John Cage’s Silent, Avant-Garde Piece 4’33” Gets Covered by a Death Metal Band

in Music | July 29th, 2016

When we think of silence, we think of meditative stretches of calm: hikes through deserted forest paths, an early morning sunset before the world awakes, a staycation at home with a good book. But we know other silences: awkward silences, ominous silences, and—in the case of John Cage’s infamous conceptual piece 4’33”—a mystifying silence that asks us to listen, not to nothing, but to everything. Instead of focusing our aural attention, Cage’s formalized exercise in listening disperses it, to the nervous coughs and squeaking shoes of a restless audience, the ceaseless ebb and flow of traffic and breathing, the ambient white noise of heating and AC…

and the suspended black noise of death metal….

We’re used to seeing 4’33” “performed” as a classical exercise, with a dignified pianist seated at the bench, ostentatiously turning the pages of Cage’s “score.” But there’s no reason at all the exercise—or hoax, some insist—can’t work in any genre, including metal. NPR’s All Songs TV brings us the video above, in which “64 years after its debut performance by pianist David Tudor,” death metal band Dead Territory lines behind their instruments, tunes up, and takes on Cage: “There’s a setup, earplugs go in, a brief guitar chug, a drum-stick count-off and… silence.”

As in every performance of 4’33”, we’re drawn not only to what we hear, in this case the sounds in whatever room we watch the video, but also to what we see. And watching these five metalheads, who are so used to delivering a continuous assault, nod their heads solemnly in silence for over four minutes adds yet another interpretive layer to Cage’s experiment, asking us to consider the performative avant-garde as a domain fit not only for rarified classical and art house audiences but for everyone and anyone.

Also, despite their seriousness, NPR reminds us that Dead Territory’s take is “another in a long line of 4’33” performances that understand Cage had a sense of humor while expanding our musical universe.” Cage happily gave his experiments to the world to adapt and improvise as it sees fit, and—as we see in his own performance of 4’33” in Harvard Square—he was happy to make his own changes to silence as well.

Related Content:

John Cage Performs His Avant-Garde Piano Piece 4’33” … in 1’22” (Harvard Square, 1973)

See the Curious Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Composition 4’33”

Stream a Free 65-Hour Playlist of John Cage Music and Discover the Full Scope of His Avant-Garde Compositions

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)

  1. Ric H says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 10:12 am

    Awesome piece! They particularly nailed the head-bobbing.

  2. Andrew says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 10:43 am

    Five metalheads.

  3. Steve Hoggart says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 12:01 pm

    I agree the amp hiss was mega

  4. James Scarbrough says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 2:18 pm

    Perhaps next, they could transcribe Le Monte Young’s six hour and forty-three minute piece, The Well-Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights, 87, for electric bass, guitar, voice, and percussion. Anyway, this was fun. It’s nice to revisit a conceptual work of “music” that can succeed in making one aurally and generally aware of where he or she is in the present moment, especially as the means of constant distraction and being mentally “elsewhere” proliferate more and more… but also make seeing this video and article possible.

  5. Geoff Rockwell says . . .
    July 29, 2016 / 10:43 pm

    Back when there were jukeboxes, I used to wish that they all would be required to include 4’33” so that it might be possible to have a quiet break every now and then. These days, my dream would be to have this piece mandatorily included in all playlists for stores and radio stations.

  6. PP says . . .
    July 30, 2016 / 10:38 am

    Just brilliant.

  7. Ben Reddin says . . .
    July 30, 2016 / 11:52 am

    Deep listening yields maximum aesthetic enjoyment.

  8. Alfredo bicho Vargas says . . .
    August 1, 2016 / 8:43 am

    Did they get a license to make a cover version? They can’t credit John Cage if they didn’t and might be sued by his estate

  9. curt mayer says . . .
    August 3, 2016 / 10:11 am

    they’re just a cover band.

  10. me says . . .
    August 17, 2016 / 4:05 pm

    it was very loud. they should have done it louder, with a more deafening silence.

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