious, reverent, focused, and open mind that is willing to put aside preconceptions and embrace the universe of sound as music.

It is easy to fall victim to the error that anything goes in this piece. Cage was clear that this is not the case. He was quite critical of"bad performances" of his music, and 4'33" was no exception. Ego and guile have no place here. The performer is dispensible and so is the audience. Only a singular, devoted listener is needed.

4'33" has no precedent in the history of music and it is probably history's most radical break with aesthetic tradition. Since it is" continuous", it is eternal, without beginning or end, boundless in time. It begs for our attention upon the preciousness of our environment. It is music that attempts to express nothing and to communicate nothing and yet expresses and communicates everything.

You do see its significance now, don't you?

I thought you would. I knew how truly, deeply intelligent and refined you were.

I think for the next week, I will write...nothing. There will be many blog posts that will attempt to express nothing and to communicate nothing -- and yet they will express and communicate everything. Yes, I think that works for me.

So, I'll be ba


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