Watch John Cage Play His “Silent” 4′33″ in Harvard Square, Presented by Nam June Paik (1973)

Have you ever played 4′33″ in pub­lic? Or rather, have you ever not played 4′33″ in pub­lic? Call­ing as its score does for no notes at all over its tit­u­lar dura­tion, John Cage’s sig­na­ture 1952 com­po­si­tion has made many pon­der (and just as many joke about) what it means to actu­al­ly per­form the thing. If music is, by its most basic def­i­n­i­tion, orga­nized sound, then 4′33″ is anti-music, the delib­er­ate absence of orga­nized sound. Yet it isn’t silence: rather, the piece offers a per­for­ma­tive frame for the dis­or­ga­nized sound that occurs uncon­trol­lably in the envi­ron­ment.

In a con­cert hall, 4′33″ encom­pass­es all the non-musi­cal nois­es made by every­one onstage and in the seats, try though they might to make none at all. Nat­u­ral­ly, the piece  sounds com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent when played in, say, the streets of a major city. John Cage did exact­ly that in 1973, sit­ting at a piano in the mid­dle of Boston’s Har­vard Square.

“He flipped open the piano cov­er while traf­fic roared by, and, except for peri­od­i­cal­ly check­ing his stop­watch, did noth­ing for four min­utes and thir­ty-three sec­onds,” writes the Brook­lyn Rail’s Ellen Pearl­man. “Then work­men slow­ly cart­ed the piano off while Cage keened like a dis­tressed Japan­ese monk.” You can wit­ness this pub­lic hap­pen­ing, or at least one minute and 22 sec­onds of it, in the video above.

The clip comes from A Trib­ute to John Cage, the video artist Nam June Paik’s audio­vi­su­al homage to the com­pos­er, who count­ed among his major sources of inspi­ra­tion along with his com­pa­tri­ots in the inter­na­tion­al exper­i­men­tal art move­ment Fluxus. (Just over a decade lat­er, Paik would involve Cage in a much high­er-pro­file project, the New Year’s broad­cast Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell.) Here Paik “revers­es John Cage’s pro­pos­al by over­load­ing the screen with mes­sages,” writes Thérèse Beyler at the New Media Ency­clo­pe­dia. “This is Zen for TV,” announces one of his onscreen mes­sages. “Do you hear a crick­et?” asks anoth­er. “… or a mouse.” Unlike­ly, at the inter­sec­tion of Brat­tle and JFK — but then, we can hear any­thing when offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty tru­ly to lis­ten.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

The 4’33” App Lets You Cre­ate Your Own Ver­sion of John Cage’s Clas­sic Work

Enter Dig­i­tal Archives of the 1960s Fluxus Move­ment and Explore the Avant-Garde Art of John Cage, Yoko Ono, John Cale, Nam June Paik & More

Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell: Nam June Paik’s Avant-Garde New Year’s Cel­e­bra­tion with Lau­rie Ander­son, John Cage, Peter Gabriel & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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