Why You’ll Pay for Silence: John Cage’s 4:33
I was on iTunes yesterday checking out Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest when I came across something that caught my eye. It was the famous – or perhaps infamous – John Cage piece Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds, one of the must unique and provocative pieces in the history of contemporary music.
4:33 was debuted on August 29th, 1952, by David Tudor at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Tudor was an established pianist well versed in the experimental music scene. That night however, he was faced with one of the most unmatched pieces of his career. He slowly walked on stage, took his place at the piano, and opened the score. But then he did something he had never done before – nothing.
For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds Tudor sat there, in silence, and nearly motionless. Then, without striking a single piano key, he got up and walked off stage.
No, he didn’t freeze or choke. He actually performed the piece flawlessly. You see, Cage’s 4:33, a three-piece movement, is a composition completely void of notes. It is nothing. It sounds like a half-baked idea, and maybe it is, but Cage believed that 4:33 was music just as any traditional composition was. For him, 4:33 qualified as music because it wasn’t actually silent; its music was in the environment – it was the traffic noise in the background, the sneezes, the coughs, the shuffling of papers, and the thoughts that went through people’s heads as they sat there watching Tudor do nothing.
Cage replaced the expected with the unexpected; instead of piano sounds, he gave the audience different sounds – but he still gave them music.
I first heard about 4:33 from my college music professor, who actually paid money for the sheet music and had us perform it in his intro to music theory class. I remember it well, the entire class sat there in silence for 4:33 and “played” Cage’s piece. I was dumbfounded. What the fuck, I thought; why the hell did my professor pay money for the sheet music that didn’t have any notes.
I had forgotten about 4:33 until I saw it on iTunes yesterday. What caught my eye was that it was being sold. That’s right, for 99 cents, you can have four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Sounds ridiculous, but people are actually buying it!
Obviously, this makes absolutely no sense from an economic stand point. First off all, these people are paying for nothing. Literally. Second of all, they already own it, that is, they can perform the piece by just shutting up for 4:33. They can even go be silent in front of a piano if it makes them feel better. In fact, if they are paying for 4:33 they might as well go outside, take out a one dollar bill, light it on fire, and stand in silence and watch it quietly burn.
Why would they pay for this? What is it that they are getting?
After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me that they aren’t buying silence, they are buying an idea. They are buying the point that Cage has made about silence and music; they are buying a chance to ponder what it means for something to be considered music; they are buying a few moments to think about what makes good art; they are buying the ability to tell people that they bought it; and they are buying the pleasure they get from 4:33 – whatever that pleasure may be.
Maybe. But you can’t just redirect the value of something to some intangible to maintain that the buyer was rational, it’s like assigning a value to snobbery or laziness to explain why a season pass holder skipped the opera. I wasn’t satisfied and found myself still trying to find an answer.
Luckily, I got an idea after watching a TedTalk by Paul Bloom. Bloom is a Yale psychology professor who specializes in the “science of why we like what we like,” as the subtitle to his latest book so eloquently says. Specifically, he is interested in pleasure; the pleasure we get from sports, other people, and art. He tells an intriguing and humorous story at the beginning of his talk (also in the first chapter of his book) about a Nazi named Hermann Goering who was an obsessive art collector. One of Hermann’s prized possessions was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he traded for with 137 paintings worth about $10 million in today’s money. Unknown to Hermann was the fact that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren.
Hermann heard the news at the Nuremberg trails while he was waiting to be executed for the crimes he committed throughout World War Two. According to his biographer, upon hearing that his Vermeer was a fake, Hermann looked “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” No, it wasn’t the six-some million deaths that he was partially responsible for, it was that his Vermeer, which turned out to be a van Meegeren, was a fake.
Bloom’s point, which is obvious only upon retrospect, is that we place a high value on essences. In other words, it wasn’t just the painting Hermann liked, it was its history. Consider the examples that Bloom provides to illustrate this:
- A tape measure owned by JFK was auctioned for $48,875
- The shoes thrown at Bush in Iraq were bought for $10 million dollars by a Saudi
- McGwire’s 70th homer went for $3 million
The point is, we don’t value things in a vacuum; their histories, their essences, are just as important.
With this in mind, let’s return to 4:33. Why do people pay for it on iTunes? Why did my professor buy the sheet music? They were buying the history, the essence, and the authenticity. Sitting in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, without having bought the mp3 or sheet music, would be a fake in the same way that van Meegeren’s painting was a fake. Sure, replicas look and feel identical, but they aren’t, they don’t have the same history as the originals.
When I think about all of the memorabilia that I have saved over the years I begin to understand why people spend money on 4:33. It seems to me that just like I wouldn’t trade my first pair of shoes, my favorite stuffed animal that I slept with as a kid, and my 3rd grade art project for replicas, Cage followers wouldn’t go stand in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suppose that I can’t criticize them too much given that we both value the histories more than the things themselves.
But part of me still wonders… would you really pay 99 cents for “nothing?”
Bloom, P., & Gelman, S. (2008). Psychological essentialism in selecting the 14th Dalai Lama Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (7) DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.04.004