Writing the Ephemeral.
John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing as a Landmark in Media History


Simon Aeberhard 

[The ephemeral—a dilemma]


Upon first consideration, the concept of the ephemeral—the common topic the articles in this issue engage with—quite plausibly seems to be a radical antonym of writing. At the core of any notion of the ephemeral—the transitory and the short-lived, the elusive and the perishable—emphatically stands the idea of non-repeatability, singularity and of a fragile presence that vanishes in the very moment it comes into existence. Repeatability on the other side, stability (temporal as well as spatial) and absence (of the communicator) precisely seem to represent the key features of writing and inscription.[1] The function of writing, as legends have it, consists in making (relatively) permanent, lasting and endurable what otherwise would be irretrievably lost in time.

From a philosophical point of view, the concept of the ephemeral thus poses a dilemma. Whatever can be written down and medially inscribed is, by definition, repeatable and therefore cannot, by definition, be ephemeral. And whatever is to be considered ephemeral is essentially constituted by its unrepeatability, and therefore cannot possibly be recorded (at least not without the loss of its quality of being ephemeral)—be it on paper or on electromagnetic tape. The ephemeral, from this perspective, remains external to all media: that which cannot be inscribed, noted or written down. The problematic situation of any analysis of the ephemeral thus consists in the impossibility to medially codify (in a metaphysically non-biased terminology) what one actually tries to analyze.

Music history and the history of musical notation


The dilemma of writing the ephemeral even, and especially, holds true in music history, and more precisely, in the history of musical notation and in the evolution of (forms of) writing music. The phenomenological precondition enabling the communication of (proto‑)musical entities (corresponding to the invention of verbal languages—see e.g. Luhmann 2012: 123–138) is the selection of certain (recursive) forms audible in a pristine chaos of sonic impressions and perceptions (and perceptions of sonic perceptions). A certain tune or rhythmical pattern is abstracted from an originally more complex acoustic event and is, by imitation, made reproducible. Every other aspect of the original event—tempo, pitch and tone, for example—is considered to be an accidental property and can therefore, relative to the hypothesized tune or rhythm, be perceived as ephemeral, informal and unique. The advantage of this first (proto‑)musical operation lies precisely in abstracting certain stable elements from all the other qualities (audible or not) of the original acoustic event: by formalizing it, the simple tune (to be clear: this is an entity purely theoretical in nature, for it does not exist outside of the abstraction) will stay the same (and recognizably so) whether sung, whistled or hummed; the rhythmic pattern will be identical (and therefore repeatable) whether clapped, tapped or drummed. It becomes, as the media theory of sociologist Niklas Luhmann would have it, form.

Obviously, nothing of this has to do with notation and inscription in the strict sense of “writing something down.” But it might have become clear from this hypothetical derivation that the attempt to transform sonic ephemerality into a stable, reproducible musical form strongly relies on abstraction. Omission of all accidental properties of a sonic event is the necessary precondition of visually fixing music by symbols and signs. Only what is deemed an essential property of an acoustic event is, and can be, stabilized in writing. All the other, elusive, properties of that same event—tempo, pitch and tone, for example—will be considered accidental, and therefore ephemeral, precisely because they are not formally inscribable, precisely because they cannot medially be “written down” (in the loosest of all senses), precisely because they are not understood as a musical form.[2] Musical notation and recording inescapably follows this logic of not so much copying the original sound but ascertaining certain conditions for recreating it (cf. Chanan 1995: 138), or, as art philosopher Nelson Goodman states: “The function of a score is to specify the essential properties a performance must have to belong to the work; the stipulations are only of certain aspects and only within certain degrees” (Goodman 1976: 212, my emphasis).

In the course of the evolution of musical notation from ancient letter notations to Gregorian and Byzantine neumes to the mensural notation of early modern Europe and the classical staff score, these systems not only made musical forms inscribable (and therefore intelligible) in a continuously higher degree of precision, but they were also able to include more and more aspects and parameters of music, thus making more and more sonic elements comprehensible as musical forms. Measure, tempo, durations, rests, mode, key, pitch all became a musical form at some point or another during the evolution of musical notation (even though, of course, that history will not always have evolved unilineally). As a consequence, the “writability” of these musical parameters made the recording of music through writing a complex art form with a range of highly formalized acoustic and meta-acoustic aspects. For composers of their time, the written scores also always, to a certain degree, “informed” the boundaries of what was musically imaginable (the Latin term “informare” means “giving a form, a shape to something”—cf. [Fuhrmann 2011: 121]).

As a result, the history of (Western) music can quite accurately be described as a progressive inclusion of virtually all accidental properties of acoustic events into what is essentially considered to be music. More and more aspects of sound became musical forms, which in turn changed their status from ephemeral to recordable. However, the gradual inclusion of more and more aspects into musical notation resulted in the expulsion not only of the accidental and ephemeral, but, ultimately, of (singular, elusive and informal) time out of Zeitkunst per se. Once even the smallest of sounds has become a musical form, i.e. musically “notable” (in every sense of the word: noteworthy, noticeable and writable), once any little noise or sonic aspect has potentially become an essential part of a musical event, once the products of the musical industry have technically become indefinitely reproducible with the highest acoustic fidelity, then the outside of music, everything that is not musically writable, seems to have become its inside.

Roughly speaking, the onset of this process happened right after World War II, when electroacoustic media devices, tape recorders, became accessible and the avant-garde, the composers of New and Electronic Music, started engaging with analytical taxonomies encompassing virtually all possible noise (cf. e.g. Sinker 1997: 213). As one contemporary composer wrote in 1960:


The subject of “total organization” leads naturally to the consideration of electronic media, since the latter make possible the exact control of all musical elements […]. A dynamic nuance thus not only can, but must, become a fixed quantity, as can and must, also, any tone in the whole range of pitch or color gradations. Every moment of music not only can but must be the result of the minutest calculation, and the composer for the first time has the whole world of sound at his disposal. (Sessions 1960: 31)


Every aspect of an acoustic event now seems to be medially inscribable, musically writable and repeatable as a musical form. And the project of music, in the long run, “ends up canceling the distinction between music and nonmusic”, as Luhmann (2000: 295) claimed.[3]

The rupture—John Cage discovers “noise”


The notion of a progressive evolution of musical notation, as logically inevitable as it might seem on this first media-philosophical account, presents a striking rupture. This rupture, properly manifested only by the new aural media in the late 1940s, will stand in the center of the following considerations. I will argue that the possibility of electroacoustically capturing, storing and distributing as well as, on all these levels, technically manipulating and editing literally any pattern of noise, profoundly and irreversibly changes the relationship between writing and its sonic complement—and therefore changes the very notion of writing and written music altogether.

What does this rupture in media history consist of? “The whole question is very intellectual” (Cage 1961: 116), John Cage sarcastically warns in his Lecture on Nothing, the text from 1950 I am going to analyze at some length below. Cage’s lecture reflects the medial rupture as it happens not only on different levels but also, as will be shown, in different modes. While autobiographically recalling his becoming an avant-garde composer during the 1930s and 1940s, Cage explains what fascinated him most in music, despite having, “so to speak, no ear for music” (Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz 2003: 64). He discusses an unexpected quality he found and admired in certain noises (unlike in tonality, for example: “I never liked tonality“ [Cage 1961: 116]), namely their disturbing resistance to becoming a musical form: “I used noises. They had not been intellectualized; the ear could hear them directly and didn’t have to go through any abstraction about them” (Cage 1961: 116).

The most characteristic feature of noises compared to sounds is their simplicity, their cultural greenness and unspoiltness, and the fact that they had not been and cannot possibly be musically symbolized or formalized. Unlike sounds, single or combined, noises as such lack meaning (within or outside of the musical system). Presented to the open ear, noises are a reminder of the difference between a sonic structure as an abstract, symbolic musical or verbal form and a sonic structure as an empirical, per se meaningless acoustic event.[4] Cage presents this difference as a difference in sound perception involving either the mind or the ear: “I learned that the intervals have meaning; they are not just sounds but they imply in their progressions a sound not actually present to the ear. […] What is being fooled? Not the ear but the mind.” (Cage 1961: 116) Seen as such, the ear is able to more or less mechanically take up acoustic reality unspoiled by musical formalization and cultural signification, whereas the mind proves to be corrupted by intellection when it comes to sonic perception.

The sonic structure and symbolic meaning of sounds, tones and intervals (even twelve-tone) are always inextricably intertwined; noise, by being just noise, only noise and nothing but noise, is capable of liberating the composer from the hefty implications that come with sound’s symbolic meaning. The difference between sound and its meaning, between (musical) mind and (acoustic) ear—a difference, that only noise (as the negation of this difference) can point out—has consequences for Cage: “I began to see that the separation of mind and ear had spoiled the sounds,—that a clean slate was necessary. This made me not only contemporary, but ‘avant-garde’” (Cage 1961: 116).

What makes Cage “avant-garde” in the first place (and what made the difference between sound and noise apparent to him) is his early engagement with the new devices and techniques of electroacoustic media “which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (Cage 1961: 4), as he writes as early as 1937. Similarly, the Lecture on Nothing of 1950 recounts an experience in which electroacoustic noise strikingly exhibited its power to move beyond musical formalization: “The most amazing noise I ever found was that produced by means of a coil of wire attached to the pickup arm of a phonograph and then amplified. It was shocking, really shocking, and thunderous” (Cage 1961: 117).

From a phenomenological point of view, Cage perceives the new devices not only as a means of altering habitual ways of listening, but, more importantly, as a kind of “thrust reversal” in the media history of music, as an inversion of the dynamics between mind and ear, for they do not only newly and shockingly bring noise into the musical business, they also demonstratively split up the “writability” of acoustic material into a purely technical, even mechanical notion of repeatability on the one hand, and an abstract symbolization and signification on the other.

Ever since the invention of the phonograph in 1877, audio devices have, for the first time in media history, competed with the tempting promise to record, store and reproduce not only musical or verbal sounds, but all audible aspects of an acoustic event without exception and with all the supplementary qualities that would formerly have been considered accidental properties. The phonograph creates a world in which virtually all and any noise is writable (i.e. indefinitely repeatable), in which every noise—as ephemeral as it might seem—has the potential to become sound. Indeed (and as a result of these technical possibilities, I would claim), Modernist, Surrealist, Dadaist, Bruitist and Futurist experimenters of all artistic genres, from the late nineteenth century to the musique concrète, were able to perceive noise as sound: they discovered, explored and celebrated a whole new soundscape beyond what had been previously musically or verbally notable (see Khan 2001). These schools quite naturally included noise into music (and literature) and began to “write” noise—with or without the use of new devices.

However, what even the strangest of Bruitist poems and performances regularly fails to achieve is to capture the ephemeral, that is, the irreducibly singular and perishable qualities of noise. Instead, by exhibiting noise as a performance and making it medially writable and repeatable, it undergoes a process of symbolization in one form or another and thus irretrievably loses what Cage is interested in: “to let sounds be themselves” (Cage 1961: 10), “to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments” (Cage 1961: 3).

Instead of selling noise as the new sound (and thereby more or less making noise a musical form), Cage takes the opposite direction: sound is to become noise again—concrete, meaningless, and ephemeral. The new aural media obviously still play a crucial role in Cage’s development of this idea. Even if they make noise technically repeatable and medially inscribable, by the same technical means they also powerfully destroy the symbolic form of musical sound as well as its meaning. Deconstructively speaking, the symbolic dimension of a certain sound in technical reproduction is only present in its absence (cf. Gauß 2009: 277). What electroacoustic devices in fact capture, store and distribute, what these media inscribe and make repeatable, is not the sonic form of symbolic sounds but the acoustic mark of the actual sound event.[5] Those apparatuses function, “since Edison’s days, as an analog medium” (Kittler 2010: 199): what they take up, record and play back are, at first mechanically, later by means of transformation into electromagnetic impulses, mere air vibrations, physical sound waves, not their culturally biased form.

Cage is probably one of the first to pay attention to and understand the dialectics of the new media: their ability to at the same time convert sounds into noises (medially inscribing their real and accidental properties instead of their symbolic form) and noises into sounds (making their ephemeral properties repeatable). And Cage is certainly the first to artistically explore this—by writing music: “the present methods of writing music,” Cage writes in his Credo of 1937, “will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound” (Cage 1961: 4). This allows for a retelling of Cage’s musical career, at least from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, as a de-intellectualization of music, a de-symbolization of noise, a “musicalization of aurality itself” (Khan 2001: 102) and, eventually, a quest to literally write the ephemeral.

Writing in order to hear something one hasn’t heard yet: Williams Mix (1953)


The quest begins in 1938, when Cage invents the prepared piano. Placing a pie plate on the strings of a regular piano and threading nails between them can in fact be considered a first (and remarkably simple) step to interfere with mind and ear, for it “introduces extreme unpredictability in this sense at least: that it renders obsolete all possible score analysis, if ‘score’ is taken to refer to the paper music that is considered to determine what counts in classical performance” (Sinker 1997: 215). Radically uncoupling sensory and intellectual perception, the prepared piano takes to extremes the difference between musical information and the actual listening experience.

In this regard, Cage’s prepared piano pieces drastically draw attention to the fact that real sounds always and necessarily differ from their symbolic representation on sheet music, that actual music performances always have qualities that cannot be formalized in writing, and that every sound is fundamentally different in its physical properties. Even though Cage attempts to disrupt the bond between musical writing and sonic compliance, however, he does not yet push beyond the restrictions of a classical score: writing still essentially is imagination and symbolization. Here, writing music still means using conventional symbols in a pre-established notational system—except that the resulting compliance might sound different from what you expect.

After having used record turntables (playing test tones at variable speed) for the first time in Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in 1939, the abovementioned coil of wire on the phonograph in Imaginary Landscape No. 2 in 1942, electronic oscillators in Imaginary Landscape No. 3 in 1942, and radio (playing mostly white noise) in Imaginary Landscape No. 4 in 1951—all of which use a comparatively classical staff score, but still strikingly transform the scored sound—, Cage, according to himself, first encountered the audiotape “in Paris in the late forties” (Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz 2003: 167) when he met Pierre Schaeffer, an electrical engineer at the French Radio and TV station and inventor of musique concrète. At first, however, Cage did not see much potential in the first electromagnetic acoustic medium that had been a British war spoil after the liberation of Radio Luxembourg from the Nazis: “It didn’t really dawn on me” (Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz 2003: 162). But in 1951, he gave it a try within the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape that was founded by New York-based architect Paul Williams. Pieces by Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown resulted (cf. Austin 2004: 189, 236), as did Cage’s Williams Mix that was written in 1952 and realized in 1953.

The score of this four-minute, fifteen-second piece for eight simultaneously played tracks of magnetic tape is particularly interesting, because it transgresses the boundaries set by ordinary sheet music. Instead of denoting an imaginary musical event using highly formalized marks in a pre-established notational system (i.e. notes in a staff), the score of Williams Mix is in fact a sketch that accurately maps and graphically organizes the new electromagnetic noise. Every single page of the score depicts “full-size,” i.e. each a quarter inch in height (cf. Pritchett 1996: 91), two rows of the eight tracks of the magnetic tape, each ten inches in length. Played back by the customary fifteen inches per second, every page consequently represents the duration of no more than one and a third second of music. As a result, the entire score of the short piece consists of an exuberant 192 pages.[6]

In this respect at least, the score resembles a “dressmaker’s pattern” (Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz 2003: 170), for it soberly constitutes the design for cutting and pasting pre-existing tapes. The raw material for the premiere (and Cage’s only realization of the piece) consisted of approximately 600 recordings on magnetic tape with sounds roughly grouped into six categories (city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produced sounds, wind produced sounds and small sounds requiring amplification) and three modes of constancy/unpredictability (frequency, overtone structure, amplitude). In an arduous process, these tape bits were cut, prepared and spliced according to the graphic disposition of the score. By chance operations Cage obtained exact specifications for each category and each sound category’s place and form.

The musical result of this seemingly absurd process of handicraft—only possible with the help of friends—is hard to grasp for the mind and barely graspable for the ear: “[W]hatever associative properties the recorded sounds might have once possessed are almost entirely obliterated” (Khan 2001: 113). In this regard at least, Cage’s berserk slicing out of conventional musical signification has obviously been successful.

Paradoxically, Cage achieved this effect by writing. Writable forms here dialectically function as a precondition for the deliberate formation of ephemeral (i.e. musically not formalizable even though technically repeatable) noises. In order to achieve this, Cage’s writing smartly takes advantage of two characteristic features of sonic production with electromagnetic tape that came into being with its invention: physical (instead of anthropological) chronometry and acoustic (instead of sonic) multidimensionality.

“Whether one uses tape or writes for conventional instruments, the present musical situation has changed from what it was before tape came into being,” Cage retrospectively writes in his essay on Experimental Music from 1957, and continues:


Since so many inches of tape equal so many seconds of time, it has become more and more usual that notation is in space rather than in symbols of quarter, half, and sixteenth notes and so on. Thus where on a page a note appears will correspond to when in a time it is to occur. A stop watch is used to facilitate a performance; and a rhythm results which is a far cry from horse’s hoofs and other regular beats. (Cage 1961: 11)


The correlation between tape length and duration of the recording forces the composer—instead of enabling him to deliberately create sonic meaning by applying seemingly anthropological patterns—to fill in pre-existing blanks representing continually elapsing time. The composer thus becomes an “organizer of sound” (Cage 1961: 5) in a homogenous space entirely indifferent to musical signification, “because one second of sound is so many inches on tape. That means that the old meters of two, three, and four are no longer necessary, that space on a page is equivalent to time” (Cage in Grimes and Cage 1986: 48).[7]

Using such a matrix, graphical writing thus joins the indifference of the tape reel toward musical forms, musical semantics and musical meaning. In this chronometry, there is simply no space available for semantic rests, dramatized climaxes and the like. The composer’s decision not to fill in sound at a particular place will not (semantically) count as a rest; instead, it will be (semiotically) read as a blank—a blank which will not remain silent after all, but will be “mechanically” filled with white noise by the apparatus.

When transferred to the score, the rigid time/space-correlation of the tape as a two-dimensional medium imposes a certain semantic blindness on the composer concerning his sonic material, for he is not working with musical forms or even actual sounds but with material records (grouped or not), with nontransparent and fragmented stripes of band. When Cage “wrote,” i.e. sketched, Williams Mix (and even while he worked on realizing it), he could not possibly have had an accurate idea of what these assembled bits and pieces would sound like. But it is not only the unpredictability of this operation that Cage takes advantage of: Angular and skew cuts in the material band will inevitably also destroy the “realness” and recognizability of a particular sound; they will produce noise that has emphatically been unheard (of). By suspending the linearity of time, selective manipulations—such as cutting, copying and crossfading, isolating, reversing and superimposing these fragments— will render noise acoustically multidimensional. Music, as it were, has become editable (cf. Chanan 1995: 130).

Cage once stated: “You see, I don’t hear music when I write it. I write in order to hear something I haven’t heard yet” (Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz 2003: 63). Williams Mix’s ludicrously laborious score seems to take this statement to a whole new level. From media history’s point of view, the electromagnetic tape here seems to open up space for a new notion of writing. What is being “written down” no longer registers pre-existing thoughts and ideas (musical or not), nor is Cage’s sketch a graphical drawing requiring interpretation in order to denote sound (as Feldman’s compositions do, for example). On the contrary: The written score here serves as a quasi-mechanical program that precedes but does not anticipate in every detail its sonic and musical compliance.


Acoustical Intervention: John Cage: 4:33, version by Julie Steinberg, downloaded as mp3-file from Amazon Music, then filtered anew with a reciprocal AAC-Filter (VBR256) by Hannes Seidl

Quietly composing silence: 4’33” (1952)


What is 4’33”? A piece of music? A bit of épater les bourgeois? Musical dada? Zen Buddhism? The random sounds of the environment revealed by the framework of David Tudor’s non-performance? Theater? Conceptual art? A hoax? A mere nothing? (Salzman 1982: 6)


Whatever 4’33” actually is, its evolutionary history proves to be quite interesting when viewed from the perspective of written musical composition: Seen in this light, the iconic and world famous “TACET”-score (published typewritten in 1960, calligraphic in 1986) is the late (and strikingly simplified) result of a long process of transformations. The first verifiable conceptual references to 4’33” can be traced back to A Composer’s Confession, an address Cage gave at an art-convention in Poughkeepsie on 28 February 1948. Cage then announced that he wanted to “compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three to four and a half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned music’—and its title will be Silent Prayer” (Cage 1981: 43).

But it would take some time, and some programmatic shifts, too, until David Tudor famously closed and re-opened the keyboard lid of his piano three times in Woodstock on 29 August 1952 to indicate the beginnings and the endings of the three movements—each of a different length, adding up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence—which is, to be clear, “silent” only under the premise that silence is defined not as the absence of noise but rather as the absence of intended sound, or a silence, as Cage himself memorably stated, that is “silent” only under the premise that “silence is not acoustic” (Cage, quoted in Revill 1992: 164). The score, visibly “read” by Tudor while “playing” and turning pages, is unfortunately lost. Although the postmodernist “TACET”-score admittedly was the first to be officially published, the original hand-written manuscript of 4’33” most certainly looked substantially different.

Apart from a conceptually developed second manuscript by Cage himself that served as a birthday present in 1953,[8] David Tudor, the performing pianist of 4’33”’s debut, has twice tried to reconstruct the “silent piece.” The first of these versions was made for a reenactment of the original in 1982 at Symphony Space in New York, thirty years after its premiere. This variant comprises fourteen pages and a cover sheet.

The second reconstruction was written in 1989 for a video documentation on John Cage. Musically, this second reconstruction is more elaborate (since it avoids self-contradictory stipulations) and is therefore considered more adequate. The fact that every page represents thirty-two seconds of performance time, however, has the unfortunate consequence that the first page needs to be turned just one second before the first movement ends.[9] David Tudor’s second reconstruction contains eight pages in total for the three movements.

Figure 1 and 2: David Tudor’s second reconstruction of the original score of 4’33” (1989). Page one and two (recto and verso). Published with permission of The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980039)

This second reconstruction is written chronometrically, which is rather unusual for staff scores. This indication is found on the top left of the first page in a metric system (where Tudor’s first reconstruction uses inches to indicate time): two and a half centimeters correspond to a quarter note. The score furthermore has a time signature (four/four) and a tempo indication (sixty beats per minute). The clefs may give a hint as to what instrument is (not) to be played during a performance of 4’33”: the violin and bass clefs strongly suggest a keyboard instrument. On the first page, every third line of staffs is left blank and thus paratextually serves to separate the significant lines of the work from its margins.

Those significant lines, however, are—in strict accordance with the instruction not to play an instrument—left blank, too (except for the above-mentioned clefs and bar lines). Interestingly enough, these two bar lines per row denote intentionality: In lieu of rest symbols, they semiotically make clear that the staff lines are intentionally and significantly left blank. Only the bar lines emphatically show that the total absence of graphical marks in a pre-established notational system is to be read as absence of intentionally produced sounds.

Even though the composition process is often, and rightly so, associated with Music of Changes, as it uses the same elaborate method of chance operation as well as a grand staff score (cf. e.g. Pritchett 1996: 78-88), the fact that 4’33” (unlike Music of Changes) is notated in time/space-proportion puts it closer to Williams Mix. The seemingly absurd economics of writing—fourteen or eight pages respectively for four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing an instrument—resembles William’s Mix’s laborious writing process, which took place the very same summer of 1952 in which he wrote 4’33”.

The assumption that the writing process of this piece must have been significantly and essentially more complex than the purely verbal “TACET”-scores and the later developments of the concept piece might make one believe,[10] corresponds to a (confusingly dialogical) statement of Cage’s I from his 1988 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard:


[…] i built up the silence of each movement and the three movements add up to 4’33” i built each movement up by means of short silences put together it seems idiotic but that’s what I did […] all i had to do was work with the durations then it was a very spontaneous creation i built it up very gradually and it came out to be 4’33” i just might have made a mistake in addition i was thinking of like whimsical or something maybe rather than spontaneous what were you thinking about kind of whimsical i mean in other words oh was it a joke you mean yeah i mean like at six o’clock that evening of the night that you created it were you thinking that tonight i’m going to create a new piece or did suddenly no no it took several days to write and it took me several years to come to the decision to make it and i’ve lost friends over it […]. (Cage 1990: 20-22)


The title of the work, 4’33”, Cage says here, was set after the composition; it developed by writing it down. The musical idea of 4’33” has been generated graphically, in other words, as an inscription of non-inscriptions on a music sheet. In this respect at least, 4’33” indeed works very much like Williams Mix: the tape, with all its new medial implications, especially chronometry and multidimensionality, informs the written score.

4’33” for the first time in history transfers the electroacoustic medium’s mechanical time/space-correlation to the classical staff score and uses the resulting grid-system as a “Denkform” (cf. Fuhrmann 2011), as a way of newly thinking music. In his reconstruction, Tudor indicates the chronometry of the piece even twice: He specifies that two and a half centimeters of the score indicate one second of elapsing time, and he also redundantly establishes a four/four-measure with a tempo of sixty beats per minute. His score thus stipulates two rigid reading directions: one, semiotic, it would seem, for (new) machines, and one, semantic, for (old school) musicians.

As has been shown in the discussion of Williams Mix, a chronometrical transfer results in negatives: The mechanical time/space-correlation cuts out the symbolic dimension of elapsing time, cutting out its cultural meaning. Tudor’s questionable double-indication of measure and tempo therefore isn’t only redundant but useless, if not misleading. The more or less mechanical way of “reading” the score’s two-dimensional surface transforms its (non‑)inscriptions into semiotic instructions, not into semantic meanings. This is also the reason why there are no rest signs in the score of 4’33”: There are no, and there cannot be, rests in the strict, that is, in a meaningful, sense: the absence of inscriptions does not symbolize deep momentous rests, but refers to the presence of white noise.

The second feature of tape, its multidimensionality—the fact that the tape can be alienated and manipulated as well as cut or torn in a way that renders its sonic form not only incalculable but also strikingly new to the ear—impacts the composer in the form of a certain blindness as concerns his material. The composer cannot possibly know what the realization of his composition will sound like. In addition to this, the manipulation of the tape results in noises that have no correspondence in a pre-existing sonic reality and are thus a means of exploring radically singular instances of acoustic events.

4’33” ingeniously leaves out the apparatus altogether, and this enables Cage to write the ephemeral, the unrepeatable and emphatically singular, as paradoxical as this might at first have seemed. Cage writes what has not been and cannot possibly be musically formalized nor technically inscribed.[11] What could be more ephemeral, perishable, drastically and fundamentally non-writable than silence? 4’33”, however, succeeds in denoting in symbolic ways this fragile, emphatically singular and essentially inimitable presence that vanishes in the very moment it comes into existence.

Denoted by the score, 4’33”’s unrecordable performance, the unique acoustic event, the instantaneous musical product (it might be safer to refer to a “proto-” or “meta-musical product”) forms and makes audible what otherwise, in any other piece of music, would be thought of as random sound or ambient noise. Only the composer’s written accumulation of zero-inscriptions allows a conceptualization of accidental, transitory and perishable, that is, of emphatically ephemeral noise as (proto‑ or meta‑)music. Musical notation here does not serve as a (formalized) code for music anymore; on the contrary, it inscribes what essentially (by definition) is not writable: the accidental white noise as sonic trace.

Whatever 4’33” actually is,[12] my intention here was to show that 4’33”—as much as it may have been influenced by philosophy and art (Robert Rauschenberg’s famous White Paintings, for example, or Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade)—is also, and to no little degree, determined by media history.[13]

Establishing the Program(matics): Lecture on Nothing


Nevertheless, 4’33” is not the first piece in which Cage mastered writing the ephemeral: that would be his 1950 Lecture on Nothing, held for the first time after having encountered tape, but two and three years respectively before the debuts of 4’33” and Williams Mix. Cage’s lecture has been quoted above because it theoretically reflects the impact of the new electroacoustic media on musical perception and the prcoesses and methods of composers. The possibility of technically capturing, storing, distributing and, on all of these levels, manipulating any and all sound regardless of form not only allows for whole new sounds and noises to be musically discovered, but demands new modes of writing. This level of reflection in content, however, becomes even more apparent in the lecture’s form, for it arises from—mutatis mutandis—the very same means of composition as 4’33” subsequently does.

In the foreword of Silence, Cage’s first collection of writings and lectures, published in 1961, he programmatically writes:


For over twenty years I have been writing articles and giving lectures. Many of them have been unusual in form—this is especially true of the lectures—because I have employed in them means of composing analogous to my composing means in the field of music. My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it. (Cage 1961: ix)


Cage’s application of compositional means in his lectures, as well as implementing methods that make a distinction between just hearing and experiencing through listening, determines the perspective to be taken when analyzing the Lecture on Nothing: it can be seen as a score for an oration, as a notation of a primarily acoustic event. “This space of time / is organized,” reads a line of the Lecture on Nothing. “This is a composed / talk, / for I am making it / just as I make / a piece of music,” reads another two (Cage 1961: 109 et seq.).

In this respect, the Lecture on Nothing presents a score quite analogous to the ones discussed above, and maybe the talk is best understood as a silently noisy musical piece disguised as a lecture. Instead of genuine musical sound, the Lecture on Nothing’s score organizes the written trace of an oration as its primary sonic material to exemplify the difference between sound and noise, between mind and ear, between sonic form and acoustic reality. The implication of language and linguistic meaning, however, repeats and doubles this difference and engages with the incurably complicated medialities of spoken and written language (see Kotz 2007: 14-28 on this subject).

Cage’s lecture is, of course, not put to paper conventionally. Instead, the written sentences of his talk are fixed in a relatively strict chronometrical time/space-frame and thus make use of tape’s equation of length and duration. “There are four measures in each line and twelve lines in each unit of the rhythmic structure,” Cage comments in an italicized introduction and continues by stating that his notion of “measure” (that would be a musical form) is metaphorical:


The text is printed in four columns to facilitate a rhythmic reading. Each line is to be read across the page from left to right […]. This should not be done in an artificial manner (which might result from an attempt to be too strictly faithful to the position of the words on the page), but with the rubato which one uses in everyday speech. (Cage 1961: 109)


The first unit (out of forty-eight) reads as follows:


I am here

,                              and there is

 nothing to say





If among you are

those who wish to get



let them leave at

any moment


What we re—

quire                                          is


;                                    but what

 silence requires



that I go on talking






Give any one thought



:                             it falls down


;                                        but the

 pusher                        and the

 pushed                          pro—

duce                     that enter—


called                             a dis—




Should we have one later


(Cage 1961: 109)


This first of forty-eight paragraphs is itself divided into forty-eight “measures” (twelve lines with four “measures” each), reflecting in this the macro-structure of the entire lecture, and each unit on both levels is in turn divided into five parts using the chance-generated and explicitly meaningless proportions of 7 : 6 : 14 : 14 : 7.[15] According to Cage, this establishes a “micro-macrocosmic / rhythmic structure” which he finds “acceptable / and accepting,” in which he can fill material—or none. The entire talk in total is thus “contained / within / a space of time / approximately / forty minutes / long” (Cage 1961: 112).

The margins between columns (often, but not always stressed by punctuation marks and hyphens: linguistic meta-forms, comparable to the bar lines in 4’33”, that obviously do not have any sonic compliance but only exist in written language and belong to the symbolic order) mark the default positions of this rhythmical pattern. The linear flow of words is thus organized in a matrix that divides everything to be said (and everything not to be said) in fractions of equal durations (about one second each). Disregarding Cage’s own demand for everyday speech’s rubato, the visual appearance of the score disrupts the “natural” flow of spoken language over and over. Literacy and orality, the talk’s visual and its aural guise, thus engage in a conflicting and dynamic relationship analogous to the multidimensionality achieved by cutting and splicing the tape in the pieces analyzed above.

Correspondingly, the content of Cage’s talk is concerned with exploring its own (silent) surroundings. Similar to the unwavering provocation of public anticipation with the debut of 4’33”, Cage virtuously plays with the expectations created by announcing a lecture in which the master explains his artistic beliefs: “I am here, / and there is nothing to say.” Nothing, Nothingness, in fact would have been a literary and philosophical topic increasingly discussed during the dawn of the tape era, but even though there are passages that tend to exploit this mystically, Cage in his lecture literally has “nothing to say.” “What we require / is / silence,” Cage postulates instead and thus avoids the prospect of broaching substantial issues, while he, at the same time, establishes a meditative level by presenting his lecture as an entirely and exclusively sonic event, drawing attention to the noise and ambient noise of his talk respectively. Nevertheless, any attempt of the audience to enjoy the lecture contemplatively and (proto‑)musically is immediately undermined by the articulated urge to substantially say something (even if it is nothing): “[B]ut what silence requires / is / that I go on talking.” The talk thus achieves dynamical and dialectical properties in which sonic structure and substantial lecture, noise and the theoretical reflections on noise, mind and ear perplexingly become each other’s environment and respective reference: “Nothing more than / nothing / can be said” (Cage 1961: 111).

“But now / there are silences / and the words / make / help make / the silences” (Cage 1961: 109). The lecture oscillates between expectations for the speaker to fall silent or to continue talking, between intellectual interpretation and random noise, without giving a solution in favor of one side or the other. The articulation of the possibility to fall silent can be filled with meaning; words can be perceived as singular noises, while the breaks between the words are meaningful silences. The talk sophisticatedly elaborates on the cultural unspoiltness of noises while itself consisting of highly symbolic noises (i.e. words). The distinction between the meaning of a word and its sonic structure becomes questionable and corresponding, also the distinction between significant silence (rest) and random silence (white noise).

Postulating randomness—“[c]learly we are beginning to get / nowhere” (Cage 1961: 114)—, the fourth large part of Cage’s talk consists of stereotypical phrases exhibiting their own rigid time structure as well as the fact that they ostensibly lead to nowhere. These units are sequentially “repeated” seven times in total:


Here we are now


                                             at the


of the

 fourth large part

of this


More and more


I have the feeling

that we are getting




as the talk goes on


we are getting


and that is a pleasure




Here we are now


a little bit after the


of the

fourth large part


of this talk



More and more

we have the feeling



that I am getting

nowhere. […]



we were nowhere


and now, again


we are having                    the



of being



If anybody

is sleepy


let him go to sleep

. (Cage 1961: 118 et seq.)


Two paragraphs in the fifth and last large part of this lecture score are completely left blank, but, of course, they still need to be “verbalized” according to the instruction of this score.[16] In the lecture’s own words, the condition for these blank sections even to be “spoken” “is the continuity / of a piece of music,” more precisely: it is the rigid framework established first and foremost by tape, by the chronometry of the reel and its characteristics discussed at length above. Similar to the continuous progress of the tape record reel and its indifferent playing back of what is being said regardless of the symbolic forms that might or might not be implied, the lecture’s score documents a sonic trace. Cage goes on: “Continuity / today, / when it is necessary, / is a demonstration / of disinterestedness” (Cage 1961: 111). The inscriptions thus do not refer to symbolically formalized meaning, all they denote is sonic compliance, an instance in framed time. Along with this, the notion of repetition becomes obsolete, as tape renders technically reproducible any and all sounds that can be heard, while at the same time destroying their symbolic form. Repetition becomes thus only a symbolic term, as it can only be perceived as such in the listeners mind (but not their ear): “We need not destroy the / past: / it is gone; / at any moment, / it might reappear and / seem to be / and be the present. / Would it be a repetition? / Only if we thought we / owned it, / but since we don’t, / it is free / and so are we” (Cage 1961: 110).

The indifference of the tape toward what is being said even extends to indifference as to whether something is being said at all. “Each moment / presents what happens” (Cage 1961: 111), regardless of content or meaning. Non-inscriptions in the magnetic tape’s reel are thus treated in exactly the same way as inscriptions: Blanks no longer serve as a meaningless background but start to become significant, albeit not yet meaningful. They are mechanically translated into a sonic compliance, and the sonic realization of non-inscriptions, silence or white noise, is neither symbolic (as writing is) nor real (as acoustics is), neither abstract nor empirical, but arises from the dialectics between abstract and empirical, between the Symbolic and the Real.

Compared to 4’33”, the mammoth two-dimensional emptiness of the oration’s score even intensifies the inscription of an acoustic zero-event, as the established context it challenges does not consist of experimental music but of verbal communication. Instead of denoting an ephemeral meta-musical event by inscribing non-inscriptions, the (un‑)written language here interferes with its sonic compliance as oration and its verbal meaning as a text. Wherever this program of writing is suspended by blanks, the (silent) talk consequently addresses both interchangeably: the sonic environment of a (proto‑)musical event and the silent environment of a substantial lecture. “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I need it” (Cage 1961: 109).[17]


No record, be it as acoustically accurate as technically possible, will be able to grasp what occurs while Cage is speaking pauses in his talk: this silence cannot coherently be described in physical terms only. Instead, the silence refers to its being programmed by writing; it refers to the symbolic order of formalized inscriptions in which it was generated in the first place. But this silence is not purely symbolical, not concealment in the sense of a conscious communicative act, but sensory silence: white noise. It is the dialectic and dynamic interference of the symbolic system of writing on the one hand and the empirical reality of physical acoustics on the other that Cage specifically explores in order to inscribe emphatic ephemerality: the interference between mind and ear. The blunt chronometry and the nonsemantic multidimensionality of the tape reel explains the economic absurdity of leaving blank two entire sections (equaling five fourths of a page) to generate two minutes of silence instead of using, for example, metalinguistic instructions as in the “TACET”-score of 4’33”. The chronometrical grid enables Cage to explore new possibilities of sonic presence that only became accessible on a sensory level in the era of tape after 1945 and, subsequently, thinkable on a rational level. The Lecture on Nothing can in this respect actually be understood as the legitimate predecessor of the landmark 4’33”.



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