Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Music & Philosophy

The Music & Philosophy course I’m teaching this quarter at UW-Bothell meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Thursdays we make music (like this). On Tuesdays we talk about the Philosophy of Music. Today’s class was devoted to John Cage’s most famous piece, 4’33”. I started the class by performing it for them. I’d worked out an arrangement for harmonica, and although my skills on harmonica are notoriously terrible, I played no wrong notes. (Here’s an MP3 of the performance.) Then we talked about an article by Stephen Davies that argues that 4’33” is not music. The article assumes, following Cage, that the content of 4’33” is to be understood, not as absolute silence (which is impossible anyway) but as whatever noise happens to be in the room during the piece; breathing, shuffling feet, coughing, etc. Davies’s argument, in a nutshell, is this:

1. Anything that counts as music must (at least) be organized sound.
2. If something is organized sound, then it must preclude some sounds as not belonging to the piece.
3. If a work precludes certain sounds from being a part of the piece, then this opens up the possibility of there being ambient sounds that are not part of the piece.
4. But in 4’33”, there can be no ambient sounds which are not part of the piece. All ambient sound heard during a performance of it is part of it.
THEREFORE, 4’33” should not be understood as music. (Davies argues that it is more properly understood as non-musical performance art.)

I argued that premise 4 is false. 4’33” does in fact preclude certain sounds, and this makes room for the possibility of ambient sounds that are not part of it. For instance, it precludes the performer from playing notes on his instrument. If I had accidentally played a note on my harmonica, this would have been a noise that was not part of the performance. 4’33” also precludes all sounds that do not occur during its duration, and any that are unable to be heard within the performance venue. This makes choice of venue important to the content of the performance; an outdoor performance sounds very different than one in a standard concert hall. Cage wants us to pay attention to sounds that we otherwise don’t pay attention to. He also wants us to expand our notion of what sorts of sounds count as music. So he precludes traditional kinds of music from 4’33”. Thus, for instance, if someone who worked at the concert hall was blasting Beethoven’s 5th from his office during a performance of 4’33”, this music would distract from the audience’s ability to hear the sounds that they are supposed to be listening to. In this case we would consider Beethoven’s 5th as ambient noise that is not part of the work; something we should try to tune out so that we can listen to the content of 4’33” proper.

This class is going to be so much fun.



Pete said...

I have forwarded your illicit performance of "4:33" on to the executors of Cage's estate. You will be hearing from their lawyers shortly.


mol said...

...this music would distract from the audience's ability to hear the sounds that they are supposed to be listening to.

Which sounds are the sounds you are supposed to be listening to and which sounds are the sounds you are supposed to be ignoring? How can you know for sure?

sandi said...

...so were the responses of your students, the giggles, gasps, etc (at least that's what happened when we first listened to this as freshman music majors!)part of the performance too? Is it organic or static? I know that's a little "the author is dead", lit theory type thing, but I was just wondering. Does that "new criticism" extend to musical compositions as well?